Masterpieces of Light and Space: St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome, Italy: Part III – The Relics

As I’ve mentioned in my posts about the Abbey of St. Victor in Marseille, Barcelona Cathedral, the Basilique de Notre Dame de la Garde, St. Cecilia, just up the river from St. Peter’s and other churches we have visited, one of the things that REALLY fascinates me about Catholic churches is the presence of holy relics. You know, pieces of cloth or bits of wood that touched someone significant from the bible or the sainthood. Or parts of a saint. Really like, patellas and elbows, hands and fingers, etc. Macabre reminders that the history of the church actually happened outside of the confines of a book. Well, St. Peter’s has some breathtaking relics. The ones that stood out to me the most were the relics of so many Popes from years ago.

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Pope John the 23rd.

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I think Pope Gregory is in that sarcophogus.

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I’m not 100% sure, but I think St. Peter might be in this reliquary.

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Pope Clement XIII.

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Pope Alexander VI (maybe). Otherwise known as Rodrigo Borgia. He was the Pope in 1492 when Spain sent one Christopher Columbus to the new world.

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Pope Innocent XI. Cast in pewter it looks like.

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St. Pius X. There’s literally a catholic school a few miles from my house with the same name. But here he is!

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Perhaps the most attended of the papal relics that I observed was this one, and I’m pretty sure I know why. Pope John Paul II was the pope when I was born. He always seemed so kind, so pure of heart, and like he was actually interested in making the world a better place. I had no idea that I would ever get this close to him. Of course, he’s a Saint now, so perhaps these people were asking for him to intercede for them.

So it’s a bit macabre. That’s the only word I can think of to describe how I feel about holy relics like this. I think they do add something to the church. It took me a few minutes in St. Peter’s to realize that these were sarcophagi, not just altars. Once I realized that, I’ll admit I was a little freaked out to be standing in the midst of not just so many spiritual leaders, but world leaders from the time the Papal States were their own nation. It’s absolutely nuts to think that all that separates you from someone as revered as a pope is a few inches of marble.




Masterpieces of Light and Space: St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome, Italy – Interior

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If you feel small standing in St. Peter’s Square, you’re only going to feel smaller as you get closer to the entrance of the basilica itself. As you get close to the many, many doors, you notice that the relief carvings on the doors themselves are as big as you are. Maybe bigger.

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Once you’ve used half of your camera’s memory card on the door frames, you step inside and immediately start clearing space so that you have plenty of pictures remaining. I think perhaps this building is 4 dimensional, in the sense that it certainly seems like it is bigger on the inside than on the outside. My favorite view is this one, looking straight up the Nave towards the transept, with the many domes and windows gushing in light.

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Once your glasses change from dark to clear (OMG I’m SUCH a dad!) you notice the myriad details. Saints and apostles leaning out from the wall to speak with you. Frescoes so high they might as well be actual images of heaven. Beautiful Latin text that you kinda understand but not totally lining the walls in gold. Windows and trimmings as far as the eye can see.

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Clearly when the interior designer was consulted on St. Peter’s, they didn’t go for a minimalist look.

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Frescoes from renaissance masters are overhead throughout the Basilica. I would imagine the density of art works from famous artists in St. Peter’s would rival the population density of Kowloon Walled City in the middle of the 20th century.

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The baldachin doesn’t actually have the high chancel of the church in it, because that is farther back at the end of the longitudinal axis of the cross on the throne of St. Peter. Apparently the baldachin, directly under the dome (not like the Stephen King story) sits atop the burial place of St. Peter himself.

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I think St. Peter is in that gold box!

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The main dome is massive. Much bigger than the Duomo in Florence. I believe you can donate a few Euros to climb up, but we didn’t do it. It was the end of the day and stairs probably weren’t happening.

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St. Peter’s “Throne” – where the high chancel of the church is. Totally looks like the Iron Throne from Game of Thrones to me. Quite an amazing piece of sculpture.

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I love this view of the transept – it gives you some idea of the scale of St. Peter’s Basilica. I’m pretty sure you could take off, circle, and land a small plane in this amount of space. This is one reason I titled this blog series “Masterpieces of Light and Space.” Sometimes the negative space where nothing hangs but air (and the holy spirit) is the most powerful part of a church’s design.

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Those frescoes, tho.

My goal with this post was to capture the size and general effect of the inside of St. Peter’s Basilica. I hope the images I’ve chosen have done that to some degree for you. In future posts I will explore the art and the relics that I encountered on my visit to St. Peter’s, and if you didn’t read the first part of my St. Peter’s story, you can see my thoughts on the exterior here.

Masterpieces of Light and Space: St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome, Italy – Part I – Exterior

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Some landmarks simply seem too big to write about. I mean does anyone really have the words to describe the Grand Canyon or Mount Everest? That’s how I feel about St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. It’s the biggest church on earth, filled with incredible Renaissance art from the likes of Rafael, Bernini, Michaelangelo, and so on and so forth. It sits within a stone’s throw of arguably the greatest art collection on earth, the Vatican Museum, and it’s built on a scale that totally bends the mind.

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I guess I must start by talking briefly about St. Peter’s Square. If you want to visit the basilica, you’ll be going through the square to get through security. The scale is massive. There are two enormous colonnades extending from either side of the basilica, and perched on top are larger than life statues of all the saints. Each saint is holding the implement used to kill them. Very artistic. Kinda dark.

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From a little bit closer, the scale becomes a bit more clear. The facade of the basilica is so tall that you can’t even see the cupola on top. You can see the cupola from anywhere in Rome, except for right in front of the church. Like most major basilicas, St. Peter’s is built in the shape of a cross, and the cupola sits over the transept. It is so far back from the foot of the cross, where you enter, that you can’t even see it. And it’s like 400′ tall, so it’s not easy to miss.

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That’s not to say that the entry way is in any way less than major. Freaking Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in the doorway. Charlemagne. Does that speak to how old this building is, or what?

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The exterior of St. Peter’s gets its own post because it’s SO BIG. Another couple of topics will be the interior (general), the art, and the relics. I can’t think of another church that has so much to cover, but then again I can’t think of another church that is widely considered the epicenter of western Christianity. Also, those Swiss Guard dudes were intimidating AF.


Masterpieces of Light and Space: Basilica of Santa Croce, Florence, Italy (aka omg so many famous dead Italians in one place!)

Florence, ItalyThe beautiful facade of the church that holds the remains of like, every important artist from the Italian Renaissance

Our Florence guidebook took us on walking tour after walking tour of the city, and each one was amazing in the sense of “I’m totally walking in the steps of some of my favorite renaissance artists and scientists.” When the guidebook took us to Santa Croce, I didn’t expect for all of those Renaissance masters to be freakin’ entombed in one place.

Florence, ItalyInterior of of Santa Croce with *womp womp* renovations at the chancel

The interior of the church was of course beautiful, although we could not clearly see the chancel for the scaffolding of ongoing renovations. When we got inside we paid particular attention to the Medici chapel as our guidebook suggested, took in some art, wandered around the expanse of the nave, and generally saw the sites…as you do when you’re church-hopping in perhaps the most church-rich country on earth. Then we started running into the “residents.”
Florence, ItalyBlast! It’s Galileo’s grave!

For example…Galileo. He’s been resting here for quite some time. For a few minutes it seemed that every important character you have read about from the Italian Renaissance, from art to science to literature was buried here.
Florence, ItalyMichelangelo Buonorotti

Michelangelo? Are you for real?!

Florence, ItalyDANTE!?

Dante is entombed here too! But not really. There’s a tomb for him here, but he never came back to Florence after he was exiled. He’s actually buried in Ravenna. The Florentines just wanted to take credit for his great work, which occurred mostly after his exile.


So it just goes on and on. Even the great Italian opera composer Rossini is buried here, though of course a couple hundred years after these guys.

Florence, ItalyThe pulpit with a beautiful starry sky

I really love the art style of the Italian Renaissance, with the deep colors and overcalled stars evidenced in the photo of the pulpit above.

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The entire nave is lined with famous people.

So round and round we walked, even snapping selfies in front of Galileo’s grave since our first “date” was kinda cosmic (mommyPrimate used my new telescope to show me Jupiter’s moons that night.)

Florence, ItalyReliquary in Santa Croce

I really don’t remember the story of Santa Croce (I’m guessing whose relics are in this reliquary), but I remember something about her head being separated from her body and I think it might be inside the case shaped like her head. Totally scraping the bottom of my memory pile for details remembered from our honeymoon, because searching the internet doesn’t seem to be helping at all. At any rate, super cool presentation of the reliquary.


Upon leaving the basilica we were immediately swept up by what appeared to be a 15th century marching band of sorts, with cool costumes, loud trumpet fanfares, and dudes throwing flags. I’m not sure what it was all about, but we followed them for a little while (some people followed them all the way across the Arno river) and got a coffee.

Florence, ItalyItalian Beer Drinkers

We were also treated to these dudes in felt costumes who were trolling the members of the marching band. Not sure what it was all about, but they said “Medici” quite a lot. Santa Croce and the Piazza della Republica in front of it sure had a lot to offer for one afternoon. Of course, if you ever need to sit down and talk to Machiavelli’s bones, you know where to do it now.

Masterpieces of Light and Space: Church of San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome, Italy

Rome, ItalyThe Nave of San Luigi dei Francesi

I remember our first day in Rome fairly clearly. We arrived by train, found our hotel, and since it was just an hour ride from Florence and not a horrific overnight bus journey, we were ready to go. We pulled out the guide book and got to it, walking from Piazza Cinquecento (Termini Station) by the Colosseum, Forum, Piazza Navona, the Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps, and one landmark after another all the way to St. Peter’s Basilica and back. I’m pretty sure we visited San Luigi dei Francesi on the same day.

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Caravaggios lining the walls of San Luigi dei Francesi

Though easily more impressive than probably any church in my home town, San Luigi dei Francesi might be overlooked on one’s trip to Rome, if not for it’s super impressive collection of paintings and frescoes by Caravaggio. I think I saw maybe one or two Caravaggio’s while we were in Florence, and there might have been one at the Prado in Madrid, but I REALLY wanted to see a few examples of his super high-contrast work. It turns out that basically all of them are in this one church in Rome (yes, complete overstatement.) My one semester as an art history teacher (not sure how I ever got that job) left me with an appreciation for Caravaggio that I would have never had without that experience. And I was standing. In a 500 year old church in Rome. Looking at Caravaggio’s handiwork.

Rome, ItalySee why I say Masterpieces of Light and Space?

If the decor makes you think “looks kinda French” it’s because this is the church of St. Louis of the French (San Luigi dei Francesi, see?) St. Louis was King Louis IX of France. So you can kinda see what happened here. I imagine this was basically the French embassy during the days of the Holy Roman Empire, but that is purely conjecture on my part not at all based in fact.

I don’t have any exterior photos of the building – it turns out I was mostly focused on Caravaggio for this stop, but when I googled “San Luigi dei Francesi” the pic came up, and it kinda looks like the facade of every 16th century building in Rome. Pretty, but not super remarkable. Like an oyster shell with high contrast pearls inside.

Masterpieces of Light and Space: The Pantheon, Rome, Italy

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The Pantheon, former temple to the Roman gods, now Catholic church

After arriving in Rome and making our way to our hotel to dump off our luggage, our first stop was The Pantheon. Okay, truth be told, our first stop was lunch but it was on the way to the Pantheon, if that makes any difference. Because I know you’re curious, I’ll let you know I had a somewhat disappointing carbonara, and afterwards we sampled the best Nutella gelato you could imagine. Anyway, the Pantheon.

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The Pantheon’s distinctive Oculus

The Pantheon is probably best known for its ultra distinctive Oculus, a fancy latin word for “HOLE IN THE ROOF” that allow a pretty solid beam of light to enter the Church. There are niches all around the walls that are now filled with statues of saints and sarcophagi and such, but a couple thousand years ago they would have been shrines to Jupiter, Juno, Venus, Pluto, and so on.

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The icons of Christianity now stand where the ancient gods were once featured

The Pantheon was originally built in 27 BC, but the present building was built in 126 AD during the reign of Emperor Hadrian. He also built a wall. LoL. If I remember right, the outside of the building is so drab because all of the gilding and marble was ripped off for the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica, which we will get to in due time. There are so many great great churches in Rome to talk about, but St. Peter’s is obviously going to take the cake and smash it into smithereens.

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The Altar of the Pantheon

So  the Pantheon has had a continuous congregation since before the birth of Christ. That’s about as old as a church can get. It would have been super interesting to sit through a service. I assume the Catholic priests in Rome do the mass in Latin. Heck, I bet I couldn’t tell the difference between a Latin and Italian mass anyhow.

Rome, ItalyThe Altar and the Nave kinda blend together because of the circular floor plan

I just realized that the Pantheon’s floor plan isn’t too dissimilar from the church I attend. That’s kinda cool. A few rows of pews in a wide semi-circle with the altar in the middle. I bet the lines for Holy Communion in the Pantheon get out of control though.

Rome, ItalyJust in case it didn’t seem Catholic enough

So the Pantheon was basically the first church I’ve ever visited that is legitimately from the Classical Era. It might be the only church I’ve visited from the Classical Era. Doesn’t really matter, because although it’s got some massive credentials, it was probably not even in the top 3 awesome churches we visited in Rome. Not that there’s a contest. I mean, the churches might have CYO soccer teams or something. I dunno.

Masterpieces of Light and Space: Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence, Italy

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Vasari’s Final Judgement is the centerpiece of Santa Maria del Fiore

If there is one old church that every visitor to Florence has most likely visited, it is the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, which is known to those of us who visit with tourist guidebooks a bit more simply as Il Duomo. The cathedral towers above the rest of the city and the surrounding countryside, and is topped with a ginormous dome. It’s also a set piece for one of the greatest climbing puzzles in the Assassin’s Creed video game series.

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Looking down from the dome in Santa Maria del Fiore

Of all the churches I have been in, including the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, in NYC where I’ve been to the rafters, I think Santa Maria del Fiore capitalized the best on verticality. After climbing an ancient staircase for what seems like forever (longer if you’re at all susceptible to claustrophobia, I’m sure) you come out on the inside of the dome. If you don’t like heights (as I don’t like heights myself) this can be a bit of a challenge, but boy is it worth it.
Florence, Italy View of Firenze, in direction of Santa Croce from the exterior of the dome.

Climbing into the Tuscan sunshine on the top of the dome, you can literally see the entire city of Florence and the surrounding countryside. It’s beautiful. You can also see the tourists who chose the route up the bell tower rather than to the dome.

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The bell tower of Santa Maria del Fiore just a few yards away from the dome.

For the sheer sake of verticality and the stunning frescoes and surrounding  scenery, I give the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore 9/10 Bell Towers (Ha! I don’t actually have a ratings system, but maybe I should!) Additionally, the well-lit interior is a refreshing change from many of the other churches one might visit around the world with they’re more mysterious dark confines.


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You know a church is big when the surrounding Piazza isn’t large enough for you to get a photo of the facade

When in Florence, one simply must make a stop, preferably their first stop, at the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore.