The Papal Basilica of Saint Peter is a Late Renaissance church located within the Vatican City. St. Peter’s Basilica has the largest interior of any Christian church in the world, holding 60,000 people.
It is regarded as one of the holiest Christian sites. It has been described as “holding a unique position in the Christian world” and as “the greatest of all churches of Christendom”. In Catholic tradition, it is the burial site of its namesake Saint Peter, who was one of the twelve apostles of Jesus and, according to tradition, first Bishop of Rome and therefore first in the line of the papal succession.
Tradition and some historical evidence hold that Saint Peter’s tomb is directly below the altar of the basilica. For this reason, many Popes have been interred at St Peter’s since the Early Christian period. There has been a church on this site since the 4th century. Construction of the present basilica, over the old Constantinian basilica, began on April 18, 1506 and was completed on November 18, 1626.
St. Peter’s is famous as a place of pilgrimage, for its liturgical functions and for its historical associations. It is associated with the papacy, with the Counter-reformation and with numerous artists, most significantly Michelangelo. As a work of architecture, it is regarded as the greatest building of its age. Contrary to popular misconception, Saint Peter’s is not a cathedral, as it is not the seat of a bishop. It is properly termed a papal basilica.
The Basilica of St. Peter is one of four Papal Basilicas or Major Basilicas of Rome the others being the Basilica of St. John Lateran, Santa Maria Maggiore and St. Paul outside the Walls. It is the most prominent building inside the Vatican City. Its dome is a dominant feature of the skyline of Rome. Probably the largest church in Christianity, it covers an area of 2.3 hectares and has a capacity of over 60,000 people.
One of the holiest sites of Christendom in the Catholic Tradition, it is traditionally the burial site of its titular Saint Peter, who was one of the twelve apostles of Jesus and, according to Catholic Tradition, also the first Bishop of Antioch, and later first Bishop of Rome, the first Pope. Although the New Testament does not mention Peter’s martyrdom in Rome, Catholic tradition holds that his tomb is below the baldachin and altar; for this reason, many Popes, starting with the first ones, have been buried there.
Construction on the current basilica, over the old Constantinian basilica, began on April 18, 1506. At length on November 18, 1626, Pope Urban VIII solemnly dedicated the church St Peter’s Basilica is neither the Pope’s official seat nor first in rank among the Major Basilicas of Rome. This honour is held by the Pope’s cathedral, the Basilica of St. John Lateran.
However, it is most certainly the Pope’s principal church, as most Papal ceremonies take place at St. Peter’s due to its size, proximity to the Papal residence, and location within the Vatican City walls. In the apse of the basilica is Bernini’s monument enclosing the “Chair of Saint Peter” or cathedra, sometimes presumed to have been used by Saint Peter himself, but which was a gift from Charles the Bald and used by various popes.