In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section St. Peter's in the Vatican (Rome)

  • Introduction

Medieval Studies St. Peter's in the Vatican (Rome)
Lex Bosman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 December 2010
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 December 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0075


The history of St. Peter’s Church in Rome is actually the history of two successive churches, the first early Christian building and the actual church, built in the 16th and 17th centuries, as well as the way these two structures were and are connected in both a literal sense and an ideological, historically founded sense. Thus, this bibliography is divided in three parts: Old St. Peter’s, Old and New St. Peter’s, and New St. Peter’s. The intermediate phase, during which an important part of the early Christian basilica was still functioning but the new church had not yet been finished, is categorized here as Old and New St. Peter’s. Many authors are concerned with either the old or the new church and do not necessarily study the connections between the two. In collections of essays and exhibition catalogues, essays and entries about both churches may be found. Several titles are therefore of interest in more than one of the three categories. The user of this bibliography should therefore be sure to consider the three main sections complementary to one another.

Old St. Peter’s

After the Basilica Salvatoris, later known as San Giovanni in Laterano (St. John Lateran), St. Peter’s was built in Rome in the years following 320; the precise building dates remain unknown and are still debated. On the site where the apostle Peter had been buried on a large burial site—usually referred to now as the necropolis and partly overlapping a still earlier circus—a monument had earlier been erected to commemorate the place of his sepulcher. Apparently, this monument became a place of worship in a limited way. The main altar of the basilica was placed above this monument, on the line where the apse was attached to the large transept. It still forms the place where the main altar is situated in the actual St. Peter’s, albeit several meters higher than the 4th-century altar. The basilica comprised a large nave with two aisles on either side of it. A large and high transept was built on the western side, to which an apse was added. Note that the basilica, like several other early Christian basilicas in Rome, was built with the apse on the western side. The entrance of the basilica on the east side was preceded by a spacious atrium, with colonnades on all sides, although the colonnades may have been built in successive phases. The nave of the basilica itself was supported by twenty-two pairs of columns of colored marbles and granite. Gradually, the vast space of this church became occupied by many monuments and tombs of popes, adding to the particular importance of the church for visitors, pilgrims, secular and religious dignitaries, and for the chapter of St. Peter’s, which was installed at some point. Plans to adapt the basilica to the changed needs and notions of what should be the respectable church to commemorate the grave of the apostle Peter were made at several points during the Middle Ages. Toward the end of the 6th century, Pope Gregory the Great had an annular crypt built to facilitate the veneration of Saint Peter’s sepulcher. More radical renovations, which would include the replacement of a part of the basilica, were drawn up around the middle of the 15th century. These plans were never completely realized; the new foundation of a much larger choir was left alone until it formed part of the plans to rebuild part of the church in the early 16th century (see New St. Peter’s). The early Christian basilica was demolished in two phases in the 16th and 17th centuries, to be replaced by the even larger building, which still exists.

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