St Peter’s Basilica Altar: The Papal Altar of Vatican City!

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St. Peter’s Basilica has 25 altars, but the main altar that captures the attention of all ten million visitors every year is the main St. Peter’s Altar!

It is also called the Papal Altar, which is only used by the Pope, as it is a sacred spot that stands over the Tomb of St. Peter. 

Visitors planning to explore the sacred Basilica at the heart of the space must know all about its stunning craftsmanship, history, and highlights.

In this article, we’ll discover St. Peter’s Basilica’s main altar in detail so you can have the most informative visit!

The Altar’s Construction History

The famous Italian architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini was responsible for constructing the massive central altar!

Pope Julius II commissioned this elliptical masterpiece to enhance the beauty of the entire Basilica.

It stands over the 1123 AD ancient altar constructed by Callixtus II. 

He constructed the altar in the mid-17th century, and it became popular because Bernini, the most famous Renaissance architect in Rome, crafted it. 

Bernini took around eleven years to finish working on this masterpiece!

The Altar was first used on 26th June 1594, when Pope Clement VIII consecrated it and held mass there.

Its position makes it so famous, as it stands directly over St. Peter’s Tomb and at the center of the Dome!

The Altar of the Chair, which houses the relic chair of St. Peter, is also a part of the Altar along with the massive carved Baldacchino above. 

St. Peter’s Basilica Altar Description

Even though most visitors are drawn to Bernini’s Baldacchino above the altar, the Altar has its own simple elegance and peaceful beauty. 

The altar is semi-circular and made of a single block of Greek marble from Nerva’s Forum and from the Callixtus’ altar.

The marble is carved with beautiful figures, with many decorative and sacred items on the top.

It has a circular supporting platform with unique carved statues by Bernini. 

Like every altar, the St Peter’s Basilica Altar also has a tabernacle, holding the host and wine, which Catholics believe is the body and blood of Jesus.

The Tabernacle is adorned with gold and silver ornaments, and four realistic angels by Bernini surround it!

Above the altar, you will see the stunning Baldacchino, over which is the stunning fresco of St. Peter’s Glory by Giovanni Battista Gaulli. 

The Highlights

Some of Bernini’s most stunning and iconic Vatican creations are a part of the St. Peter’s Altar!

These masterpieces are:

St. Peter’s Chair

St Peter was the first Pope, the keyholder to Heaven’s gates, and the chair the Pope used at the altar belonged to St. Peter himself! 

This is a wooden chair with an encasement of bronze to keep it safe, which was completed in 1666 after ten years of work.

To honor this masterful artwork by Bernini, the Vatican celebrated the Feast of St. Peter’s Chair every year on 22nd February. 

Four massive bronze angels surround this 15-meter-tall sculpture, and every inch of it is carved with stunning Renaissance and Baroque designs! 

Bernini’s Baldacchino Canopy

The massive bronze Baldacchino stands over the Papal Altar with four twisted pillars and the most intricate carved designs.

It is adorned with carvings hinting at St. Peter’s life, with the keys of heaven.

The Papal Tiara, heraldic bees, Barberini family motifs, and other elements on this 66-foot-tall structure can also be seen.

It is one of the most eye-catching attractions in Vatican City and a must-see when exploring the Basilica! 

Papal Masses at the Altar

Only the Pope can use the Papal Altar for masses because of its sacred relic chair and location over the Tomb.

High Christmas or Easter Masses, Coronation ceremonies, or the declaration of a martyr into sainthood are done at this altar.

Check out our St Peter’s Basilica mass article to discover the Papal Mass dates for 2024 so you can get blessings from the Pope at this altar!

Don’t worry if you cannot make it for the mass! You can still observe the altar on all other days of the year.

Most pilgrims leave bouquets of flowers and light candles around the altar, as the remains of St. Peter are just below. 

FAQs on St Peter’s Basilica Altar

1. What is the altar in St. Peter’s Basilica made of?

 The altar is made from Greek marble, and marble pieces taken from the remains of the previous altar built here by Callixtus II. 

2. Who is buried under the altar of St. Peter’s Basilica?

St Peter, one of Jesus’ apostles who was crucified upside down in Nero’s Circus, is buried under the altar of St. Peter’s Basilica. 

3. What is the enormous canopy over the high altar of St. Peter’s called?

 The canopy is known as the Baldacchino, a bronze canopy having carved sacred imagery of all kinds.

4. Who constructed the St Peter’s Altar?

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the most famous Renaissance Italian architect, constructed the Altar in the 17th century. 

5. Are all masses of the Basilica held at the altar of St Peter’s Basilica?

Only Papal Masses, with the Pope as the head celebrant, are said at the Papal Altar of the Basilica.

6. Where is the Papal Altar in St Peter’s Basilica?

As per the St Peter’s Basilica map, the Papal Altar stands at the center of the Basilica. You will reach the spot by walking straight from the entrance.

7. Do I need to buy a ticket to see the St Peter’s Altar?

You can see the Altar for free! Visitors only need a ticket if they want to climb to the top of the Dome or explore the underground Vatican Grottoes. 

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Featured Image: Bruno Coelho / Bruno Coelho

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