A Detailed Timeline of St. Peter’s Basilica History!

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St. Peter’s Basilica is the holiest spot in Vatican City and a brilliant architectural marvel crafted by Renaissance architects.

It is visited by more than ten million people every year because of its sacred grounds under which the remains of St. Peter lay.

Visitors planning to explore this religious site in the city must know all about Rome’s ancient influence on this structure.

In this article, we’ll follow the timeline of the new Basilica’s historical mysteries and discover its construction’s backstory! 

A Quick Glance at the Timeline of the History of St. Peter’s Basilica Rome

64 CE: St. Peter faced crucifixion and was buried on Vatican Hill. 

181-322: Emperor Constantine commissioned the old St. Peter’s Basilica construction. 

333-1505: The Basilica became the most visited site for pilgrims worldwide. 

800: Charlemagne received his crown in the Old Basilica

1498-1499: Michelangelo constructed the La Pieta. 

1505: Pope Julius II demolished the old structure to craft a new Basilica. 

1506: New St. Peter’s Basilica construction started this year.

1626: Construction was complete. 

How did the Basilica get its Name? 

The Basilica was built to remember Jesus’s disciple, St. Peter, and was named after him as St. Peter’s Basilica.

His remains are buried under the ground on which the Church stands.

Pilgrims find this name fitting, as St. Peter guided the Christians in the Biblical stories, which is what the Church does today.

He became the Apostle’s leader after Jesus’s death and was the rock on which the Church stands.  

The scripture is made real in the Vatican City, as the Basilica stands over his remains! 

Nero’s Circus & the Great Fire of Rome

The History of the Basilica begins with the destruction of the land because of the Great Fire of Rome that burned for six days in 64 AD.

After much research, many historians, like Cassius Dio, suspect Emperor Nero was the one who set this fire.

He blamed the Christian sect for the blaze since they did not believe in the Roman Gods.

In 65 AD, Nero constructed his circus on the land of St. Peter’s Square, where the Basilica stands today.

He organized violent acts of persecution against the Christians in his circus as punishment for setting the fire.  

St. Peter the Apostle’s Death

Emperor Nero saw his chance and ordered the persecution of St. Peter in his circus, as he was against his Catholic teachings. 

St. Peter was to be murdered by crucifixion like Jesus was killed at the Mount of Golgotha.

In the Bible, Jesus predicted the death of Peter and let him know in advance to ensure he was prepared.

The saint did not find himself worthy of receiving the same punishment as Jesus and requested to be hung upside down on the cross instead.

This is because he betrayed Jesus three times before he was crucified.

Nero’s Circus, whose land now belongs to the St. Peter’s Basilica, was where St. Peter was crucified and is considered a sacred place. 

The Vatican Necropolis

The Vatican Necropolis stood almost 12 meters beside Nero’s Circus, which is not the land of St. Peter’s Basilica. 

During imperial times, strict rules demanded that people bury their loved ones outside the city grounds.

In this period, the Necropolis was a spot where bodies were kept in sarcophagi, or ashes remained in urns underground. 

To hide the complete body of such an important saint, his catholic followers decided to keep his body in the Necropolis.

They could not afford any lavish burial coffins, so they buried him in the Necropolis, with a few terracotta tiles to form a roof-like shape over it. 

This secret spot is the only reason you can still see the remains of St. Peter in the Papal Tombs of the Vatican today! 

On a guided Papal Tombs tour, visitors can also see the remains of 91 Popes and some members of the Royal family in the Necropolis of the Vatican City.

Construction of the Trophy of Gaius

Since the number of pilgrims visiting the site grew rapidly in 150 CE, the Church decided to mark the site of St. Peter’s Tomb with a monument.

The monument standing on top of the tomb became known as the Trophy of Gaius!

Gaius crafted the monument to look like a Roman Aedicula, which was usually constructed to worship Lares, who protected houses and families.

He was a scholar of Catholic studies who believed that Rome was special and should be the holy land of the religion. 

The structure was so large that a priest could stand on it to say the holy mass and the area surrounding the monument was used to baptize children.

The Old St. Peter’s Basilica 

Emperor Constantine became the ruler of ancient Rome in 312 CE after defeating his rival, Maxentius.

He strongly believed that his belief in God helped him win the battle as he heard a message in his dream saying, “In this sign, conquer.”

To thank God and show his devotion, he ordered the construction of a Church in Rome, now famously known as San Giovanni. 

After years of ruling, he discovered the famous Trophy of Gaius and decided to construct a Church there.

The construction of this Basilica began between 118 and 322 CE and took almost 40 years to complete.

The Basilica was shaped like a Latin cross because of an added transept structure to the wide nave at the center with an aisle on each side.

The altar was the most attractive part of the old Basilica structure, which used columns rumored to be from the holy Temple of Solomon!

The Basilica of St. Peter’s had a stunning interior covered in fresco paintings by famous Italian painter Giotto.

You can still see some parts of the Epiphany Mosaic at the Basilica of St. Mary in Cosmedian, Rome! 

This structure was used until the 16th century, and Emperor Charlemagne was crowned inside this beautiful and famous Church in 800.

Reconstruction of the Basilica

During the 15th century Avignon period, the Basilica was left damaged after being the most popular place for pilgrims for 1,200 years. 

The Chuch was so old that one of its walls was tilting six feet away from the others, leaving it in danger of falling. 

Pope Nicholas V tried to maintain the beauty of this Church and commissioned Bernardo Rossellino and Leone Battista Alberti to take care of the repairs. 

He also planned a unique cross-shaped design with a dome for the Basilica, but he died before any plans could be worked on. 

The Dawn of the New Basilica 

In July 1506, Pope Julius II took a risky decision to renovate the entire structure of the Basilica by destroying all of its remains.

He hired famous Renaissance architects like Michelangelo, Raphael, Donato Bramante, Bernini, etc., to work on this masterpiece.

Donato Bramante crafted a spectacular Greek cross-shaped design with a Pantheon-inspired dome! 

It took a shocking period of 120 years to complete this Vatican masterpiece. 

Pope Julius II also commissioned Michelangelo to construct the La Pieta masterpiece of Mary holding Jesus in her lap after his crucifixion between 1498 and 1499. 

Michelangelo Buonarroti also joined Bramante to craft a unique interior Dome design for St. Peter’s Basilica in 1547.

What enhanced the interior of the Basilica is the beautiful nave designed by Carlo Maderno, which was added to the structure in the 1600s.

This nave helped change the shape to a Latin cross instead of a Greek one, which is usually used to symbolize pagan religions. 

He wanted to gather all surrounding chapels, sacristies, and other holy rooms under one roof of the Basilica.

Pope Urban VIII hired Gian Lorenzo Bernini in 1626 to work on decorating the interior of the Basilica, and he continued to work on this project for 50 years!

The most beautiful structure by Bernini inside the Basilica is the Baldacchino bronze altar pavilion, which still catches the attention of millions today!

This pavilion stands at the exact spot where the Trophy of Gaius stood before, making it easy for visitors to spot the space under which the remains of St. Peter lay. 

He also added a beautiful St. Peter’s altar chair behind the Baldacchino! 

St. Peter’s Basilica Today

At present, it is Rome’s most famous church, known not only for its religious significance but also for its magnificent Dome!

Millions of people climb to the top to admire the view of the Vatican City.

Every inch of the Basilica is covered with beautiful carvings and other decorative elements.

The altar, designed by Bernini, is still one of the most eye-catching parts of the Basilica!

It remains a calm and sacred space for millions of pilgrims, and its preservations make it a historical relic of Rome. 

The Papal Tombs below the Basilica houses over a hundred tombs, including 91 Popes and royal family members. 

FAQs on St. Peter’s Basilica History

1. What is so special about St. Peter’s Basilica?

2. What is the history of the Basilica?

3. Who is buried at St. Peter’s Basilica?

4. How many Popes are buried under the Vatican?

5. Are all Popes buried in the Vatican?

6. What happens at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome? 

7. Do I need St. Peter’s Basilica tickets to explore the inside? 

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Featured Image: Etc.usf.edu

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