The Architecture of the Simon Peter Memorial

by Rodrigo Bollat Montenegro, appearing in Volume 30

Imagine what the Vatican and Rome would have looked like today if the popes, architects, and other masterminds of this architectural complex would have designed and built something to only commemorate the tragedy of Saint Peter’s death?

Hypothetically speaking, the obelisk may have remained in its original position on Nero’s Circus, perhaps covered in shards of glass to symbolize “brokenness” and a “call to reflection.” The exact spot where Saint Peter was martyred might become a fountain with the shape of an inverted cross (to be jarring rather than awesome) with the names of all the other Christian martyrs engraved in a metallic material surrounding the water source. From these names, red water would cascade down into a hole in the ground, as if the water carried their souls into an abyss of nothingness. Hypothetically, of course, the Vatican complex would have looked like a cemetery, but also a park so that future Christians could have utilized the uncontained “space” for recreation, lamentation, and “meditation.” The overall complex would perhaps have been a reconstruction of Nero’s Circus surrounded by reflective glass, as if the resulting glare was a part of the tragic experience of walking through the site at the time of the killings.

Over the centuries, architects who would have fallen out of fashion would have been fired by trend-seeking popes and the populus seeking newness for its own sake. The site would have become a new way to showcase the vogue architect’s latest and greatest reinvention of a glass box. The basilica that has inspired the architecture of countless churches might have become the headquarters of a religion very different than the one we know today.

Fortunately, the Vatican looks nothing like what was just described, and neither do many of the churches dedicated to martyrs (with the exception of some built in the twentieth century). Saint Peter’s today stands as a witness to how the Catholic Church has, throughout the ages, built architectural and urban complexes which, instead of inducing one to wallow in tragedy and self-pity, uplift the human person and direct our gaze towards eternal life, the City of God.

At its very simplest, “a martyr, or witness of Christ, is a person who . . . [is] so firmly convinced of the truths of the Christian religion, that he gladly suffers death rather than deny it.”1 But he who “gladly” accepts additionally does so with the conviction and security that there is something greater than this earthly life: life everlasting. Saint Peter’s martyrdom points us to heaven, and so everything built in this saint’s honor must also do the same; otherwise, we are stuck where Peter’s earthly life ended: bloody tragedy.

Saint Augustine of Hippo, one of the great fathers of the early Church, sets a scene for architects to wrap their heads around what heaven would look like by translating “hope in life everlasting” into the earthly built environment. When the Visigoths sacked Rome in AD 410, many pagan Romans interpreted it as a punishment from the old gods for adopting Christianity as the official religion. For Roman citizens, Christian and pagan alike, the fall of the most important city of the known world was a devastating experience—a sour tragedy. But there had to be hope. Augustine took this opportunity to urge the citizens of Rome to not put their faith in a worldly city, but rather in the City of God. Augustine differentiates the City of Man, based in sin and wrongdoing, from the City of God, founded by God and based in grace. More importantly, he emphasizes Christianity’s eschatological hope and formalizes (though the Book of Revelation had already set this foundation) the idea of the Church as a city en route to becoming the City of God: the New Jerusalem. Its citizens are all those saved by God and living in their resurrected bodies with God for all eternity in a state of eternal happiness and ecstasy.2 Hope in becoming a citizen of this City would trump the negative effects of earthly tragedies, including a brutal martyrdom, for hope views death as a stepping stone to eternal rest.

In the centuries to come, architects would strive to design and build this City of God on earth. While the most obvious example of this New Jerusalem made manifest on earth is the medieval monastery, the following paragraphs will focus on three elements (out of hundreds or thousands) of the architecture of the Vatican that provide a physical sign of this eschatological hope: the approach from the city, the piazza, and the obelisk.

Slow unveiling of Saint Peter’s Basilica and Piazza when approached from Borgo Santo Spirito. Photo: Author

For the pilgrim making a spiritual journey to Rome, the sequence of experiences to approach Saint Peter’s Basilica from the city was and still is crucial to the pilgrimage. Originally, pilgrims would have arrived from Ponte Sant’Angelo through the Borgo Nuovo with a vista that would have revealed a glimpse of the great façade of the basilica, to Piazza San Pietro with Bernini’s elliptical colonnaded space, which would have majestically embraced the pilgrims. This sequence relates to John’s description of the New Jerusalem in the Book of Revelation (Rev. 21:9–11):

One of the seven angels . . . came and said to me, “Come here. I will show you the bride, the wife of the lamb.” He took me in spirit to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. It gleamed with the splendor of God. Its radiance was like that of a precious stone, like jasper, clear as crystal.3


In a way, while pilgrims walked through the Borgo, the basilica said, “Come here, I will show you the tomb of Saint Peter,” as it slowly revealed itself in a very theatrical way by creating anticipation for that moment of revelation. Before the bulldozing of the Spina to make way for the present Via della Conciliazione, the end destination (the tomb of Saint Peter) was slowly and carefully revealed from the urban fabric through the piazza, narthex, nave, baldacchino, and finally, the tomb.4 Each stage revealed more and more about the Church and Saint Peter. This is an architectural and urban manifestation of eschatological hope: a small physical expression of the history of the City of God and how He has slowly revealed Himself to His people.5

The Borgo as shown in Nolli’s 1748 Plan of Rome. Image:

The piazza, secondly, serves as a stage for the Church. The tomb of Saint Peter grew over time to become a complex that could accommodate pilgrims venerating the saint’s resting place and at the same time provide space for celebrating Mass.6 Today the piazza alone hosts papal audiences, celebrations of Mass, canonizations of new saints, papal funeral processions, and newly elected popes’ greetings, among other events. In short, it becomes an urban amphitheater7 for the pilgrim City of God. The statues of saints crowning the elliptical portico remind us that they are fellow citizens of the same city and therefore participate in the same celebrations that take place in the piazza. These saints too are part of the “open arms of the Church” that the portico is famous for. One important note to add is the travertine is load bearing, which symbolizes long-term presence and structural soundness, and thus provides a sensation of “rock” in the same way that Petrus is “Rock.” The Church is a pilgrim vessel that will lead us to salvation, and so the physical expressions of this vessel (the piazza) must reflect that it is capable of withstanding earthly time and remain strong, true, and present until Christ returns.

Finally, the obelisk displays another sign of the Church’s enduring presence. This obelisk, which witnessed the martyrdom of early Christians on its previous site, was moved in the sixteenth century under the papacy of Sixtus V. Sixtus, through the engineering marvel used to move the obelisk under the direction of Domenico Fontana, was not only providing a visual landmark for pilgrim wayfinding but also making a statement about the Church Triumphant. The tyranny that had once persecuted Christians had been defeated and the Church stood—and stands today—strong. This obelisk—which had seen the brutal killing of Saint Peter and which before could have signified a deep wound carved into the “rock”—this same obelisk, through a complex, theatrical, and carefully designed piazza, would now become like the wound glowing in glory in imitation of Christ’s resurrected body. Bernini’s piazza does not become the trophy of the Vatican but rather builds on his predecessors to bind their own designs into a cohesive architectural and urban complex. All of a sudden, the eschatological hope embedded in the approach, piazza, obelisk, façade, dome, etc. is revealed and comes to fruition. The Catechism says about the resurrection: “Christ ‘will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body.’”8 And so we, as people made in the image and likeness of God, have the potential, in imitation of Christ, to change a lowly object, tragic circumstance, and “wounded” urban space to make it reflect something glorious.

The Egyptian obelisk that stands in the center of Saint Peter’s Square was brought to Rome in AD 37 and moved into its current location under the direction of Domenico Fontana in 1586. Image: betty

This mystique flows through the veins of the Vatican and reveals the whole architectural and urban complex as an architectural expression of the Mystical Body of Christ: the Church. The veins spread through the streets of Rome, through the old pilgrim routes, through the old papal procession route, piazzas, obelisks, stones, and ornaments. Every architect and every patron, in his endeavor to make his church grander than his neighbor’s, was also reminding pilgrims of what the City of God can feel like, to the point where the architecture and urbanism becomes sacramental. It is no coincidence that some people refer to Rome as the “Disneyland” for Catholics, because there is so much to remind us of the City of God that in the end, even if we visit as tourists, we are reminded that we too are pilgrims and the Church is, just like Augustine said, our pilgrim vessel that will lead us to the New Jerusalem.

So what would Saint Peter’s have looked like today if the Church had lost its eschatological hope? Rather than permanence and solidity, it would have expressed limited temporality (depending on the warranty of materials, like sealant for all the glass panels). The magnificent architectural and urban complex we know today would stand only as a memorial to remind us of the atrocities committed by Romans to early Christians. The architecture would honor their tragic deaths and not the Reason for which they gave their life. Pilgrims would be visiting the tomb of “Peter” and would wallow in tragic self-pity, no City of God to anticipate. Instead of an urban amphitheater, Piazza San Pietro would have become an urban cemetery. And instead of “Catholic Disneyland,” it would have been referred to as the Catholic version of the World Trade Center.

View of Saint Peter’s down the Via della Conciliazione, which was begun in 1936 under Benito Mussolini and completed in 1950. Photo: Che