2005 Mathematics May Seminar

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St. Peter’s Basilica

Aaron Swingdorf

St. Peter’s Basilica is the largest Christian building in the world, located in the Vatican City. The residence of the pope adjoins it and many speeches and ceremonies connected with the pope’s administration take place here. Raphael and Michelangelo contributed to its design and decoration.

Emperor Constantine, the first Christian emperor of Rome, ordered to build a basilica on Vatican Hill. The location was symbolic: this was the place where Saint Peter, the chief apostle, was buried in 64 A.D. A small shrine already existed on the site but it was now replaced by a church building that was completed around 349 A.D.

In the middle of the 15th century, the basilica was falling into ruin and pope Nicolas V ordered the restoration and enlargement of the church after plans by Bernardo Rossellino. After Nicolas V died, works were halted. In 1506 pope Julius II laid the first stone of a new basilica which was to become the largest in the world. Construction began on the basilica in the mid-fifteenth century on top of the Vatican Hill when it was decided that the old basilica should be rebuilt. Construction was started under Pope Paul V. There were several main architects throughout the buildings construction including Michelangelo, who designed the dome. However, building was halted after the Pope Julius II died. After the new pope was appointed, Pope Paul III, Michelangelo was asked to design the rest of the church in 1546. The design was a modern building in the classic style: a Greek-cross plan inspired by the Pantheon.

The dome of the church was designed by Michelangelo. The double dome made of brick is 42.3 meters in diameter, which is almost as large as the Pantheon and rises 120 meters above the floor. One interesting fact is that the dome is not a hemisphere like most domes are, but rather a parabola.

The front of the church, the façade, is 114.69 meters wide and 45.55 meters high. On the top of the façade are statues of Jesus, John the Baptist, and eleven of the twelve apostles. Peter would make the twelfth apostle but his statue is inside.

Just in front of the façade is the Colonnade of St. Peter’s Square, or Piazzo San Pietro (image to the left). This is an elliptical shape, which symbolizes the church’s embrace of all mankind. It is made up of 284 columns that are arranged into four rows. At the end of the right-hand arm of the colonnade, two Swiss Guards (Must be Swiss, Catholic, and take an oath of loyalty to the pope) stand watch before the Scala Regia (St. Peter’s Basilica). In the center of the colonnade is an obelisk from Egypt.

Entering the church are three large, main doors. The southernmost is the “Door of the Dead,” then there is the middle door and the northernmost door, the “Holy Door.” All three doors lead into the nave of the church (the large open part of the church, or the middle of the church).

Inside the church is the thrown where Napoleon Boneparte was crowned emperor, several monuments, 39 statues of saints, and different chapels. One of the works made by Michelangelo is the Pieta, which is the only work that was actually signed by Michelangelo. There is also the work by Bernini called the Throne of Peter, which is said to have actually been built around an old wooden chair that the apostle Peter once used. Under the dome is a 90 foot tall baldachin known as Bernini’s canopy, held up by four immense pillars. It is constructed of bronze that was taken from the Pantheon. Underneath the baldachin is the tomb of St. Peter.


  • Described as the largest church ever built

    • Covers an area of 23,000 square meters

    • Has a capacity of over 60,000 people.

  • 121 tons of bronze were used

  • The brick dome is 138 feet in diameter, 452 feet above the street, and 390 feet above the floor.

  • The dome is supported by four columns that are each 60 feet thick.

  • To give you an image of how big the church is, there is a small dove in one of the stained glass windows. The wingspan of this minute dove is 1.75 meters in length.

  • There are 45 altars decorated by many famous artists.

  • Construction on St. Peter’s was begun in 1506 and finished in 1626.

  • Tradition says that it was built at the location of where Peter the apostle, who was thought of as the first pope, was crucified and buried.

    • The church also includes the tomb of Peter under the main altar in the nave (218 meters long, the longest in the world).

  • St. Peter’s is not, in fact, a cathedral, which is the seat of a bishop. The pope does not preside in St. Peter’s Basilica. The pope is the bishop of Rome, which does not include the Vatican, which is where the basilica is located.

The Duomo

The temples real name is Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore. The Duomo of Florence as we see it today is the result of 150 years of work. It was the third and last Florentine Cathedral and given the name of Santa Maria del Fiore (Holy Mary of the Flower), which was a polite tribute to the Virgin’s role in God’s mysterious plan. The sloping, red-tiled dome is predominant in the Florence skyline. As you walk up to the Duomo, the white Carrara, green Prato, and red Sienna marble façade will amaze you. Filippo Brunelleschi won a public competition to design its enormous dome.

The Duomo, which took almost 150 years to complete, was started in 1296. Arnolfo di Cambio was given the job of erecting the cathedral. The main part of the building, the nave, which is the third longest in the world behind St. Peter’s Basilica and St. Paul’s in London, was completed by 1418. However, one problem remained. No one had or knew the engineering skills necessary to construct the cathedral’s dome. This all changed with the name Filippo Brunelleschi.

Brunelleschi devised a technique for building the duomo’s crown dome. Now the dome is simply known as Brunelleschi’s Dome. During the construction of the dome, Brunelleschi would build kitchens, sleeping rooms, and lavatories between the two walls of the cupola so the masons wouldn’t have to descend to the floor for anything. With the completion of the dome, it rose 100 meters high and 45.5 meters in diameter. This made it tower over everything and be recognizable from anywhere in Florence. It took only sixteen years, from 1418 to 1434 to complete the dome.

. Inside the Duomo is visually unexciting except for the apocalypse painted on the dome’s ceiling. There is also an orologio on the back wall. This clock will not tell you the time though. It is actually a 24 hour clock that runs backwards starting its cycle at sunset.

The outside of the church is inlaid with green, white, and pink marble and composed of eight different buildings. The buildings are the Baptistery of Saint John, the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, Giotto’s Bell Tower (82 meters high), the Museum of the Opera del Duomo, the Cathedral Canonries, the Lay Confraternity of Mercy, the Bigallo Portico, and the Arch Bishop’s Palace.
The Baptistery of St. John, named obviously after John the Baptist who was the patron saint of Florence, was the place, until just a few years ago, that every Florentine received the sacrament of baptism. The building was most likely built somewhere between 1059 and 1150 a.d. It was believed that the building was built in the mid sixth century and had been built as a copy of Lateran Baptistry in Rome, the most important baptistry in Christendom. Another legend, developed during the thirteenth and fourteenth century, tracing the foundation of the Baptistry back to a Roman temple of Mars that was subsequently rededicated to St. John the Baptist. The Baptistry was thus the principal monument in Florence associated with the ancient Roman foundation of the city. The two enormous gilt-bronze doors on the eastern front were christened the "Gates of Paradise" by Michelangelo. It took Lorenzo Ghiberti more than 20 years to complete this masterpiece. The interior is decorated with a shimmering gold mosaic and features the tomb of the pirate pope, Baldassare Cossa, made by Donatello and paid for by the Medici family.

Giotto’s Bell Tower, also known as the Campanile, is an enormous bell tower attached to the Duomo. It is more than 275-feet tall. Built between 1334 and 1359 it is home to several enormous bells which toll the hour and half hour across the rooftops of Florence. Designed by famous artist and city-architect, Giotto, the Campanile is decorated with more than 50 marble reliefs, depicting the Creation, the Seven Sacraments, the Seven Virtues and the Five Liberal Arts.

The Museum of the Opera del Duomo was used to store all the huge uncut blocks of marble, as well as all the stacks of wood for sale from the making of the Duomo. The palace we can see today was built over an earlier farmhouse and its land, purchased in 1400, which backed on to Lorenzo Ghiberti's workshop and furnaces (where the artist cast his bronze doors for the Baptistery which featured Sacrifice of Isaac). Donatello's workshop also stood in the vicinity, on the corner of Via Ricasoli. Filippo Brunelleschi was assigned the site for the new palace in 1432 but only the courtyard of this building, situated in front of the Museum entrance and subsequently altered several times, can still be seen today. It was converted into a museum in 1891 and houses different works of art from the cathedral, campanile, and baptistry and pieces of equipment used to build the Duomo.

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