(click on pictures to enlarge)
Last week, while Canadians were celebrating Canada Day weekend, the Romans were celebrating the feast of Saints Peter and Paul which is on June 29th.
The feast is of ancient origin and there are accounts dating back to AD 258 of the feasts of Peter and Paul being celebrated on the same day. Both were martyred during the time of the emperor Nero. St Peter was crucified in AD 64, upside down according to his wishes as he didn’t feel worthy to be crucified in the same way as Christ. St. Peter’s Basilica, was built over his burial ground. St. Paul had his head cut off by a sword in AD 67 and his remains are in the Basilica of St. Paul outside the walls. Burials within the walls were not allowed in those days.
The feast day is a public holiday and when it falls on a Thursday, as it did this year, those who can, make a ‘ponte’ (bridge) which is to say that they take Friday off as well to give a long weekend. Traditionally, flower ‘pictures’ are arranged in the Piazza just in front of St. Peter’s Square. Made out of flower petals and natural materials including rice, lentils and wood shavings, people work late into the previous night to have the pictures ready for the feast and yet not dried out by the sun. I got there before noon so probably saw them at their best as the sun is pretty fierce now during the day.
Though I live close to St. Peter’s and cross the square frequently, I rarely brave the crowds to get into the Basilica. However, on Sunday I went to Mass there to listen to the Corpus Christi Choir from Oxford. Eric, the assistant leader of the choir that I sing with here, is an English organ scholar and he was singing with them. Visitors cannot access the altar area of the Basilica unless attending a service which is a good thing as the Basilica has become more of a museum than a place of worship. I had my pick of seats when I got past the barrier and plenty of time to admire the altar at close quarters. The singing was, dare I say, heavenly and staring at the glorious altar made me feel in another world. Bernini incorporated what is reputed to be the chair St. Peter sat on while giving his teachings, into a gilded bronze throne on the altar. It is rather grand but I couldn’t quite figure out what might have been the original chair as I’m sure St. Peter wasn’t sitting on anything like what you see in the picture. There is supposedly a skeleton of acacia wood buried in there somewhere which is apparently the oldest piece.
Since I’m on the subject of St. Peter, there is a beautiful statue of him on the right hand side just before you come to the Baldachino and main altar. To me, it is one of the few statues in the Basilica that has a human scale (the other is Michaelangelo’s Pieta). Sculpted in bronze by Arnolfo di Cambio in the 13th cent. he is seated on an ivory throne. Behind it, is what appears to be a brocade screen but is actually mosaic. Greatly venerated, the right foot has been worn smooth by pilgrims touching or kissing it. On June 29th, it is dressed with a red and gold Papal cape and a gold Papal hat but these had been removed by the time I got there on Sunday. As always when I visit St. Peter’s, I feel that I should go more often as it is so vast and overwhelming that one would need binoculars and several visits to take in the details.