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In 1505, Pope Julius II decided to build himself a tomb (shades of the pharaohs). Supposedly, he wanted to glorify papal power, the Christian religion, and the Latin race. The new church, which was to house his tomb, was to be a new Basilica dedicated to St. Peter. It unfortunately necessitated tearing down the old basilica. Whether divine intervention entered the scene or not, Julius died long before the new church was completed, and was buried in what historians refer to as "an obscure spot somewhere."

Now that you know why there no longer is an "old" St. Peter's, we can get to a description of that original church, created at the behest of Constantine, near the site of the martyrdom of St. Peter in the Circus of Nero.

Dates vary a bit, but the original was begun somewhere around 313 and consecrated in 324 A.D. What made this particular building so special, so important in the history of the development of the Christian church was its basic plan. It set the direction for functional elements to be followed in the Western world to the present day.

In typical Roman fashion, you had to ascend to get in. Raised approximately 20 steps above the ground, a porch-like structure separated the secular world from the sacred within. This led directly to an enclosed and sheltered atrium, without doubt a prototype for future cloisters. A distinction could be made to differentiate the two. An open court, the atrium might or might not have covered walkways, created with either a colonnade or arcade encircling the open space. Congregants in churches, or monks and nuns in monasteries or nunneries, could walk about protected from the elements under these covered walkways. In this particular case, the term atrium is usually applied synonymously with forecourt. The fact that it was cloistered was an added element.

Having crossed the atrium, the congregants would pass through a narthex, the actual porch preceding the church and immediately attached to the church. Again under cover, there would usually be a choice of doors; one could enter the center or either side, if the church did have side aisles. St. Peter's had five aisles, two on each side of the nave. The nave was separated from the side aisles by either a colonnade or arcade - there is some amount of speculation here. However, the long nave followed the Roman basilica plan, and led to a proscenium arch, in this case called an arch of triumph. It was flanked on either side by 2 additional arches, all of which led to the bema. This was usually a raised area, reserved for the clergy, just as in Roman designs where it was ruled over by the local chieftain.

In this church an unusual design development occurred. The bema was stretched out beyond the side aisles forming transepts ("trans" means across) in which some church activity occurred. This was the beginning of church design, which followed the pattern of the crucifix. The bema then led up to the altar situated in the traditional basilican half circle, undoubtedly topped with a half dome, covering the area known as the apse.

Now we have the basic components of western basilican architecture:

    1. Narthex

    2. Nave

    3. Side aisles or ambulatory

    4. Transept

    5. Apse

I have purposely left out the forecourt/atrium, its vestibule, and the bema. These elements would continue for a while, but would not become universal and basic to a majority of churches.

The side aisles were lower in height than the nave, allowing clerestory lighting to enter the nave. This is something the ancient Egyptians had done with their hypostyle halls, but it would seem there was no direct connection. It just made sense to raise the more important central aisle, giving it a sense of hierarchy, while lowering the side aisles, thus allowing for the higher walls of the nave to be pierced with windows.

The early Christian churches had their entrances on the eastern end of the church. The priest, standing behind the altar, then faced his congregants, and he himself faced towards the Holy Land. There was a lot of symbolism and meaning in all of this, but it might have seemed that the priest was exerting a bit of authority over who got to face Jerusalem. At some point, the entrance was situated on the west, and everyone entering the church could then face the Holy Land. In order not to be left out of this almost sacred situation, the priest then turned his back on his congregants and faced Jerusalem. Eventually, the congregants, perhaps by outnumbering the clergy, or perhaps with humility and sacrifice entering the picture, the clergy faced their congregants and allowed the churchgoers to continue to gaze eastward. At that point, almost every Catholic Church had its entrance at its western end. The major exception is the new St. Peter's that sits on this site. Santa Maria Novella in Florence, for some unknown reason, has its entrance on its south side - undoubtedly why its front façade is always bathed in sunlight.

A small tip - the way to discover the idiosyncrasies in architecture is to get yourself to the highest point in a European city, usually the bell tower, and look around. After seeing Sta. Maria Novella several times, it was not until I climbed Giotto's campanile of the Cathedral of Florence - for the second time – that I realized that the church seen in the distance below was turned at 90 degrees to the one I was next to. It does not have the customary “western” entrance, but its entry is on the “south” side of the building.

Old St. Peter's would have been a building to preserve. Do understand that just because a building is old does not necessarily make it valuable to a community or the world. Age alone is not the answer. Some intrinsic positive character needs to be exhibited. The original St. Peter's was a prototype and most deserving of perpetuity. But for one man's ego, we might still have it.

© Architecture Past Present & Future - Edward D. Levinson, 2009

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