The Atrium of Saint Peter’s Basilica

Having climbed the steps leading up to Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the first space you will enter is the atrium. Its main points of interest are the five bronze doors and the two statues on either side.

Atrium Saint Peter’s Basilica Rome

History and description

The atrium of Saint Peter’s Basilica was designed by Carlo Maderno. From 1603 till 1629, Maderno was the house architect of the Reverenda Fabbrica di San Pietro. It took him four years, from 1608 till 1612, to complete the atrium.

The atrium of Saint Peter’s Basilica has sculptures on each side. These represent Charlemagne and the Emperor Constantine the Great.

The portal has five bronze doors. The three central ones were made in 1455 by Antonio Filarete. The door on the left is known as the door of Death and is of more recent construction (Giacomo Manz├╣, 1964). The coffins containing deceased Popes are carried out through this door.

Atrium Saint Peter's Basilica Rome (Holy Door)
Holy Door

The door on the right is the Holy Door and is only opened during Jubilee years. One of four Holy Doors in Rome, it was designed by Vico Consorti. The opening of this Holy Door is the official start of a Jubilee. It stays open till the end of the year.

Above the central door of the narthex is a copy of a medieval mosaic, representing Peter telling Jesus to go for a walk on the water.

The relief above the main door is made of four big marble blocks. It represents the “Feed my Sheep”, words Jesus is supposed to have spoken to Saint Peter. It was made by Bernini’s workshop and designed by the master himself. It was placed in its present position in 1646. Originally, from 1633, it occupied another spot on the entrance wall. Bernini later took up the same theme when he made part of St. Peter’s Throne inside the basilica.

Atrium St. Peter's Basilica Rome - Navicella (oil painting)
The Navicella oil painting

The so-called “Navicella Mosaic” used to adorn the quadriportico of the original St. Peter’s Basilica. It was made by Giotto, for the 1300 Jubilee and depicts Jesus walking on water. Unfortunately, it was extremely badly damaged when this basilica was destroyed. The fragments that were left, and the new pieces added to it, were placed in the atrium in 1675. Thankfully, in 1628, Francesco Berretta had been commissioned to make a copy of the enormous mosaic. This oil painting can still be seen in the Vatican.

The atrium is 71 meters wide and 12,80 meters deep. The ceiling is 19 meters high.

Carlo Maderno

Carlo Maderno was probably born in Switzerland, although there are no official documents proving this. Apart from the atrium of St. Peter’s Basilica, he designed several important churches in Rome. Examples are the Santa Susanna Church, the Santa Maria della Vittoria and the Sant’Andrea della Valle Church. He was also responsible for the San Giovanni dei Fiorentini Church, where he is also buried. He also worked on the Palazzo Barberini and the portal and gardens of the Quirinal Palace.

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