The Altar and its Baldacchino Ninety-Five Feet High
( Originally Published 1907 )
In Catholic churches the altar is ever the central point of interest, because of its connection with the cardinal rite of the Church, the Mass. It is therefore the very source of all architectural glory and the splendor of ritual, and the inspiration of church music and ecclesiastical decoration. The function of the Mass is the highest office of the priest and the highest devotion of believers. The men who wrought this marvelous temple worked with their minds on the altar; consequently the church was built to cover this central point ; the majestic pillars and the wonderful dome were made to increase its splendor ; all effort of artist and decorator centers right here. This altar is the key to the meaning of St. Peter's. Its baldacchino or canopy rises into the - air ninety-five feet on these spiral columns of bronze, which were provided by the roof of the ancient Pantheon ; the gilding alone cost one hundred thousand dollars. The altar itself is simply built in the ancient style, in such a way that the priest celebrating Mass is visible to the people from all sides. As we see it is en-closed on this eastern side by a curving balustrade of marble; on the balustrade eighty-nine lamps are always burning. At four points of the open space around the altar stand four immense pillars which uphold the dome, and far away into upper space, over four hundred feet in fact, rises the murmuring concave of Michelangelo. The ashes of Peter the Fisherman rest in a crypt underneath this altar.
Only the Pope, or a Cardinal delegated by him, is permitted to say Mass here; but on the little altar of the crypt, which directly covers the remains of the first Pope, any priest who secures permission may officiate, and visitors are allowed to see the shrine and attend the service.
Before we see the crypt it will be useful to examine the statue of St. Peter which you see just in front of us at the right. In order to get a good view of it we should approach the altar yonder, passing the statue by, then take a position with our backs to the altar and facing the north-east, toward what is now at our right. Find the figure 4 on the map, and trace the zigzag red line from the figure 4 to the small red v which it identifies. (The lines and figures belonging in that space under the dome are so many that there is not room for them all, so the encircled figure has been printed a little distance from our actual position to make it more easily legible.)