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The Famous Statue of St. Peter

( Originally Published 1907 )



We see a noble figure in dark bronze seated on a chair and pedestal of colored marbles. A halo rests upon the head, the hair and beard are thick and curling, the right hand is raised in blessing, the left holds the keys of earthly and heavenly power, according to the utterance of Christ. Behind the statue we see part of a mosaic portrait of Pius IX, presented on the occasion of his silver jubilee as Pope in the year 1871, and appropriately placed near the statue of his predecessor. In the soft light of the basilica the figure of St. Peter has an air of majesty and repose, of celestial dignity, in keeping with his magnificent surroundings ; and you are hardly surprised to see the peasant woman kneeling at its feet in prayer. Such pious visitors kiss with respect and devotion the foot of the great, silent, majestic figure. The toe of the statue has indeed several times been worn off by the kisses of millions of pilgrims, and has had several times to be renewed.

Catholics see in St. Peter not merely the first Pope, the founder of a long dynasty of kings, but also the Rock upon which Christ laid the foundation of the Church. Up around the inside of the great dome far above our heads are the striking words of the Saviour, fixed in gigantic letters of gold : Tu es Petrus et super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam meant et tibi dabo claves regni caelorum. ("Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my church and I will give thee the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven").

For centuries this statue has been in existence, and quite a dispute once arose as to its real character and historic value. Its sculptor is unknown. One set of critics maintained, partly because of its sitting posture, and partly for other reasons, that it was an ancient Jupiter Capitolinus, renamed St. Peter and placed in position. Still others declared that it was a recast, made by Pope Leo the Great, to commemorate the deliverance of Rome from Attila. The famous archaeologist and antiquary, Lanciani, of Rome, settled the dispute by proving that it was an original work, cast as a portrait of St. Peter. In the library of the Vatican there was found an oval medallion of the first century, having engraved on it the profiles of St. Peter and St. Paul. The resemblance between the profile on the medallion and the pro-file of the statue is too close to be denied, and Lanciani's judgment stands.

Pope Gregory II wrote to the emperor, Leo the Isaurian, thirteen centuries ago : "Christ is my witness that when I enter the temple of the Prince of the Apostles and contemplate his image, I am so filled with emotion that tears run down my cheeks like rain from heaven." You will be able to understand that emotion if, besides what you see in this statue at the first glance, you recall to your imagination its full significance in the history of the world. This Peter lived and died a simple, laboring man. Called from his fishing nets to follow Christ, appointed the leader of the Apostles, it happened in time that his duties brought him face to face with the ruler of the world, the Emperor Nero. The poor fisherman had dared to found his own dynasty in the very city which owned another king. He was condemned, and died the shameful death of crucifixion. Time has reversed the judgment of Nero; the Emperor has fallen into the black night of oblivion, from which he is recalled by the historians only to hear his sentence read as the blackest of human rulers in the past, while the Fisherman sits on his throne, in the city of the Caesars, an object of veneration to the world. St. Peter's reign of obscurity marked the beginning of a new and more just era, when the worker, the man who keeps the world going in the sweat of his labor, mounted the throne and began to expel the lazy and corrupt princes who thought that the millions labored only for them and their sinful pleasures. It has been a long process, this change of rulers, but its dawn came with the rule of the Fisherman, and its morning is now shed-ding its glory on the world. If you keep this fact in mind, you will not soon forget the statue of St. Peter; nor will you wonder that a Pope shed tears whenever he looked at it.

As you stand here, you are just under the rim of the large dome, and the great nave is stretching away to your right (eastward). Take position 3 once more and look in the direction of the main altar. We again see the balustrade just before the altar, surrounding an opening in the pavement. That opening is in fact shaped almost like a horseshoe; two flights of marble stairs, one on each side, lead down to the crypt under the altar where the ashes of St. Peter rest in a beautiful tomb. Look at the map and you will find our fifth position indicated by a small v quite near the centre of the circular space beneath the dome. (Again., for the sake of greater legibility, the figure 5, identifying the position, has to be printed some distance away from the precise spot, but it is connected with the standpoint by a zigzag line of red.) We are to take a position on a landing of the staircase which leads from the floor of the church down into the crypt ; we shall be facing westward toward the tomb which is under the altar; the nave and main entrance of the church will be behind us and on a higher level.



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