We spent the day at the Vatican and as a history nerd, I was in heaven. It wasn’t just the art but the architecture and context. It was overwhelming, beautiful, gorgeous, magnificent. I loved the work by Raphael and Michelangelo particularly the Last judgement in the Sistine Chapel. St. Peter’s Basilica is the largest church in the world but it’s difficult to appreciate just how big until you’re standing in the middle of it. Also, it was a little weird to see real pope mummies in some of the side chapels but I understand that these are holy christian relics. I’ve seen body parts in reliquaries before, most notable at St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice.
I couldn’t help but compare Rome and the Vatican with Istanbul (formerly Constantinople) and Hagia Sophia. After the Emperor Constantine moved the capital of the Roman Empire from Rome to Constantinople in 330 A.D., his new city surpassed the glory of Rome becoming the wealthiest and most powerful city in the western world.
Hagia Sophia was built by the Roman Emperor Justinian in 537 after rioting in the city led to the deaths of thousands of citizens and the destruction of a significant part of the city. It remained the largest and most important church in the christian world for centuries until Constantinople was captured by the Ottoman Turks in 1453.
In St. Peter’s, there is a circle on the floor of porphyry marble just inside the entrance that was reused from an earlier church which was demolished to make way for the current Basilica. It was on this exact deep purple circle that Charlemagne knelt and was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by the pope during Christmas mass in 800 A.D. Thus the rivalry was established between the Byzantine Romans and the newly created Holy Roman Empire. Ironically the porphyry marble sarcophagi that once held St. Helena, the mother of Constantine as well as that of their daughter are both on display in the Vatican Museum.