My Trip To Europe. Day 20. Thursday, October 23. Vatican.

The world’s smallest country

The Coin of the Day:  Tourist-grade Vatican medals.

Coins of the Day:  Tourist-grade Vatican medals

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Obverse: Set of five medals, probably of no numismatic significance.  (In fact, they’re pure touristic schlock.)  Head of either John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, or Francis.  They skipped over John Paul I who was pope for a month (“the September Pope,” I remember him being called) before dying unexpectedly.

Note that the John Paul piece had something horrible happen with concentric markings.  I can’t readily see them on the actual piece.  Like I said, touristic schlock.

Reverse: St. Peter’s basilica, with indications of the wretched plastic backing on the set.  I have to decide whether it’s worth putting these in cardboard 2x2s to avoid the PVC demon.

The people at the Vatican don’t tire of reminding you that John Paul II and John XXIII are now officially saints.  I think most popes, historically, eventually are canonized.

On the souvenir end of things, it’s indicative you could buy touristikitsh of John Paul II and Francis–plates, portraits, refrigerator magnets…but it’s very difficult to find a Benedict item.  The people have spoken.


I woke up, hopped on the Metro to try to get to the Vatican by 8:30 when the tour of the museum takes off.  I followed the directions that came with the tour, and never did see one street on the directions.  I called the tour company, and it took them five minutes to figure out where the heck I was.  I still couldn’t find the (new) street, via Tunisi, I was supposed to walk down.  Then it turned out I was the victim of a rather common phenomenon.  The street I was walking on crossed via Tunisi all right, but via Tunisi’s name changes as it crosses the street I was on, and I was walking on the far side of that street…so all I saw was the changed name.

I never did figure out where I was supposed to turn in the first place, but I ended up 20 minutes late (and with a huge cell phone bill).  Fortunately another identical tour took off at 9AM.

Vatican City

The Catholic Church is, so far as I know, the oldest institution on earth, if you think the Eastern Orthodox broke away from Rome.  If you are Eastern Orthodox, you probably subscribe to the claim that Rome broke away from you, thus your church would be oldest.

The Vatican, however, also controls by far the largest single Christian denomination.  So given 1700 years or so of doing that, it has amassed a lot of power and wealth, and shows it.

First stop, the museum.  These are the old doors, not used any more.


The papal emblem23-005

John Paul II is known for his outreach towards youth, here’s a modernistic sculpture in the lobby commemorating that.

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Once we had our tickets, we walked up a long flight of stairs and cooled our heels on a balcony.  Ironically, this was the best place to get a picture of St. Peter’s Basilica’s dome.

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Note the people near the bottom of the picture.

Lavishly decorated ceilings–and the massive crowds don’t get in the way of those, so I photographed a lot of them.

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This is a very famous statue, and I had one of my “Oh, that’s HERE?!” moments.


Those are eggs (that’s the Vatican’s story), and this is Aphrodite in a fertility aspect.

Floors are lavish too.  The walls here are temporary hiding I-won’t-ever-know-what behind them; probably loads more classical sculpture.


More lavish ceilings.  But if memory serves, this is not, in fact, a sculpted ceiling, just a very well done painting.


Hall full of tapestries.  Tapestries were *very* expensive back in the middle ages.  Here’s just one example.

Now we walk into a hall full of maps.


South at the top–the straits of Messina.


More lavish decoration


The only thing I recall about this is it’s supposed to be the largest framed painting in the world.

And a room chock full of frescos

With Yet Another Lavish Ceiling

Mosaic floors, somewhere
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Probably the only parking lot in Vatican City.  With a mere 99 acres (heck my ranch is forty percent the size of this “country”) I imagine that was a grudging concession.

We then moved on into the rooms that Raphael decorated.  And now I have to decide whether to hit you with dozens of photographs, or just a couple…

Well, here’s some centuries-old grafitti from a time when the Vatican got sacked.

And now another, “Wait, this is HERE?” moment.  Raphael’s School of Athens, a very famous painting, considered his masterpiece, of dozens of ancient Greek philosophers, mathematicians, etc.   Aristotle and Plato in the center.  I never really got a good angle on it though I sure tried.

23-029 23-030 23-031 23-032 23-033 23-034Of course Raphael didn’t know what these people looked like; so his Plato (left center) is probably really Leonardo da Vinci, while his Aristotle is Guiliano da Sangallo.  I’ll let you follow the link to figure out who’s who for the rest.

This painting is not only famous, but is not of a Christian theme, which makes it stick out.

Down more corridors, stairs to the Sistine Chapel…

…where no photography is allowed.


We were given fifteen minutes to gawk.

My next meaningful photograph is of the holy doors into St. Peter’s Basilica.


And here’s the square


Here’s the famous balcony, seen from a possibly unrecognizable angle.


OK, I have to explain something.

St. Peter’s Basilica is enormous, bigger than any other church in existence.  Deliberately so, it’s the centerpiece of the Vatican.  It doesn’t look like it in pictures, and it doesn’t even really look that much larger in person, but apparently there just isn’t another cathedral out there much more than half as long (if memory serves).


The lettering, I am told, where the arched roof begins, is ten feet tall.  (Now that should get your attention!)

As you can see, it’s quite lavish, too.  Way in front is the canopy, under which the Pope sits.


Canopy.  Personally I find it a bit grotesque.  The twisted columns are over the top.  But your mileage may vary.


Papal emblem, with a background in porphyry.


Greek lettering (only this small segment isn’t Latin), perhaps harkening back to the days before the church split in 1054.  Find the word for “Christ.”


Artwork like this everywhere.  I know I’ve seen this one before, I just can’t place it (and I couldn’t find this exact work online, but apparently this is one of a large number of mosaics–yes, mosaics–by Pietro Paolo Cristofari).

[Edit, 21 November 2015…I was right about having seen it before, sort of…the mosaic is a reproduction of Raphael’s The Transfiguration. It was the last painting Raphael did, and is quite famous, I’ve certainly seen images of it.  The original painting is elsewhere in the Vatican, apparently.  The reason I was having trouble finding this out was I kept looking for Cristofari.)]


Reverse angle, the press of crowds lighter.


Now leaving.  Here’s the balcony again, from another unusual angle


And a more standard picture


I’ve thrown out the vast majority of the pictures I took, we’re up to number 46…and that was just the morning part of the day!

For the afternoon, I toured the other three papal basilicas.

There are four basilicas in Rome that are officially papal basilicas.  St. Peter’s is just one of the four.  The other three are outside of Vatican City proper, but apparently are considered part of its territory.

(If I can untangle Wikipedia on this, the basilicas were each patriarchal basilicas, for each of the five patriarchs, before the church split in 1054.  Only recently have they stopped styling these as patriarchal basilicas.  Back in the day, though, St. Peter’s was for the patriarch of Constantinople.  St Paul’s belonged to the Patriarch of Alexandria.  St. John’s to the Patriarch of Rome (i.e., the Pope) and St. Mary’s to the Patriarch of Antioch.  The Patriarch of Jerusalem got St. Lawrence outside the walls, now considered a mere “minor basilica.”)

Papal Basilica #2, St. Paul’s outside the walls.

Outside the walls of Rome that were built in the 200s (but somehow blamed on Marcus Aurelius anyway).  Edit:  They are the walls of Aurelian, a totally different emperor.  Given that the names of the emperors are different in Italian (“Adriano” for “Hadrian,” just for instance) this misunderstanding could have come into the chain of communications at any point, including somewhere in my skull.


This one was originally built by Constantine, expanded greatly by Theodosius (386).  It has hung on to its early character even though it was almost completely burned down in the 1800s.

Another set of holy doors, only opened on Jubilees.


The interior.


Much less lavish!  According to our guide this is a basilica more in tune with quiet contemplation.

There are pictures of every single pope above the columns, and above the columns in the aisles too.  Tradition has it the world ends when they run out of spots for pictures.  I believe there are eleven spots left.


Francis and Benedict, with an empty place for whomever succeeds Francis.





St. John Lateran, Papal Basilica #3

In some respects this is the most important of the four basilicas.  Each one of these technically is presided over by a bishop.  The “Bishop of Rome” (the Pope’s basic title) is the Bishop that sits here at this cathedral.  Even after the pope is elected by the Cardinals, he has to get over here and sit in the chair here before it’s official.

Francis’s first stop on being elected was not this cathedral, but rather the Santa Maria (the last of the four we see today), which apparently won him big points with the local populace (disgruntled that the Pope isn’t Italian again; it’s their favorite.


Another set of Holy Doors.


23-056You suppose with all this wealth lying around they could spring for better chairs?



The Chair of the Bishop of Rome (remember this basilica belonged to the Patriarch of Rome even back before the church split in 1054).23-058

The Holy Stairs

Helen, mother of Constantine, arranged for these steps to be brought from Jerusalem to here.  They used to be the steps into Pontius Pilate’s palace; Jesus walked up them to be tried.


So now people go up these stairs on their knees.  Very slowly, reciting a two minute prayer before taking each step.

Our guide warned us beforehand, do not walk up these steps.

We stayed a while, and watched a person here, then a person there, go up a step.  The photo captures one in mid-step-up.  The process takes an hour.

There are other flights of steps on either side, which one is free to walk up, as long as they don’t then step out in front of the top of this staircase.

Santa Maria Maggiore

The last of the four papal basilicas

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Red Porphyry; if I understand it right, millions of dollars’ worth.



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The pillars of the canopy…more red porphyry.


Reverse angle out the front.


Santa Maria’s is very close to the railway station, so it was an easy walk back to my hotel room.

Our guide mentioned at the beginning we’d probably come out of this with a favorite out of the four; she personally prefers Santa Maria Maggiore.  I went with St. Paul’s, perhaps because of the ancient look, and I’d give second to Santa Maria.  (St. Johns had the best canopy.)  St. Peter’s is just too overdone.  What do you think?  (And yes, I realize just going off my rather incomplete photographs, that’s not necessarily a fair question.)

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