St. Peter’s Basilica


St. Peter’s Basilica is one of the holiest churches in the Christian religion. It is one of four major basilicas located in Rome and the principle church of the Pope. Although St. Peter’s is located within Vatican City, this basilica is not the official seat of the Bishop of Rome, better known as the Pope. That honor belongs to St. John the Lateran. So while the official cathedra, or seat, of the the Pope is not St. Peter’s, the Basilica remains a landmark within the Catholic Church and Roman history.

St. Peter’s Brief History

St. Peter’s and Vatican City are situated on Vatican Hill, across the Tiber from the ancient Campus Martius. Outside the walls of the city, Nero built a circus on the site to hold chariot races and carry out executions. These executions shaped the future of Vatican Hill. You’ve heard the saying “Nero fiddled while Rome burned?” Here’s some historical context behind the saying. In 69 A.D., Rome was consumed by a terrible fire that lasted for days. Actual cause of the fire is unknown, but because Nero one one of the few who gained from the destruction, fingers point to him. To shift the blame away from himself, Nero blamed the Christians, a new group of monotheists, and began executing them at the circus on Vatican Hill. One of those executed was Peter, one of the original apostles of Jesus Christ and the first Pope, or Bishop of Rome. Peter was buried nearby and an altar was set up as a place to worship at the apostle’s tomb. Modern day St. Peter’s sits over the site and acts as a modern incarnation of that memorial.


Sketch of Old St. Peters with the pieces labeled.

After St. Peter’s execution, the site became a pilgrimage destination, as well as a burial site for Christians. In 326 A.D., the emperor Constantine built “Old” St. Peter’s in a typical latin cross plan. The basilica style suited the nature of Christian religion and contained several key elements. The building began with a large atrium for people to gather. Only those who had been baptized were allowed beyond the narthex and into the holy space of the church. For that reason, you often see a small round structure called a baptistry set just outside the church. The main body of the basilica style church contains a long nave, flanked by aisles. The altar is located in the semi-circular apse at the back of the building. The transept cross section creates the familiar latin cross floor plan. Santa Sabina is a great example of the old basilica style church. Old St. Peter’s stood until 1506, when Pope Julius II began plans to rebuild a grander St. Peter’s. At that point a new structure was probably needed, as the wooden structure was now almost 1200 years old! Construction was underway for 150 years before the church was finally completed, funded in part by the sale of indulgences. During that time over a dozen Popes oversaw the evolution of New Saint Peter’s as consecutive architects modified the existing plans, notably these three. Bramante was first hired by  Julius II to and he set forth a greek-cross floor plan, that is a centrally planned church with a “plus” sign shape and a dome. Both Bramante and Julius died before the work was completed and Michelangelo was brought in as chief architect. Michelangelo also did not live to see the basilica completed. Carlo Maderno was recruited by Paul V and ordered to extend the central nave of the church to create the more traditional latin cross plan. The extension of the nave and the addition of the facade created a problem of scale and perspective. The closer you get to the facade, the more you lose sight of Michelangelo’s dome. Bernini was brought in to decorate the interior and add the finishing touches.


Panorama of St. Peter’s Square

The Basilica’s Exterior

When Bernini first began construction on the Piazza’s enormous porticos, the surrounding area was a tight knit cluster of buildings, much like most of Rome today. To approach the Basilica, a visitor had to meander through the maze of streets until the vast open Piazza was finally revealed, with anticipation and all the grandeur the space deserves. That effect remained until Mussolini began another one of his building projects and created Via della Conciliazione. The new road cuts a direct path to Vatican City, enabling a visitor to grow accustomed to the massive size of St. Peters as they walk up to it. It kind of undercuts the overall effect of the square. Consider approaching St. Peter’s from another route. Bernini was faced with the unusual challenge of trying to unite the open space of St. Peter’s by distinguishing the square and drawing your attention to the Basilica. The result is an unique elliptical shaped portico comprised of 284 columns. With two lanes for pedestrians and a center lane wide enough for a carriage, the simple design draws our eye to the facade of Saint Peter’s and ties together the open piazza. The vast reaches of Bernini’s portico extend out into the square, like a pair of arms greeting the worshippers. The portico in some ways replaces the old basilica church component of an atrium, a courtyard for the faithful to gather. The placement of the columns allows visitors open access to the piazza, and yet the view of the surrounding buildings is obscured. Entrance to St. Peter’s begins in line near the right hand side of the portico. Placed in the center of the elliptical is the large obelisk. This obelisk was the same that sat in Nero’s circus, and witnessed St. Peter’s execution. Flanking the obelisk are two fountains, one designed by Maderno, the other by Bernini. It’s fitting that the two fountains sit together. Bernini’s work on the portico draws attention to Maderno’s work on the facade. When Michelangelo died he left no plans for a facade. How did you manage to draw attention to the front door in the middle of such a large piazza? Maderno solved the problem by gradually increasing the depth of the columns and bringing each set slightly closer together. That draws our eye to the center balcony where the Pope appears to greet the audience in the square.

The Basilica’s Interior


Close up of the facade and the statue of St. Paul.

Where to begin. It’s sites like this that make a little research go a long way. I’m hoping to get individual posts up on many of the highlights very soon. But for now we’ll begin by walking up to the church. As you scale the stairs up to the church your eyes begin to adjust to the vastness of the building before you. The letters that spell out: “In honor of Prince of the Apostles, Paul V Borghese, a Roman, supreme pontiff in the year 1612, the seventh year of his pontificate” are each three feet tall and the sculptures that adorn the roof are over twenty. The two sculptures that greet you outside are of Peter and Paul, added in the 19th century. Before you enter the basilica you can see equestrian statutes of Constantine and Charlemagne on your right and left under the atrium. Directly before you is the Holy Door, only opened for the Jubilee every 25 years. Once inside, stop for a moment to take in the result of 150 years of planning. Step back and take a look around before you get swept up in the excitement of the other tourists.


St. Peter, spiral of the Baldachino, and the sunlit Dove in the background

On your right as you enter is Michelangelo’s famous Pieta. Done when he was only 24 years old, the marble sculpture depicts the Virgin Mary cradling the body of Jesus. Don’t forget to take a glimpse at the floor as you enter. Noted by stars along the nave, are comparable sizes of the other great churches in the world. The great round porphyry stone – a very expensive type of red stone – just in front of the entrance, is the same stone that Charlemagne kneeled on to become the first Holy Roman Emperor. Continuing on you’ll see the monument to Gregory XIII by Camillo Rusconi in 1723. Gregory is responsible for the Gregorian Calendar, and is flanked by personifications of Faith and Wisdom. Back in the central nave is the statue of St. Peter, attributed to Arnolfo di Cambio. Centuries of worshippers kissing the Saint’s foot have left it shiny. Even a short list will include Bernini’s enormous Baldachino, the bronze canopy that graces the papal altar and marks the center of the basilica’s transept. The Pope gives mass from this altar, which sits over the confessio and the tomb of St. Peter. The baldachino’s four spiraling columns are intended to evoke the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. The source of all this bronze came from the ceiling of the Pantheon, where Urban VIII infamously called for its removal. Be sure to take a moment here to look up and admire Michelangelo’s impressive dome. It’s 348 foot height means the Statute of Liberty could stand inside it. The inscription reads: “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church…I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven.” The dome is supported by four large piers, within each Bernini placed a sculpture of a saint: Veronica, Helen, Longinus, and Andrew. Beyond the Baldachino on the left hand side is another Bernini work, this one the tomb of Pope Alexander VII. Bernini utilized the space effectively despite the fact that a door lies underneath the marble folds of fabric. Move closer to see that the personification of Death raises the cloth to allow passage through the doorway. At the great apse at the very end of the nave is the Altar of the Throne. A sun burst of gold crowns the monument lifted by the four doctors of the church. Inside is reportedly the throne of St. Peter. Sunlight hits the transparent window in the afternoon.

Visiting the Basilica

Admission to the Basilica is free like all churches. It is open from 7am till 7pm April through September and from 7am till 6pm the rest of the year. The best days to visit the Basilica are probably Tuesdays and Thursdays, and I mean that with a grain of salt. Vatican City is a very popular tourist attraction so the down times are still going to be busy. But process of elimination can help you choose a good day. Vatican City observes the day of rest and is closed on Sundays. Mondays are crowded because all other museums in Rome are closed on Mondays. Wednesdays the Pope give an audience and appears at 10:30am to bless St. Peter’s Square so Wednesdays are a bit busier. Saturdays the locals come to visit. It’s important to remember the Basilica is still a working church and sometimes portions may be blocked off as a service takes place. If you have the time, stick around until the service is over and the area become open again. You can get a glimpse of church officials as they leave and beat the rush once the section becomes open again. Good things come to those who wait. Very few people are willing to stick around, so you may find yourself in quiet corner.

Just like the Vatican Museum, there is a metal detector before the entrance to the Basilica. The entrance is located underneath the right hand side of the portico. (Right hand side when facing the Basilica.) Sometimes the line to the metal detectors begins to filter out into the piazza. Don’t be dismayed. The line moves quickly. Don’t be expected to keep your pocket knife or anything though. The guards take their jobs seriously. Here too, dress code will be enforced. Rome in July and tank tops might seem like a perfect match, but not at the Vatican. Shorts or dresses down to the knees are safe, as well as shirts that cover your shoulders. This applies to gentlemen as well. Close-toed shoes are also a good thing. Better to play it on the safe side when visiting the Vatican.

Visitors can also take a climb up to the top of the dome. It’s a bit of a hike and warm in the summer, but very cool and worth it. The view from the top of the dome is one of the best in the city. If you go in the summer, fill up a water bottle and don’t be afraid to take a break if you need to. The first leg get you up to the roof of the basilica, which I thought was kind of fun. You can stop and shop at a small gift store, on the roof, that’s run by nuns. There’s also a water fountain up there. An elevator can take you this far, if you’re traveling with handicapped or children. The second leg lets you pause inside the dome of the basilica. Not at the top, but inside, where you can walk around and look down at the church below. The final leg is the tightest fit, but keep in mind that you’re actually inside the dome now and nearing the cupola. Don’t be afraid to pause at the windows as you go for the view (And some fresh air).

Do keep in mind that the Sistine Chapel is accessible through the Vatican Museums, not through St. Peters.

Here are some sites I found very helpful:

Sacred Destinations has a great page on St. Peter’s Basilica. Be sure to check out their other pages as well.

The Vatican website is brimming with information. Here’s a link to their Basilica information page.

Also, a link to “Practical Information” on the Vatican’s site. Here you can find information on how to arrange tickets for a Papal Audience, as well as more in depth tours, like a tour of the grottoes and necropolis.

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Raphael Rooms and the Sistine Chapel

The homestretch of your visit to the Vatican Museum, and one of the most famous masterpieces in the world. This wing of the museum includes works by some of the greatest painters on your way to the Capella Sistina. This winding path takes some time and if the summertime crowds are present it may take even longer. Take a short break perhaps and if you’re traveling with kids make sure nobody needs to use the restroom.


Gallery of Maps and Tapestries

Longer than a football field the Gallery of Maps and Tapestries covers the distance between the main body of the Museum and the Apostolic Palace and St. Peter’s Basilica. To find it on a map will help you to better keep your bearings. Hung on the walls are forty maps completed by Ignazio Danti and commissioned in 1580 by Pope Gregory XIII. They act as a walking tour of Italian history. Just beyond, is the Gallery of Tapestries, a collection of tapestries from the 15th and 17th centuries.


Room of Constantine

Intended for use as a reception hall, the room is decorated with four events from the life of Constantine including, Vision of the Cross, Battle at Milvian Bridge, Baptism of Constantine and the Donation of Rome. Though this room was planned by Pope Julius II and Raphael it was not executed and completed before the two had died.


Raphael Rooms

Comprised of four stanzas (rooms) the Raphael Rooms were commissioned in 1508/1509 by Pope Julius II. Having secured the services of both Michelangelo and Raphael just down the hall from each other Julius set about decorating his papal apartments with the greatest of the High Renaissance. Although there are many individual pieces throughout the rooms that detail specific moments from the history of the papacy as well as theological iconography a few of the ones that shouldn’t be missed are Parnassus, Fire in the Borgo, Liberation of St. Peter, and the School of Athens seen above.


Sistine Chapel

The Sistine Chapel was restored between 1477 and 1480 by Pope Sixtus IV from whom the Chapel is named. He recruited Renaissance greats such as Perugino, Botticelli, Ghirlandaio and Roselli to decorate the walls. His nephew Pope Julius II entrusted Michelangelo with the ceiling and lunettes in 1508. Michelangelo returned again in 1533 at the behest of Clement VII to paint the Last Judgement on the altar wall. Despite being one of the world’s most famous tourist sites, the Chapel is still very important in the Catholic Church. This is where the Cardinal’s meet during conclave to elect the next Bishop of Rome and Successor of Peter. Most won’t need directions to the ceiling and Last Judgement but if you can, find Perugino’s Handing over of the Keys and Botticelli’s Punishment of Korah.

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Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore


One of the four great patriarchal Basilica’s of the Catholic Church, any descriptions of Saint Mary Major is sure to contain plenty of superlatives. It is the largest church dedicated to Saint Mary, and one of the oldest Churches in Rome. The bell tower was added in the 14th century and has the distinction of being the tallest in Rome, 240 feet high, and marked the Papacy’s return from Avignon.

Santa Maria Maggiore is also known as “Our Lady of the Snows” which refers to the story of how the church was founded. On August 5TH, 358 a Roman couple decided to bequeath their fortune to the Virgin Mary and prayed to her for guidance on how to best do that. That night they dreamt of a place marked on top of the Esquiline Hill. They conferred with Pope Liberius a discovered he had had a similar dream. They climbed to the top of the hill to find a patch of snow covering the ground. The church was built on that spot. (Historical evidence is for this founding tale is a bit shady but it makes for a good story nonetheless. And sometimes the story often matters more than the history.)

DSCN0099The church as it stands today has been added to and renovated over the centuries, so much so that it’s difficult to see the original 5th century structure from the exterior. It’s only upon entering the church that you begin to feel the age of the space. The interior of Santa Maria Maggiore still maintains it’s traditional basilica style format, with a central nave lined with ionic columns, and two side aisles crowned by an apse. Clerestory windows provide light from above.

It is near the apse that the more famous elements of Santa Maria come into play. Here are Byzantine mosaics dating from the 5th, 12th and 13th centuries. The 5th century mosaics are located in the nave above the altar and the later mosaics are located further back in the apse. The didactic images from the 5th century tell stories from the old testament and included depictions of Moses, Joshua and Abraham.

Santa Maria Maggiore is still very popular with tourists and pilgrims. The Sistine Chapel holds a relic of the Holy Crib in the Confessio and a statue of Pope Pius IX kneels before it. The Holy Crib is said to be pieces of the manger where Christ was born and is kept in a crystal reliquary. Saint Jerome is also buried here, known for translating the bible into Latin.

363px-Virgin_salus_populi_romaniAs with many sacred places, Chapels have been added by wealthy families as a place to honor and bury notable family members. In Santa Maria Maggiore you can find the Borghese Chapel, built by Pope Paul V to house the Salus Populi Romani, perhaps the oldest Marian image in Rome. Paul V is buried here and Gian Lorenzo Bernini and his father Pietro are buried across the nave in the Sistine Chapel.

Although the Church has undergone many changes, the overall splendor of the building has been maintained. The chapels have been continuously recreated by wealthy families. The ceiling was said to be gilded by some of the first gold to be brought back from the New World. The famous Cosmati family designed the marble flooring. Ferdinand Fuga redecorated much of the interior as well as the façade in the 1740’s into the details we see today. With such a busy interior many of the most important people throughout modern Rome’s history are in some way connected to this church.

When you visit:

It’s hard to get a true impression of the church on the hill since modern Rome has built up around it unless you approach the church from the Forum and Piazza Venezia, walking up Via Panisperna or Via Cavour. Santa Maria Maggiore is also located just a few blocks south west from Termini station and Metro stop.

It’s open most days from 7am to 7pm, 6pm during the winter. It is a working church so if you get caught in the middle of a mass, quietly give them due respect and space but stick around. How often do you get to see mass in a place like this? There is a small museum with artifacts and access to the loggia.

White rose petals are dropped from the dome during mass on August 5th to celebrate the founding, and the Pope presides over feast day on August 15th. A procession of the Holy Crib takes place on December 25th.

For more information, visit the Vatican’s very informative website here.

And here’s a link to a floor plan of Santa Maria Maggiore along with the locations of the key points of interest: here.

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Santa Maria in Cosmedin

courtesy of wikipedia commons

courtesy of wikipedia commons

Santa Maria in Cosmedin is located at the Piazza della Bocca della Veritas near the ancient Forum Boarium. It present an interesting and eclectic mix of history, one that is distinctly ancient. The origins of the Church are closely tied to the markets and port that surrounded the site in antiquity. At the shore of the Tiber, the ancient port from Rome’s earliest years supplied the city with grain, salt, cattle, and other produce. A commercial center grew up around the area, as well as a grain distribution center where supplies were given to the poor known as a diconia. The current structure also incorporated the statio annonae, the market official’s office, as well as the Ara Maxima, Great Altar of Hercules.

Santa Maria in Cosmedin has a long foundational history. When the Roman bureaucracy fell apart in the 5th and 6th centuries, Gregory I ensured Papal bureaucracy picked up the slack and kept the diconia function in operation. The church was rebuilt in the 8th century by Pope Adrian I and originally given to Greek refugees fleeing from iconoclastic conflicts in the East. “Cosmedin” refers to the Greek word kosmidion meaning “decoration” or “ornate.” The interior has been restored to it’s 8th century medieval appearance, complete with three aisles, three apses, and clerestory windows. Restorations have continued after earthquakes, a Norman sack, decoration under the Baroque period and so on. A restored façade was completed in 1899, supposedly returning it to the original medieval appearance. This leaves the structure with an incredible layering effect of artistic and architectural changes, while still retaining the original basilica feel.

Perhaps the most compelling feature seen from the exterior of the Church is the campanile, or bell tower. At seven stories high, it towers over the humble church and the surrounding piazza.

courtesy wikipedia

courtesy wikipedia

Within the church portico is the Bocca della Veritas or the “Mouth of Truth.” Made of marble, the depiction of a river god is thought to be a drain cover of the Cloaca Maxima. Legend has it that if you tell a lie while your hand is in the mouth, the god will snap your hand off. Oddly enough, the marble slab is one of the most popular tourist stops in Rome, thanks in part perhaps, to the availability of parking just outside and the film Roman Holiday. If you see a line, it’s is almost certainly a line for the Bocca della Veritas, not a line to see the interior of the Church.

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Constantine’s Early Churches

After Constantine passed the Edict of Milan in 313 CE, he supplied Christianity with its first public places of worship. Due to the worshiping style of Christianity, they required large spaces where many people could worship at once. Constantine therefore appropriated several ancient Roman law-courts known as basilicas to house the new religion.  This gave Christianity more than just space, it allowed the new religion to emerge literally from underground and establish themselves as a religion here to stay. The community nature of Christianity required a larger space for worship than the temples of Rome. Giving early Christian leaders the basilica was also a powerful statement, as Constantine was essentially allowing them to worship in the local town hall. It was a very public affirmation of Imperial support, as well as the dedicatory inscription on Constantine’s Triumphal arch.


The floor plan of a typical basilica style church enables us to view the standard feature of a basilica style church and recognize the features that carry over to the more elaborate churches of later centuries. The plan allowed for the long, dramatic nave, and the heart of the church to be located at the transept. Additional side aisles were added later, as the number of pilgrims visiting the holy relics inside the church increased during the Medieval Period.

The addition of the atrium was a vital part in the early stages of Christianity, when only those who had been baptized were allowed to enter the holy space of the Church. In the atrium, people could still gather to listen to sermons. For this reason, a baptistery was also required. The baptistery is typically a small circular chamber located just outside the holy space church. The need for both these features eventually faded out, as the population was largely converted to Christianity.

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Santa Maria Sopra Minerva

Facade of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva

Facade of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva

Begun near the site of the ancient Temple of Minerva, the church is the only Gothic style church in Rome. The trademarks of Gothic architecture, pointed arches and ribbed vaults, are found inside along with the Carafa Chapel, Michelangelo’s Christ Bearing the Cross, and Bernini’s Monument to the Venerable Maria Raggi. Inside are also the tombs of the Medici Popes: Clement VII and Leo X.

Fun Fact: This is the church where the trials of Galileo and Martin Luther took place.


Don’t miss the Elephant outside in the square. The Egyptian obelisk was discovered in the garden and Alexander XII gave it to Bernini to erect it in the piazza. The elephant was a symbol of wisdom, and dedicates itself to the wisdom of the Romans and Egyptians.

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Santa Maria del Popolo

Santa Maria del Popolo has been on this site long before the piazza was constructed. The original structure was built by Pope Paschal II, over the site of a walnut tree where local said the ghost of Nero resided.

Despite the interesting beginning, the church was very plain both on the inside and outside when it was reconstructed in 1470. In the 1650’s Bernini was brought in to embellish the nave, but in his decorations are strikingly restrained. He extended the entablature to run the entire length of the nave and his addition fit is remarkably well with the original travertine columns.

The highlights are the Chigi Chapel, Cerasi Chapel and the Della Rovere Chapel.

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San Luigi dei Francesi

Thanks to Sacred Destinations for the image

Thanks to Sacred Destinations for the image

As the name implies, the church is the French church of Rome, the land for the current structure being donated by Catherine de’Medici. The façade was designed either by Domenico Fontana or Giacomo della Porta in 1585. The design of the façade itself is large and imposing, neither Renaissance nor Mannerist in execution. The rectangle sections accentuate the overall squareness of the building that not even the traditional pediment can overcome. Despite the somewhat awkward exterior, inside, the Baroque decoration is surprisingly well done and keeps well away from the garish side of Baroque. The highlight however, is the Contarelli Chapel, home to three of Caravaggio’s most famous works.

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Museum Churches

Through no fault of their own, many churches across Rome have become known for the art that’s inside, rather than the church itself. Here’s a list of a few:

San Luigi dei Francesi

Santa Maria della Popolo

Santa Maria della Vittoria

Santa Maria Sopra Minerva

For traveling on a budget, these sites are an excellent way to see some masterpieces while escaping from museum entrance fees. Plan on visiting churches early in the morning or in the evening, since churches have a tendency to close for a long lunch break, often noon to four. Also remember that these are still working churches, with daily services, especially on Sundays.

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Contarelli Chapel

Located inside San Luigi dei Francesi, the chapel was purchased by the French Cardinal Matteu Cointrel (Contarelli) as a place for his grave. After the building program stalled for many years, the heirs brought in Caravaggio for his first public commission. The chapel is located on the left transept, very close to the altar, which tells us Contarelli was very wealthy. The Chapel contains three panels. The first one you see is the left side panel, Caravaggio’s Martyrdom of St. Matthew, the Calling of St. Matthew is on in the right, and St. Matthew Writing the Gospels is in the center.

Martyrdom of St. Matthew shows Caravaggio’s inexperience with works this large. His alla prima technique – painting directly on the canvas without an outline, didn’t serve him very well in this work. The painting depicts the death of the Evangelist Matthew, who traveled to Ethiopia to spread the word of Christ. Here we see him at the actual moment of his death, as an Angel hands him a palm frond- the symbol of a martyr’s death. Caravaggio retains his famous tenebrism, but the composition shows more depth than his earlier works.

Caravaggio is much more successful in his second attempt, the Calling of St. Matthew. This scene is actually one of the more ambiguous stories of St. Matthew. Here, Christ appears with Peter, who is always depicted wearing gold and blue. Does Christ’s hand look familiar? It’s a dead giveaway for Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam. Artists of the time period often included influences of the renowned artists before them to show that they had studied and mastered their predecessors. One of the interesting questions this painting poses is who is St. Matthew? Is it the bearded man? Or the man counting the coins?

The central panel of the Chapel is actually the second work Caravaggio completed for the space. The original stretched too many bounds of the Counter Reformation. It was considered unflattering and didn’t cast the Saint in a good light. This version has the Saint at his traditional desk, while the Angel ticks off point on his fingers.

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