Vatican City State, the epicentre of the Roman Catholic church, is the smallest country and a monarchy with the pope being the king. Less than a thousand people reside here. It has no taxes, and the sale of tickets and souvenirs runs its economy. More than 25,000 people visit the Vatican every single day! Since we visited the Vatican during the Holy Week of Easter, there were even more massive crowds.
All set to explore
We dressed appropriately because it is a holy place that we would be visiting. We avoided wearing shorts or outfits which exposed our shoulders. Our tour guide also told us that it is vital that our knees and shoulders are covered, and we remove our hats or caps when inside the Sistine Chapel and Basilica as a mark of respect. We were given headphones to hear the guide’s commentary and asked to strictly follow her and look for the flag she was carrying. While admiring the Vatican wonders, it is easy to get lost and be left behind trying to find your way back to the group!
We had heard a lot about the Vatican and its treasures in the Sistine Chapel, the basilica, and museums, but nothing prepared us for what we were about to witness. Spectacular, magnificent, glorious, jaw-dropping. No adjectives can suitably describe the Vatican wonders! The Vatican is truly a visual sensory overload where one after another, structures, monuments, paintings and other forms of art will mesmerize you with their sheer beauty, design, and elegance.
Courtyard of Pinecone
We began with “Courtyard of the Pinecone” which had a 13- foot-high bronze fir cone dating back to first century B.C. In the centre was a contemporary bronze statue in the shape of the globe called Sphere within a Sphere. Next, we were to explore the Vatican Museum, which is one of the largest museum complexes in the world with 2000 rooms and more than 65000 works of art valued at €15 billion! This opulent museum has the world’s most extensive private collection of art commissioned by popes in the eighteen and nineteenth century, which is now open to the public. All the great artists of Renaissance-like Michelangelo, Raphael and so on have their works here.
Some of the galleries and rooms we visited were Raphael’s rooms which had frescos designed by him. Within the Pio-Clementino Museum, we visited the Gallery of statues which as the name suggests had Greek and Roman sculptures and the Sala Rotonda which had statues lining its perimeter and beautiful mosaic on its floors. Next was the Gallery of the Candelabra which had works of Roman antique sculpture and artwork on its walls and ceilings.
Gallery of Maps
The Gallery of Maps had several intricate maps of Italy from the 16th century. It is one of the longest galleries 120m in length, and the ceiling of this gallery was very impressive. The Gallery of Tapestries has Flemish tapestries hanging on its walls. The most renowned work here was the Resurrection of Christ, where the inescapable eyes of Jesus seemed to follow us as we moved through the gallery!
Room of Immaculate Conception
The Room of Immaculate Conception was next. It had a statue of Mother Mary and a ‘Precious Cabinet’ or bookcase in the centre of the room which contained translations in several languages of the Ineffabilis Deus proclaiming the immaculate conception. I noticed some engravings on the cabinet which had been inspired by India and was super thrilled.
Our anticipation grew as we entered the Sistine Chapel, which is also the Holy Chapel of the pope. After the death of a pope, the new pope is elected here by the conclave. If white smoke goes up the chimney, it means a new pope has been selected, if not voting is done again. Michelangelo was commissioned by Pope Julius II to paint the Sistine Chapel. He, however, was reluctant as he considered himself a sculptor, not a painter.
It took him four years to paint the masterpiece frescos on the ceiling that depict the Creation of the World. Later, he was asked to paint the Last Judgement fresco, which is on the altar wall.
We could see scenes from the old testament on the left wall and the new testament on the right wall. The other artists who contributed to painting the Sistine Chapel are Perugino, Botticelli, Ghirlandaio and many others. No photography or videos are allowed here, so we just sat in the chapel and admired the beauty of the masterpieces.
St. Peter’s Basilica
It is the largest church in the world where 60,000 people can assemble at a given time for prayers. Built on Vatican Hill, it is believed to be the burial site of Saint Peter. It was designed by several artists between the 16th and 18th century and had the largest dome in the world at 136.57 meters in height. The Basilica has a treasure trove of Renaissance architecture and monuments, some made by the geniuses Michelangelo and Bernini. There were two decorated bronze doors at the entrance out of which one was the Holy Door which is opened only during the jubilee years which happen every 25 years.
Baldacchino – The bronze canopy
On entering the Basilica, we were awestruck by the beauty and magnanimity of this enormous structure. So immensely rich is this church in architecture and history that for a moment, we were overwhelmed and didn’t know what to see and bypass. The first thing that grabbed our attention was the Baldacchino, a bronze canopy over the altar, which was in Baroque style and was built by Bernini in the 17th century. This imposing structure, which is 30 meters tall, is the focal point of the Basilica. The Pope gives his sermons from here. Underneath this is the “Tomb of Saint Peter”.
Behind the Baldacchino, at the far end, was a stunning gilded bronze monument called the altar of the Chair/ Throne of St. Peter. Over it was a yellow, oval window with twelve sections symbolizing the 12 apostles and a dove symbolizing the holy spirit.
St. Peter Enthroned
There were two other noteworthy sculptures in the Basilica, Michelangelo’s La Pietà, and St. Peter Enthroned. The bronze statue of St. Peter Enthroned, with keys to heaven, is kissed and caressed by the pilgrims who visit the Vatican and as a result, one foot has worn out.
The other noteworthy structure was La Pietà sculpture of Mother Mary carrying the limp and lifeless body of Jesus Christ in her arms. She exhibited extraordinary serenity with a calm and composed demeanour despite the tragedy of holding her lifeless son. Michelangelo made this statue when he was 24 years old, and it is the only work which bears his signature.
Pontifical Swiss Guards
The crypt underneath the Basilica had tombs of some of the past popes, including that of John Paul ll. After exiting the vault, we found ourselves in St. Peter’s Square. The sight of guards dressed in a bright yellow, orange, red and blue uniform holding a spear-like weapon called halberd greeted us. They were Pontifical Swiss guards, who are like the military of the Vatican and are responsible for the safety and security of the pope and the papal palace.
The Vatican post office, from where one can send postcards and mail to anyone around the world was what we saw next. Close by was a souvenir shop selling rosaries, medallions and other religious items.
St. Peter’s Square
The St. Peter’s Square is in front of the basilica and was designed over ten years from 1656 -1667 by Bernini. The large oval area had a tall Egyptian obelisk in the centre with fountains on either side. On each end was an arcade with statues of saints and religious figures. Standing in the St. Peter’s Square, we could see the façade of the basilica and more importantly, the balcony from where the pope delivers his address on Easter and other important religious days. After voting by the Cardinals, the announcement of the new pope is made from here.
Line up for Easter
The square was buzzing with pilgrims and tourists since we were there during the Holy Week leading up to Easter. Chairs were being arranged for the faithful gathering for the mass. On the right were the Papal apartments and our guide showed us the window from which the pope delivers the Angelus and showers blessings.
Filled with nostalgia
We felt blessed at being able to visit the Vatican, especially during the Holy Week. Having been educated at a convent school, I grew up surrounded by nuns and learned to recite several hymns and prayers. Churches and cathedrals, therefore, hold a special place for me. Visiting the Vatican was like walking back in time and reliving a piece of my childhood, as a student studying at a convent. God bless us all. Amen.
Nearest Airport: Rome is the nearest international airport. Several international flights from major cities in India can take you to Rome. From there you can drive down to the Vatican.
Where to Stay: The Vatican, although technically is a different country and state, it is located in Rome. You can stay in Rome and use the net to choose a hotel depending on comfort and budget.
Travel Tip: It is better to book tickets to the Vatican online as there are serpentine queues for tickets and entry. There are various options for Vatican tours available, and you can pick and choose what you want to see. The advantage of booking online is that you will be able to skip the lines and enter quickly. We used the Viator App for bookings. A combo tour of the Vatican and Colosseum Walking Tour cost us $128 per person.
This travelogue was first published in Corporate Tycoons magazine, Dec 2017.