One of Christianity's architectural gems, Michelangelo's model of the dome of St. Peter's Basilica, is on view in Washington during its last planned overseas tour.
The massive 16th-century artwork dominates a specially prepared exhibition room at the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in Northeast Washington as part of the show "Creating St. Peter's: Architectural Treasures of the Vatican," which continues through May 31.
Museums Director Penelope C. Fletcher and Daniel G. Callahan, director of exhibitions, look over Michelangelo's model.
(Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)
The 18-foot-tall wood model then returns to Europe and, except for a possible diversion to Germany, will be placed on permanent display in one of St. Peter's two small domes, said Penelope C. Fletcher, director of the center's museums.
Michelangelo's role as St. Peter's architect is only part of the compelling story behind the world's largest church, said Fletcher, who lobbied for "Creating St. Peter's" to come to Washington after a 15-month run at the Knights of Columbus Museum in New Haven, Conn.
"The more we heard about it, the more we knew we had to have it," Fletcher said of the show, which features architectural drawings, drafting tools and other artifacts related to the construction of a basilica to replace the church built in 324 by the emperor Constantine the Great.
St. Peter's is one of Christianity's holiest sites. Beneath the basilica, which is twice the size of St. Paul's Cathedral in London, lie the remains of the Apostle Peter, to whom Jesus said: "Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." Roman Catholics and many Protestants consider Peter the first bishop, and pope, of Rome.
It is from the altar of St. Peter's that modern-day popes have spoken to the world via televised services on such major holidays as Christmas and Easter. And it is from a balcony above St. Peter's entrance that newly elected popes address tens of thousands of jubilant Christians in St. Peter's Square -- many of whom wait for days to see the white smoke rise above the Sistine Chapel, signaling the election of a new leader.
The "new" St. Peter's replaced Constantine's basilica, which survived for more than 1,000 years before falling into ruin in the 15th century. Popes Nicholas V and Julius II began the process of restoring and enlarging the basilica, a project that continued through the reigns of 19 more pontiffs and took 174 years to complete.
Michelangelo, whose Pieta is on display in St. Peter's and whose paintings adorn the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, was appointed architect of the project in 1547, succeeding the original designer, Bramante, who died in 1514, and a series of other architects, including Raphael.
Michelangelo died in 1564, and the basilica was dedicated in 1626. Historians credit him with maintaining Bramante's vision -- after others had undertaken costly, failed experiments -- and making appropriate architectural adjustments.
He designed the dome and commissioned the painted wood model, a half-sphere cutaway showing intricate details down to the herringbone brickwork pavement. The model visited Washington once before, as part a 1988 exhibit at the National Gallery of Art, "Michelangelo: Draftsman/Architect."
Daniel G. Callahan, director of exhibits for the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center, said Michelangelo criticized the builders of the 435-foot-tall dome after a portion had to be dismantled and reconstructed because of an erroneous calculation. "As the model, such as I make for everything, was exact, this mistake" ought never to have been made, the artist said in a 1557 letter kept in the Michelangelo archives in Florence.
The model continues to serve as a guide when repair or restoration work is needed on the St. Peter's dome, Callahan said. Letters such as A, B, D, H and J seen on the model indicate places where cracks have been filled or other structural problems identified in the order they were dealt with.
To exhibit the model, the center created a 28-foot-square exhibition space from a former bookshop area. Walls and ceilings were painted black to minimize the effects of ultraviolet light and to create a dramatic presentation, Callahan said. A portion of the ceiling had to be recessed to accommodate the model's full height.
"Creating St. Peter's" includes other extraordinary objects, some of which have never been exhibited, Fletcher said. One of the most intriguing is a massive capstan, or winch, like those that were used to move an Egyptian obelisk to the center of St. Peter's Square.
The 83-foot-tall obelisk, brought to Rome about A.D. 40 by the emperor Caligula, loomed over a "circus" that, under Nero, saw the deaths of many Christians. According to tradition, Peter was crucified in the circus, upside down, between A.D. 64 and 67 and buried nearby.
Viewed by early Christians as a reminder of Peter's martyrdom, the obelisk fell or was pulled to the ground after the fall of Rome and remained on the proposed site for the new basilica. In 1586, it was decided that the 327-ton obelisk would be moved 275 feet from the basilica site to the center of what is now St. Peter's Square.
In a feat similar to the moving of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse 413 years later, the obelisk -- laid on its side rather than remaining upright -- was inched along a specially created track to its new location using a series of 40 winches to nudge it along. Each winch was operated by four horses and a team of humans that kept the three-inch-thick ropes aligned for precision and poured water on them to prevent sparks from igniting them, Fletcher said.
The process of moving and raising the obelisk took four months. The 193-foot-tall lighthouse was moved more than half a mile in three weeks using a computerized hydraulic jack system.