A cherub holding the keys of St. Peter and one holding up a papal tiara can be seen in this close-up photograph of the wooden canopy of the baldachin over the main altar of St. Peter’s Basilica. CNS photo/Fabbrica di San Pietro

Knights fund St. Peter’s Baldachin restoration

  • March 1, 2024

St. Peter’s Baldachin (Baldacchino in Italian) is undergoing its first major restoration since 1758, thanks to the efforts of the Knights of Columbus. 

For the remainder of 2024, the gilded bronze canopy, which grandly marks the spot of St. Peter’s Tomb, will remain hidden from public view while it undergoes maintenance. When on display, the 95-foot-tall and 120,000-pound ornate masterwork is situated directly underneath the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica and above the Papal Altar.

This revitalization, costing approximately 700,000 euros (around $1 million), is due for completion before the 2025 Jubilee declared by Pope Francis.

This year is the 400th anniversary of famed Italian artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini beginning to sculpt the baldachin alongside a team of artists and craftsmen at the behest of Pope Urban VIII. The ciborium, boasting four twisted columns adorned with laurel branches and cherubs and supported by onlooking metal angels, required nearly a decade to complete.

Drones were deployed by the Fabric of St. Peter’s, the institution charged with conserving and maintaining the basilica, to capture over 6,000 photographs of the canopy that rivals a 10-storey building. The images revealed the structure has significantly decayed over time. The deterioration is partially precipitated by the sheer number of visitors — sometimes up to 50,000 — to the basilica daily. All these bodies significantly affect the temperature and humidity of the space, enough to corrode the bronze and iron and cause the wood to expand and compress continually. 

During a Jan. 11 press conference in the Holy See press office to unveil the monumental and time-sensitive undertaking, Patrick Kelly, supreme knight of the Knights of Columbus, said the principles of charity and unity, cherished by the Catholic fraternal organization, are honoured through this endeavour.

“Resting below the glorious dome of St. Peter’s, it reminds us that God has chosen His dwelling among us,” said Kelly. “He has come down to Earth in the person of Jesus Christ — the source of our unity and embodiment of charity.

“And the altar that the Baldacchino crowns is literally built above the Rock — the tomb of St. Peter, the prince of the Apostles. And it is the altar where Christ’s sacrifice is repeatedly offered by the successor of Peter himself.”

Arthur Peters, deputy supreme knight, said this titanic project continues a cherished tradition of partnership between the Knights and the Bishop of Rome. 

“We’re putting our charitable efforts not only towards our local parish communities but also towards the Vatican,” said Peters, who is also executive director of ShareLife, the charitable fundraising arm of the Archdiocese of Toronto. “We not only donate money to the Pope’s charity each year, but we have paid for, I think, 17 restoration projects over time. The Knights have come together collectively to support this project.”

Over the past 40 years, the Knights of Columbus, founded in 1882, has sponsored repairs on the Façade of St. Peter’s Basilica, the Vatican Grottoes and a 14th-century, seven-foot-tall wooden crucifix present in the original basilica.

Peters has visited the Vatican four times and said he marvels at these historic works of art and architectural ingenuity, particularly St. Peter’s Baldachin. 

“You have to marvel that this was built before cranes,” said Peters. “This was built before machinery. You look at the beauty of what has been done, the architecture, it’s incredible. To think this was all done before technology.”

Kelly said restoring Bernini’s Baldacchino, akin to the previous collaborations with the Vatican, “is much more than just historical and architectural renewal — as important as those are.”

“We recall Christ’s promise to Peter and His entrustment of the Keys of the Kingdom, and with Peter and like Peter, we confess to the Lord, ‘You are the Messiah, the son of the living God!’ ”

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