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4. The Church
In the year 324, on the locality assigned by rumour to the martyrdom of St. Peter,
and over the ruins of the Circus of Nero, Constantine erected the church called the
Basilica of St. Peter.
For twelve centuries, this building, raised by a man infamous for his murders and
his tyrannies, stood uninjured amid the shocks which during that long period
devastated the rest of the city. After that time it was removed, tottering to its base
from its own reverend and illustrious age, by Pope Julius II, to make way for the
foundations of the modern church.
It is towards this structure of twelve hundred years' duration, erected by hands
stained with blood, and yet preserved as a star of peace in the midst of stormy
centuries of war, that we would direct the reader's attention. What art has done for
the modern church, time has effected for the ancient. If the one is majestic to the
eye by its grandeur, the other is hallowed to the memory by its age.
As this church by its rise commemorated the triumphant establishment of
Christianity as the religion of Rome, so in its progress it reflected every change
wrought in the spirit of the new worship by the ambition, the prodigality, or the
frivolity of the priests. At first it stood awful and imposing, beautiful in all its
parts as the religion for whose glory it was built. Vast porphyry colonnades
decorated its approaches, and surrounded a fountain whose waters issued from the
representation of a gigantic pine-tree in bronze. Its double rows of aisles were
each supported by forty-eight columns of precious marble. Its flat ceiling was
adorned with beams of gilt metal, rescued from the pollution of heathen temples.
Its walls were decorated with large paintings of religious subjects, and its tribunal
was studded with elegant mosaics. Thus it rose, simple and yet sublime, awful and
yet alluring; in this its beginning, a type of the dawn of the worship which it was
elevated to represent. But when, flushed with success, the priests seized on
Christianity as their path to politics and their introduction to power, the aspect of
the church gradually began to change. As, slowly and insensibly, ambitious man
heaped the garbage of his mysteries, his doctrines, and his disputes, about the
pristine purity of the structure given him by God, so, one by one, gaudy
adornments and meretricious alterations arose to sully the once majestic basilica,
until the threatening and reproving apparition of the pagan Julian, when both
Church and churchmen received in their corrupt progress a sudden and impressive
The short period of the revival of idolatry once passed over, the priests, unmoved
by the warning they had received, returned with renewed vigour to confuse that
which both in their Gospel and their Church had been once simple. Day by day
they put forth fresh treatises, aroused fierce controversies, subsided into new
sects; and day by day they altered more and more the once noble aspect of the
ancient basilica. They hung their nauseous relics on its mighty walls, they stuck
their tiny tapers about its glorious pillars, they wreathed their tawdry fringes
around its massive altars. Here they polished, there they embroidered. Wherever