In a time of so much negative news, I think we need something refreshing, even surprising, so for the weekend I leave you with a fascinating article about the Vatican’s Golden Globe by my EWTN colleague Solène Tadié. This story, including drawings and inserts (not seen below), appeared in the Register on January 7:

I well remember when they were cleaning the dome in 2003 as I was working for the Vatican at the time and the technical services department of the Governorato gave us some very interesting fact sheets at the time.

If you don’t know Solène, European correspondent for the National Catholic Register, meet her here:

Re: Friday’s Vatican News: Today’s press office bulletin in, listed audiences the Pope held this morning, adding at the end: Today the Pope will receive in audience: – Delegation of the World Union of Catholic Women’s Organisations (WUCWO); – Community of Jesuits of the Pontifical Latin American College of Rome. Interestingly enough, that information did not appear on


Welcome to a new edition of Vatican Insider as we also welcome a New Year.
This week I have prepared a special for what is normally the interview segment. I explore the amazing, historical world of the Catacombs, one of Rome’s premiere tourist and pilgrim attractions. Sites steeped in faith, martyrdom and the lives of saints and popes. If you remember, Pope Francis said Mass on the feast of All Souls last November in the catacomb of St. Priscilla…very moving! So stay tuned for that after the news review and the Q&A!

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The Unknown Story of St. Peter’s Golden Sphere

A prominent archaeologist of the Fabric of Saint Peter sheds light on the glorious history of the globe on the top of the Vatican Basilica’s dome.
– by Solène Tadié

The Romans affectionately call it Palla (“the Ball”). Enthroned on the top of the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, bearing the heavy white cross, it is meant to evoke the impact of Christ on the world, the mark of Christianity on earth.
This golden sphere is a precious element of the most famous church in the world, especially since deep cleaning work restored its former light and luster in 2003.

When seen from below, it seems so small that it is hardly conceivable that for centuries, the sphere has been a must-see stop for crowned heads from around the world. Indeed, very few people know it is possible to access the interior of the globe, which is big enough to welcome up to 16 people.

PHOTO: Marie-Claire/CC BY-SA/Wikimedia Commons

Completed July 20, 1593, the sphere was the final step, the crowning touch of the dome originally designed by Michelangelo and then slightly modified by architects Giacomo della Porta and Domenico Fontana. According to the Office of Conservation and Restoration of the Fabric of Saint Peter, the sphere — made of 54 trapezoidal-shape pieces of mercury-gilded bronze — rises to a height of about 410 feet from the floor of the basilica and measure more than 8 feet in diameter for a total weight of 4,104 pounds. It is accessible from the top of the dome thanks to a small ladder.

“Many 19th-century guides already highlighted the magnificence of this bronze globe, but its history is very little-known today” Pietro Zander, Director of the Office of Conservation and Restoration of the Fabric of Saint Peter, told the Register. “It was a highly coveted place in the 18th century, and the most prestigious travelers shared the desire to access the dome, especially the palla.”

The appeal of this sphere to the aristocracy of the past centuries is also immortalized by more than 70 marble tablets displayed along the wall of the famous spiral staircase that winds to the top of the dome. “Each tablet commemorates the visit of a sovereign or a royal family member to the sphere, whether it was king Ferdinand of Naples, Prince Gustaf of Sweden and Norway, or Tsar Nicholas I of Russia.”

The latter is reportedly the last sovereign to have entered the sphere, together with Pope Gregory XVI in the mid-19th century. Indeed, the access to the inside of the globe was definitively forbidden to the public a few years later for safety and conservation reasons. Since that time, only the staff in charge of maintaining the basilica has been allowed inside.

Such measures were taken after several incidents with visitors at the narrow entrance, which is less than 3 feet wide. In his illustrated book Saint-Pierre de Rome, 19th-century French writer Charles de Lorbac mentions a story about an overweight German visitor who got stuck in the entrance of the globe. A very plausible story, according to Zander, who reminds that this kind of stories is not isolated: “Many old ‘Sanpietrini’ [the workers who are responsible for the maintaining of the basilica] that used to work here remember several episodes of corpulent people who were not able to get inside because the passage was too narrow; clearly, an obese person cannot go through the door,” he said.

And the same problem arose with the various queens who climbed the stairs to the globe, as the clothes they wore in the past centuries restricted their movement. “There are several testimonies that mention royal banquets on the terrace of the dome, during which the queens changed to continue climbing the narrow stairs and enter the sphere,” Zander added.

The last pope to have visited it is said to be Pius IX in the mid-19th century. In fact, there is no mention in the Vatican archives of a papal visit to the sphere of St. Peter since then.

The mystery surrounding this place after it became forbidden to the public gave rise to various rumors about its origin, notably the fact that the sphere was designed to welcome a table for 12 people, as a tribute to the Apostles at the Last Supper. However, although inspiring, this theory seems unfounded.

“I’ve never heard about any table inside the sphere; there are only four small seats, and little windows to air the inside and let people admire the very unique and beautiful view,” Zander said, highlighting the preeminence of the symbolic dimension of the sphere. “Just like Brunelleschi’s dome on the top of the cathedral of Florence, the globe surmounted by a cross evokes the presence of the Cross among us above all; it symbolizes Christian Rome and the whole of Christendom.”


Pope Francis this afternoon, All Souls Day, said Mass in the Roman catacombs of St. Priscilla in the presence of a small group of faithful and delivered an off-the-cuff homily.  Following is a history of the catacombs offered by Vatican media as well as some photos they sent out late this afternoon.

The photos the Vatican offers include Pope Francis but if you wish to see photos that correspond to the description of the different rooms, tombs and halls of the catacombs, click here:


The Catacombs of Priscilla sit on the Via Salaria with its entrance in the convent of the Benedictine Sisters of Priscilla. It is mentioned in all of the most ancient documents on Christian topography and liturgy in Rome and, because of the great number of martyrs buried within it, it was called “regina catacumbarum” – “the queen of the catacombs.”

This cemetery was lost like all the others after the entrances were blocked to protect it from thievery; however, it was also one of the first to be rediscovered, in the sixteenth-century. A large portion of the funerary inscriptions, sarcophagi, stones and bodies (presumed to be those of martyrs) were subsequently taken away; nevertheless, the catacomb does preserve some particularly beautiful and important paintings, the most significant of which are included on the regular visit.

The Galleries of the Cemetery
Dug into the tuff, a soft volcanic rock used to make bricks and lime, the galleries have a total length of about 13 kilometres, at various depths. The first level, which is the most ancient, winds along in a series of galleries; the walls are full of “loculi,” the most common kind of tomb. The bodies were laid within them, directly on the dirt, wrapped in a shroud, sprinkled with lime to restrain the normal process of decay, and sealed in with pieces of marble, or tiles.

Inscriptions were written in Greek or Latin on the tombs, or small objects placed near them to help identify graves with no inscription. Only on this level, where the martyrs were buried, do we find the small rooms known as “cubicula” (“bed chambers”), which were the tombs of wealthier families or of the martyrs themselves. Likewise, we find here the “arcosolia,” another type of tomb for the upper classes, often decorated with paintings of religious subjects.

Most of the stories depicted are Biblical, from both the Old and New Testaments, an expression of faith in the salvation and final resurrection obtained for us by Jesus Christ. The stone inscriptions on the tombs are often marked with symbols whose meaning was known to the Christians, but not to the pagans. The best known of these is the fish, the Greek word for which, ICHTHYS, was read as an acronym for the corresponding Greek words that mean “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour.”

The Cubiculum of the Veiled Woman
This room is named for the picture in the semi-circle on the back wall, in which a young woman, wearing a rich purple garment and a veil on her head, lifts up her arms in prayer. On either side of her are two scenes unlike any others among all of the paintings in the various catacombs, probably episodes of her life. In the middle, the Good Shepherd is painted in the Garden of Paradise, amid peacocks and doves. Before this scene, in the arch above the door, the prophet Jonah is shown emerging from the mouth of a sea-monster, a clear expression of faith in the Resurrection. The semi-circle on the left depicts the Sacrifice of Isaac, while on the right are shown the Three Children in the fiery furnace in Babylon; both of these episodes are expressions of faith in God’s salvation, understood by the first Christians as prophecies of the salvation brought by the coming of Christ. These pictures, which are in a remarkably good state of preservation, date back to the second half of the third century.

The Greek Chapel
When this area was found, it was full of dirt that had come down through the light shaft in the ceiling; it is named for the two Greek inscriptions, painted in the right niche, which were the first things seen by its discoverers.

Richly decorated with paintings and stuccos in the Pompeian style, it is formed of three niches for sarcophagi and a long seat for funeral banquets, called “refrigeri” or “agapae,” which were held at the tombs in honor of the dead.

The painting in the central arch at the back, on a red background, shows just such a banquet, but with a clear reference to the banquet of the Holy Eucharist, which also was sometimes celebrated by the Christians near venerated tombs. Seven persons are seated at the table, the first of which is breaking the bread as he stretches out his hands; at the sides of the table are seven baskets, a reference to the miraculous multiplication of the loaves and fishes, when Jesus also promised the bread of eternal life.

Several episodes of the Old Testament are also shown: Noah on the ark; Moses making water run from the rock, a prophecy of the saving waters of baptism; the sacrifice of Isaac; and three stories of miraculous deliverance from the book of Daniel (Daniel among the lions; the three children in the furnace; Susanna accused of adultery by the elderly judges in Babylon, and saved by Daniel). Episodes of the New Testament are also depicted, such as the resurrection of Lazarus, and the healing of a paralytic; the former demonstrates Christ’s power over death, the latter His power over sin. The adoration of the Magi is also represented, a very common image in the Christian cemeteries of ancient Rome, symbolizing the universality of salvation, since the Three Kings were the first pagans to adore Christ.

The Niche with the oldest image in existence of the Virgin Mary.
The image of the Good Shepherd in stucco, (much of which has unfortunately fallen off,) is found on the upper part of a niche which was later expanded into a gallery, most likely because of the presence of a venerated tomb. He is standing among some trees that are stucco on the bottom, but fresco on the top where we see leaves and red fruits painted in vivid color. On either side of the trees there were two more images, but the one on the left has completely fallen away.

On the right is preserved an image of the Virgin Mary with the Child Jesus on her knee; a prophet stands next to her, holding a scroll in his left hand, and pointing to a star with his right. This seems to refer to the prophecy of Balaam, “A star shall rise out of Jacob, and a sceptre shall spring up from Israel” (Numbers 24, 15-17). The presence of the prophet indicates that the Child is the Messiah awaited for many ages.