New Haven, Conn. For Roman Catholics around the world, Christmas Eve means midnight Mass celebrated by the pope in St. Peter's Basilica, the home of the church and a jewel of Renaissance architecture.
But if you were unable to travel to Rome for the holidays, you can still get a taste of St. Peter's through a new exhibit at the Knights of Columbus Museum about the design and building of the basilica.
The exhibit features a 16-foot wooden model of the basilica's dome from the 16th century. It was commissioned by artist and architect Michelangelo, designer of the dome and many other features of the basilica.
The entire building process took 120 years and required the work of many architects, engineers and artisans and the support of several popes.
Over 100 items in the exhibit, including etchings, construction tools and models, are on loan from the Vatican.
"It's our most special exhibit because these are precious items and one-of-a-kind objects, almost none of which have ever traveled outside the Vatican or come to the United States," said Carl Anderson, head of the Knights of Columbus, a Roman Catholic men's fraternal organization.
The exhibit is partly a thank-you for financial help from the Knights of Columbus, said Cardinal Francecso Marchisano, the head administrator and caretaker of St. Peter's.
"The Knights of Columbus has helped with the restoration of many beautiful things, and we are grateful for the many things that they have done," Marchisano said in a recent interview at the New Haven museum.
St. Peter's Basilica is built over the tomb of the apostle Peter, the church's first pope. It also stands on the grounds of the Roman circus -- a giant amphitheater where gladiators fought and early Christians were killed for sport.
Church history tells that St. Peter himself was crucified in the circus. His remains were entombed nearby, and Christians have maintained the spot ever since.
The exhibit includes models of the way Christians have venerated the tomb, beginning with a protective wall, later an altar, up to today's interior of the basilica with Bernini's baldachhino, a bronze canopy whose twisted columns are nearly 100 feet high.
Emperor Constantine, who converted the Roman empire to Christianity, ordered a church built on the site in the year 324. The first St. Peter's Basilica was a giant wooden structure. Models and drawings of the early church building are on display alongside drawings and models of the current church.
By the 1500s, the building had deteriorated to the point where a new church was needed. The exhibit chronicles the feats of engineering and architecture required to create the present-day St. Peter's.
One example: Engineers had to devise ways to move an Egyptian obelisk that stood in the way. Romans took the obelisk as a prize from their conquest of Egypt; it stood in the middle of the circus.
The obelisk was moved to the center of the piazza around St. Peter's. A hoist that was used in the move is on display, its thick wooden handles worn smooth during the effort.
"Everything here is a feat of genius, brawn and dedication," said Lawrence Sowinski, director of the museum.
Engineers also devised intricate scaffolding and other building techniques.
Michelangelo designed the basilica with a dome-within-a dome: An eye-pleasing, perfectly round dome on the inside, and a stronger, egg-shaped dome on the outside.
Museum visitors can appreciate this design, and other facets of the dome's construction, by viewing a wooden 1:15 scale model built to Michelangelo's specifications.
Michelangelo ordered many such wooden models of his designs because he knew he would not live long enough to see the building completed. He was 72 in 1546, when Pope Paul III hired him for the job. Construction of the basilica was finished in 1626.
Also on display are photographs of many artworks and rooms in the basilica that were restored over 20 years through contributions from the Knights of Columbus.