The Holy Door of Saint Peter’s Basilica is opened by the Pope only at the beginning of a Jubilee Year. It is usually the first door to be opened to indicate the beginning of the Holy Year. This first evidence of the rite happening in St Peter’s was in the year 1500 during the papacy of Alexander VI. Nowadays, the wall sealing up the door is dismantled a few days ahead of the ceremony. During this operation, a casket, which had been bricked over since the end of the previous Holy Year, is extracted, and inside is the key which allows the door to be opened. The Pope pushes the door open in a symbolic manner during the opening ceremony. For safety reasons, the use by the Pope of a hammer to dislodge the bricks which had been used to seal up the door at its closure at the end of the previous Holy Year has been abandoned.
From this moment on, the Holy Door remains open throughout the Jubilee Year to allow pilgrims to enter. With this opening of the Holy Door, those who come to Rome can live fully the Jubilee experience and obtain the Jubilee indulgence but are also able to experience a deeper meaning, namely that their path of conversion has arrived at the final stage – the encounter with Christ, the “door” who unites us with the Father. The door is always open to those who convert their lives.
In 1949 a competition was held for the design of a new Jubilee Door which was to be used for the great Holy Year of 1950. This competition was won by the sculptor Vico Consorti, who completed the work in 11 months, in time to have it inaugurated on Christmas Eve 1949.
The new door was a gift to Pope Pius XII from Francesco Von Streng, the Bishop of Lugano and Basel in Switzerland and his community, as an expression of gratitude to the Lord for having spared their homeland from the horrors of the Second World War.
The theme followed by the artist in creating the panels for the Holy Door, came from the words of the Pope: "Grant, O Lord, that this Holy Year be the year of the great return and great forgiveness".
The door’s sculptural cycle narrates the story of mankind in 16 panels from "Sin and the Expulsion from the Earthly Paradise", to the apparitions of the risen Christ to Thomas and to the assembled Apostles. The image of Christ as the door of salvation is featured on the last panel.