from issue no. 10 - 2008

The tombs of the apostles

Saint Peter

The disciple who learned humility

by Lorenzo Bianchi

Saint Peter

Saint Peter

“In the grottos of the Vatican Basilica lie the foundations of our faith. The final conclusion of the works and the studies declares a clear yes: the tomb of the Prince of the apostles has been found again”. Thus Pope Pius XII made the announcement, at the closure of the 1950 Jubilee, of the identification of Peter’s tomb, attested for that matter by a very early and unanimous tradition. The burial place is first mentioned in the words of the presbyter Gaius, in the years of the pontificate of Pope Zephirinus, from 198 to 217: “I can show you the trophies of the apostles [Peter and Paul]. If you would like to go to the Vatican or on the way to Ostia, you will find the trophies of those who founded this Church [of Rome]” (in Eusebius of Caesarea, Ecclesiastical History, II, 25). What is the “trophy”? Not just a structure, as has often been said in simplification, but, in the proper sense, the body of the martyr: this, properly speaking, is the “trophy of victory”. In that same period, the martyrdom of Peter was attested by Tertullian, who around 200 writes (cf. The prescription against the heretics, 36) that the pre-eminence of Rome is linked to the fact that three apostles, Peter, Paul and John, taught there and the first two died as martyrs there. But earlier still the martyrdom is attested by Clement Romanus, in the first letter to the Corinthians (5-6) datable maybe to 96: “Let us consider the good apostles: Peter, who because of unfair jealousy bore not one nor two but many tribulations, and so, after giving witness, set off toward the deserved place of glory. ... Around these men [Peter and Paul] who acted piously gathered a great crowd of the elect, who, after having suffered much reviling and torments because of jealousy, became very splendid examples amongst us”. Clement writes from Rome and the context of the letter refers to events that had taken place in Rome: the Roman martyrs “amongst us” of Nero’s persecution, to whom the last phrase quoted refers, are assimilated to Peter and Paul. Peter died in fact in Nero’s gardens by the Vatican along with a great multitude of Christians, in the persecution instigated by the emperor after the fire that broke out on 19 July of 64 and destroyed a large area of Rome. According to the most recent and accepted studies, Peter’s martyrdom must be dated precisely to 64, even if the tradition deriving from Jerome sets it in 67 together with that of Paul. (It was in keeping with this latter tradition that in early times another tradition, that of the imprisonment of the two apostles in the Mamertine Prison also developed, and of their last meeting, before martyrdom, on the Via Ostiense not far out of the city). The martyrdom of the first Christians of Rome has come down to us in the words of the Roman historian Tacitus: “So, the first to be arrested were those who made open confession of that belief [in the Resurrection of Christ], then, following denunciation by these, a great multitude was arrested, not so much on the accusation of having caused the fire, as of hatred against mankind. And on those who died scorn was also inflicted, so that, garbed in animal skins, they perished torn to pieces by dogs, or hung on crosses and doomed to the flames and burned alive, at the setting of the sun, as torches for the night. Nero had made his gardens available for the spectacle, and ordained circus games, joining in the crowd dressed as a charioteer or standing in the chariot. Thereby, albeit they were guilty people and merited those exemplary torments, a feeling of pity was stirred, because they were sacrificed not for the common good, but to the cruelty of a single man” (Annals, XV, 44, 4-5).
In the second decade of the 4th century the emperor Constantine enclosed Peter’s burial place (a grave in the bare earth, dug near the circus that marked the northern limit of Nero’s gardens) within a masonry monument and afterward, in about 320, built a basilica around it. To do this he did not exploit, as would have been obvious and offered greater guarantee of stabilty for the new construction, the flat space between the Janiculum and the Vatican hills that had been occupied by the circus, but engaged in grandiose engineering works to make a vast artful platform, on the one hand excavating the slopes of the Vatican hill, on the other burying and using as foundation the structures of a necropolis that had spread along the northern side of the circus between the 1st and 4th centuries. He wanted in fact as fulcrum of the basilica, at the intersection between the central nave and the transept, precisely the monument enclosing the apostle’s tomb. That is why the axis of Constantine’s building does not match, as would have been easier, that of the necropolis and the circus. It ran in about the same direction, but some little distance away, because it was determined with absolute precision by the orientation of the memorial to Peter. Since then the apostle’s burial place has been not only the center of attraction, but also the hub of everything that has developed around it over the course of the centuries, from the tombs of the first Christian believers, to the quarters for pilgrims in the early Middle Ages, to the streets, to the walls of the civitas Leoniana built after the sack by the Saracens in 846, up to the modern district of the Borgo. Even the construction of the new Basilica, founded by Pope Julius II on 18 April 1506, though it involved the demolition of Constantine’s building and the medieval additions, rigorously respected the centrality of Peter’s burial place: the present high altar, that goes back to Pope Clement VIII (1594), stands exactly above the medieval one of Pope Callixtus II (1123), which in turn enclosed the first altar of Pope Gregory the Great (around 590), built on Constantine’s monument safeguarding Peter’s tomb. And the point of Michelangelo’s dome soars exactly perpendicular above it.
Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican seen from the edge of the Janiculum hill, in antiquity contained within Nero’s gardens where the martyrdoms of Christians in Rome following the outbreak of the fire on 19 July  64 took place

Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican seen from the edge of the Janiculum hill, in antiquity contained within Nero’s gardens where the martyrdoms of Christians in Rome following the outbreak of the fire on 19 July 64 took place

Between 1939 and 1949, by the wish of Pius XII, an archaeological excavation was conducted under the high altar of the Vatican Basilica by four scholars of archaeology, architecture and the history of art – Bruno Maria Apollonj Ghetti, Father Antonio Ferrua S.J., Enrico Josi, Father Engelbert Kirschbaum S.J. – under the direction of Monsignor Ludwig Kaas, secretary of the Reverend Fabric of Saint Peter’s. The initial find was Constantine’s monument, a parallelepiped around three meters tall, faced with Phrygian marble and porphyry. The front of this monument had an opening that coincides with the present Nicchia dei Palli, in the Vatican Grottos; the back, partially uncovered, can still be seen behind the altar of the Clementine chapel. By digging along the sides of Constantine’s monument, they succeeded in finding Peter’s tomb underneath it. A small aedicule appeared consisting of a table supported by two small marble pillars, propped against a plastered red-painted wall (the so-called “red wall”) in correspondence with a niche. On the floor in front of the niche, below a slab, there was a tomb in the bare earth. The aedicule, dating from the 2nd century, was immediately identified with the “trophy of Gaius”. But the tomb itself was empty.
Pius XII, as mentioned above, made the announcement of the discovery. A certain time after the end of the excavations and the publication of the findings, a second phase of investigation began. Constantine’s monument had also enclosed another structure close to the aedicule, a low wall perpendicular to the “red wall”. This wall was designated “wall g”, that is wall of graffiti, because a multitude of graffiti were superimposed one on top of another on the wall opposite the aedicule. Inside the wall in early times, certainly after the scratching of the graffiti and before the definitive arrangement of Constantine’s monument, there was a parallelepiped loculus, lined with marble on the bottom and, up to a certain height, on the four sides, one of which, the west one, ended at the “red wall”. This loculus had already been noted during the dig in November 1941, before excavation in the earth down to the lower tomb, but its importance had not immediately been grasped. According to the later reconstruction by the archaeologist Margherita Guarducci, it had been emptied of much of the material it contained, so much so that on the day following the discovery one of the diggers, Father Antonio Ferrua, had seen it empty. It is clear that, as became known several years after the completion and the publication of the findings, that a most important epigraphical document originated there, a minute fragment 3.2 x 5.8 cm of red plaster, fallen there from the adjacent “red wall”, with the graffito, in Greek, “PETR (Oc) ENI”, that is “Peter is here”, as Guarducci read it. Her research, conducted between 1952 and 1965, led to the deciphering of the graffiti, on “wall g” (the one containing the loculus), which turned out to be a multitude of invocations to Christ, Mary and Peter, superimposed and combined together. And her work also led, after complex and detailed research conducted with scholarly rigor, to the conclusion that what had been contained in the loculus were Peter’s remains, transferred there from the lower first tomb dug in the earth before Constantine began his building work. Found in a box in the Vatican Grottos, where they had been deposited by whoever years before had taken them from the loculus, the remains, after analysis, turned out to belong to a single long-lived man of robust constitution. They were crusted with earth and showed they had been wrapped in cloth of purple-colored wool threaded with gold. There were fragments of all the bones of the body except for any minimal trace of the bones of the feet. This is a very odd detail that cannot fail to bring to mind the manner (and the results on the body, i.e. the cutting off of the feet) of crucifixion inverso capite (head down), spoken of by an ancient tradition testifying to Peter’s humility. A circumstance, this, perfectly in line with what is historically known: the Roman custom, that is, of making a spectacle out of executions for the pleasure of the plebs. Since the dead had no right to be buried their bodies were left to lie where they had died. That is what happened to Peter, killed amidst so many others and buried in the humble earth – probably in haste, in the nearest place possible – that is, when one could recover the body.
The crucifixion <I>inverso capite</I> of Peter, between the Janiculum and Vatican hills, Sancta Sanctorum, 
circa 1277-1280, Rome

The crucifixion inverso capite of Peter, between the Janiculum and Vatican hills, Sancta Sanctorum, circa 1277-1280, Rome

The remains identified by Margherita Guarducci as those of Peter were recognized as such by Pope Paul VI, who on 26 June 1968, harking back to the words pronounced by Pope Pius XII in 1950, made the announcement during the public audience in the Vatican Basilica: “New most patient and careful research was later undertaken with results that we, backed by the judgment of valid and cautious experts, believe to be positive: the relics of Saint Peter have been identified in a way that we can retain convincing, and we praise those who have engaged in attentive research and spent long and great effort on it. Research, investigation, discussions and argument will not thereby end. But for us it seems a duty in the present state of the archaeological and scholarly conclusions to give you and the Church this happy announcement, obliged as we are to venerate sacred relics, supported by serious evidence of their authenticity... and in the present case we must be all the more dutiful and exultant when we have reason to hold that the few, but sacrosanct mortal remains of the Prince of the Apostles have been found”. The following day the relics (with the exception of nine fragments requested by the Pope and preserved in his private chapel) were replaced in the “wall g” repository. In the last few years they have been again put on display to the faithful.
In speaking of the places in Rome connected with Peter it is also worth mentioning the epigraph of Pope Damasus (366-384) in the

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