Carolina is kind of a nerd, interested in history, art, science and entertainment and how travel is interwoven with all of them. For Carolina, travel is a reponsibility in the sense that when we travel, we become better people and we bring new knowledge to our own communities, we become multipliers of tolerance and compassion.
So here's my final post of this three-part series about the Vatican Necropolis under Saint Peter's Basilica and the Tomb of Saint Peter. In the first article we covered some generalities and the historical background for Saint Peter's Basilica. In the second article we went one by one through the mausoleums in the Vatican Necropolis tour, explaining each major highlight. Today we finally reach St Peter's Tomb!
Peter was one of Twelve Apostles who accompanied Jesus. After Jesus' death, Peter led the founding the Christian church and became the first pope. 30 years after Jesus' death Peter was killed during the persecution of Christians by emperor Nero (as I discussed in the first article).
Here's an elevation view of the mausoleums we visited in the last article. We started from right to left of this diagram (east to west) going up the slope of the Vatican Hill. (Illustration by Father José Antonio Iñiguez)
You also need to understand the following drawing: Three levels of St Peter's Basilica. (Illustration by Fabbrica of Saint Peter's)
Saint Peter's Basilica has three levels. Level 1: The present Basilica in black. Level 2: The Papal Grottoes in magenta. Level 3: The Vatican Necropolis in blue. The floorplan we used in the second article is the blue portion of this cross-section drawing. The drawing in the previous paragraph is also the blue portion. Can you see it?
Watch this 4-minute video about how the Tomb of St Peter went from a simple burial on the ground, to a revered shrine just before emperor Constantine I decided to build his huge basilica around it. It's very important that you watch this video before moving on, because it explains what we will be seeing and the terminology.
I will be using different views of the same place to explain what we are actually seeing. Last time we were in Mausoleum S and I'd told it was mostly filled by the foundations for Bernini's Baldaquino At this point in the tour you're in a corridor outside of Mausoleum S on its south side, not actually in it:
Here's what you see: Composite view of the corridor next to Mausoleum S from the 3D virtual tour of the Vatican Necropolis at www.vatican.va
Here's a closer look at the remains of original Tomb of St Peter. (Photo by Blanca & Ian's Travels, http://members.rennlist.com/imcarthur/roma.htm)
You are seeing the underground tomb as it looks today, from the south side. This area is under the Trophy of Gaius. Here's another view: Side view of the original Tomb of St Peter. (Photo via saintpetersbasilica.org)
Then you go through the door on your left and encounter the Clivus!
This is what you'll see: Composite view of the Clivus (Red Wall on the right) from the 3D virtual tour of the Vatican Necropolis at www.vatican.va
Here's a reconstruction drawing of the Clivus (Photo via saintpetersbasilica.org)
Next, you go up a flight of stairs. You are now on the second level, the Papal Grottoes level.
Number 20 is the Clivus, see Mausoleum S on its right? Where we are now is not visible because we're on the south side just above the Clivus, just outside of the Clementine Chapel (number 6) which I've highlighted in red here.
We need a floorplan of the second level, the Papal Grottoes level:
But before going any further, let's see another little bit of history...
In the last part of the video above, we saw that Gaius Trophy was protected by two adjacent walls perpendicular to the Red Wall, walls S and G, with wall G being the thickest. In this model we can see wall G on the right side of the Trophy. The transparent structures above represent the bases of Bernini's Baldaquino. (Photo by Fabbrica of Saint Peter)
Constantine encased the Trophy of Gaius in a marble enclosure to protect it, discarding the top part of the monument. The marble box had porphyry vertical decorations, with white and blue marble as the main body, like we see in this model of the marble box of Constantine for the Tomb of St Peter. (Photo via http://mcsmith.blogs.com)
Model of the marble box (back) of Constantine for the Tomb of St Peter. (Photo via mcsmith.blogs.com)
This monument from Constantine was covered by its own canopy called the Memoria. After Constantine, three different Popes made changes to the altar, the first being Gregory I (590–604) who wanted to perform mass on top of Constantine's monument and the tomb itself and for that, he raised the floor. Model of Gregory I's altar on top of the Tomb of St Peter. (Photo via mcsmith.blogs.com)
He also made it possible to visit Saint Peter's tomb from behind and so he made a small altar behind it. Later on Pope Callixtus II (1123) had another altar covering the one from Pope Gregory. And finally Pope Clement VIII (1594) had the present altar built on top of the others. Here's an image from the Virtual 360° tour of the Vatican Necropolis that shows us the different altars and an excavation image that shows us Gregory's small altar still in place on what is now the Clementine Chapel. Papal Altars Tomb of St Peter. (Photo via vatican.va)
Here is the same image, with a montage of the Trophy as it's positioned from this point of view. Can you see the small marble column? That's the left column of the Trophy of Gaius. (Composite view of the south side of the Trophy with montage with image from the Rai video Secrets of a Basilica - Part 2 - The Grave and the Virtual 360° tour of the Vatican Necropolis)
The marble portion on top of it is part of Constantine's Memoria, the marble box in which the Trophy was encased. Here's another view:
This is what you'll see: (Photo via mcsmith.blogs.com)
See what's behind the circles lattice? It's the back of Constantine's Memoria (which has been reconstructed) with its central vertical porphyry stripe. Here's another look:
Next you'll be asked to go across the Chapel through another door on the west side. Remember wall G? Here's a rotation of the model:
What you are looking at now is wall G, the Graffiti Wall, which is named after all the graffiti that people throughout the centuries carved on its surface to let others know that they were there. Here's what you see: North side wall G, Graffiti Wall, Tomb of St Peter. (Composite from Virtual 360° tour of the Vatican Necropolis)
But there's more... At the time of Constantine a niche was carved inside wall G and some bones were preserved there in royal purple and gold fabric wrappings. They remained inside the niche until the excavations in 1941 when they were taken to a nearby location up to 1953. At that time Professor Margherita Guarducci had the bones examined. The studies revealed that they belonged to a robust man, approximately 60 to 70 years of age. Earth incrusted in the bones confirmed that they were previously buried in the ground. These facts and the expensive wrappings are another indication that these are likely to be the bones of Saint Peter. In 1968 Pope Paul VI announced that the bones of Saint Peter had been discovered. The bones were placed in 19 plexiglass containers, ten of which are inside the niche in wall G, as you can see in the image above.
Another indication that archaeologists believe points to this being the real tomb of the Apostle Peter is an inscription in a tiny piece of stone that fell from the Red Wall which is believed to have said “Petros eni” which means “Peter is here”
Once you've seen the graffiti wall and the bones, you'll go back to the Clementine Chapel, and this is the tricky part: If you've done your homework beforehand you'll recognize that behind the altar inside the Clementine Chapel is actually Gaius Trophy partially covered by the monument of Constantine I. I appreciated that our guide was pretty honest about the certainty with which the church affirms that these are Saint Peter's bones. She never said they were. She said, "archaeological and circumstantial evidence point to this fact and Christians choose to believe that they are real."
Back inside the Clementine Chapel you'll exit from the back through an iron gate. The guide will close the gate behind you and you can't go back. Then you will be escorted towards the Grottoes and you'll pass in front of the Confessio on the level of Constantine's Basilica. This is what you see through glass doors:
People are not allowed access to the Confessio. The small doors on the front are closed. Notice the columns of Bernini's Baldaquino on the upper part of the picture. Here's a closer view:
The center piece, with the mosaic is the Niche of the Pallia, "Pallia" being the white stoles priests wear around their necks. Notice how the niche is a bit off-center? If you look closely to the two following diagrams (though dimensions do not match between them), you'll see the Niche of the Pallia is actually part of Gaius Trophy. (Photo via saintpetersbasilica.org)
That's right, Gaius Trophy is right behind the mosaic veneer and marble covering. When you look down to the Confessio from the Basilica, you are actually seeing the ancient monument that stood on top of the Apostle's grave. Here's a final video explaining this in a very easy way:
In my first article in this series I covered the generalities and historic background of the Vatican Necropolis. (Go back and read itif you haven't, I'll wait.) In this second post I'll cover the mausoleums in the underground tour under Saint Peter's Basilica, one by one with the its highlights. I hope this compendium will bring us closer to the people who built these tombs, the care they poured into these family spaces commissioning the decoration and the architecture, the dedication and the sentiment in making these the best place possible for their dead.
And ultimately, let us go back in time in a walk up the Vatican Hill, to finally reach the tomb of Saint Peter, Jesus' right hand man.
According to the Open University’s course about ancient Roman funerary monuments family was important for the ancient Romans. One way to preserve the name of the family was to build a family tomb. Though most Romans could not afford one, many built them for their nuclear family of husband, wife and children. Poor Romans would be buried in mass graves or small tombs marked on the ground with modest markers o amphorae.
The size, extent of decoration and inclusion of architectural elements had a direct relation to the social status of the family. During the first century AD the deceased were cremated and their remains put into containers or urns that were placed in small niches (columbarium) inside the family tomb I will be using a Vatican Necropolis floorplan along the way, so that you know exactly where you are. Here we go!
This is where the tour starts. The mausoleum of Caius Polilius Heracla contains a tablet in which the existence of the nearby arena (Nero’s circus) is mentioned. Tablet from Mausoleum A. From 'The Tomb of St. Peter' by Margherita Guarducci, Hawthorn. 1960
It belonged to Fannia Redempta, the wife of Aurelius Hermes, a freeman of the Augusti family who highlights his wife as "incomparable." The walls have niches where the ashes were stored in urns, which indicate a pagan (different from the main religions of the world) burial. The painting on the vault is of a "Sun Chariot" accompanied by figures of the seasons. The rest of the tomb is decorated with paintings of flowers and animals.
This is the tomb of L. Tullius Zethus. The L preceding the name implies he was a freed slave or his father had been. He must’ve done pretty well for himself since this tomb is one of the most ornate with wall decorations and mosaic floor. Two marble urns were added at a later period. The tomb has niches for urns and two arcosolia (a recess on the wall in the form of an arc, used as grave).
We don’t know who it belonged to. It’s called Mausoleum of the opus reticulatum, named after the pattern in which the bricks have been placed.
This is the tomb of T. Aelius Tyrannus, a freedman who worked in public office. The most notable elements of this tomb are two alabaster containers, one with a Medusa carving and the stucco paintings on the walls.
As with other tombs there are niches and arcosolia… but observe also the staircase that was used to go up to and down from the upper room which was used for the “refrigerio” a rite in which family accompanied the deceased in a sort of feast. The family go down to the inner burial room to pour libations (offerings of food and wine) through holes on the floor, to feed the deceased.
Interior of Mausoleum E with alabaster containers. Photo: Blanca & Ian's Travels
The first to be discovered in 1939, this is the tomb of the Tulli and the Caetenni as it is stated on the altar that stands in the middle of the mausoleum. This is a pagan tomb with some Christian symbolism. The woman mentioned in the altar is Emilia Gorgonia, and her husband mentions her beauty and goodness. The holes for the libations are visible on the right side of the floor. Romans held funeral banquets in which wine and food were poured inside these holes, for the deceased to be fed.
The Tomb of the Teacher is named after the painting in the back wall depicting an old man with a scroll, in front of a younger man. It is most likely an administrator and a servant, though the first people who saw the tomb interpreted the painting as a teaching and his student. The ceiling depicts beautiful paintings of animals, garlands and geometric figures. Can you imagine the artist painting these figures with so much care and attention?
The Tomb of the Valerii is the most luxurious of all the tombs. It belonged to Valerius Philumenus and Valeria Galatia who gave permission to several members of their family and some friends, to use this mausoleum. Several marble portraits (including some children) were found in it. See a couple of them on the bottom-right corner of this picture?
The Tomb of the Chariot from the quadriga figre in the mosaic floor that depicts the rape of Persephone by Pluto on a chariot driven by Mercury. The fresco paintings depict birds, a peacock (a symbol of afterlife), ducks, doves and floral designs.
The tomb of the Julii or "Cristo Sole", Christ the Sun or the Christan Mausoleum. This tomb was built by the parents of Julius Tarpeianus. Even though the shape and some elements of the tomb are pagan, the mosaics are Christians depicting a scene of Jonah being eaten by the whale and a scene of a fisherman.
The tomb of Aebutius also bears the name of "Clodius Romanus". His mother calls him her "most gentle son" on the epitaph of the urn.
A reduced tomb, you can only see a small detail of a painted “light-bearer”.
The Tomb of Trebellena Flaccilla is decorated with delicate painting of birds and flowers. There’s also a detail of a dolphin.
This tomb has been largely occupied by the foundations to Bernini’s Baldaquino (the canopy above). Mausoleum S is very important because it’s located on the south of Field P and beyond it, there’s a small corridor called the “Clivus” that runs from south to north meeting the “Red Wall” at the northeast side. You need to remember these three terms for the next post, because here, we are entering the Tomb of Saint Peter itself. But for that, we need an even more thorough explanation.
By now we have walked up the slope of the Vatican Hill, south to north, going through the remains of a cemetery for wealthy Romans. We have imagined how they remembered their dead and how they celebrated life with their rituals and the ornate decorations that cemented their family tomb. Have you ever visited other Roman cemeteries? What was the experience like? How do they relate to the way we see death now and our own rituals?
I am not proud to say that I used to assume that Saint Peter's Basilica was just the biggest church in Christendom, the pilgrimage and gathering place of all Catholics in the world. What I didn’t know is that not only it is actually one of the most incredible examples of Late Renaissance architecture and Baroque art anywhere, but it is also a place that holds an unexpected secret... Underneath it you can find the Vatican Necropolis, a first century necropolis (city of the dead) -- basically a roman cemetery where the actual Tomb of Saint Peter is believed to remain, still today.
Can you imagine stepping on actual Roman soil this is 2000 years old? Knowing that along these corridors (antique streets) the first Christians walked and worshiped in a complete act of faith on what would become one of the most important religions of the planet is an overwhelming feeling.
As Rick Steves recommends when visiting the Vatican: “Leave your —religion here— hat at the door and enter the magnificence of one of the most impressive and significant holy places in the world”. You don't need to be a catholic to appreciate this fabulous site.
When thinking about the Vatican Necropolis under Saint Peter's Basilica it became clear that the topic was so amazingly interesting, it's going to need three posts to cover it. There are three key aspects which I will convey:
In any case, after thorough research I can honestly tell you not to go anywhere else, these three posts are your best resource online to understand the site from a visitor point of view! Why do you need them? Because when I went and ended my visit to the Vatican Necropolis (also known as the "Scavi") and I left Saint Peter’s Basilica for the first time, I was kind of confused about what I actually had been shown. My feeling is that some of you may have experienced the same. I hadn't done my homework. But fret no more, I'm here to do your homework for you and make it all clear! Let's start with...
During the year 64 AD when crazy maniac Nero was emperor of Rome a great fire occurred that destroyed a large area of the city. Many blamed the fire on Nero himself (who later built his Golden House over the destroyed area, hmmm, kind of suspicious, right?) who in turn blamed it on the Christians. According to ancient historians, Nero started persecuting Christians to diffuse attention off him. The Apostles Peter and Paul who were in Rome at the time, were executed in the circus building (a very long race track with bleachers that could accommodate thousands of spectators, originally built by Calligula and used for horse races and shows) on the Vatican Hill. The obelisk brought from Egypt that we see today in the middle of Piazza San Pietro used to be at the center of the circus. It was moved to its current location in 1586 and remains here as a "witness" to Peter's martyrdom.
Peter famously requested to be crucified upside down, since he thought he didn't deserve dying in the same manner as Jesus. Traditionally, it is believed that his body was buried just outside the circus, where a Roman cemetery stood. His grave is said to have been marked by a red stone, symbolic only to Christians. After Peter's death, Christians began to gather at this place to venerate the Apostle. Some years later, a temple-entrance-shaped shrine (known as the “trophy”) was built
A letter sent in 120 AD by a priest by the name of Gaius is the first written record that states that Peter’s remains were indeed in the Necropolis next to the circus. In 319 AD, after converting to Christianism, emperor Constantine I erected the first Saint Peter's Basilica, on top of Saint Peter's original burial site, considering the holiness of this place.
In the 16th century Old Saint Peter's Basilica was dismantled to make way for the construction of the current church. In 1939 Pope Pius XI sponsored the archaeological excavations allegedly because he wanted to be buried as close as possible to Peter the Apostle. This is how the Vatican Necropolis was revealed.
The Vatican Necropolis is very much like other necropolis in Rome such as the ones in Ostia Antica and >Isola Sacra, though smaller. In this diagram you can see the plan of the current Basilica, the plan of the old basilica, Nero's circus, and adjacent to it the Necropolis, right under the center of the current Basilica.
The circus ran next to a road called Via Cornelia. The Vatican Necropolis was on the other side of the road. When Constantine started to build Old Saint Peter's, he recognized the holy place of the Apostle’s tomb and decided to build the high altar on top of it, filling the rest of the Necropolis with dirt. Old Saint Peter's had a courtyard in front of it, and even though it was massive, as you can see in the diagram, it was smaller than Current Saint Peter's Basilica. Here's a more detailed plan of the Necropolis in relation to the basilicas, see the Vatican Necropolis plan in red, the current grottoes (tombs of Popes) in green, the plan of current Saint Peter's Basilica in purple and Old Saint Peter's in blue
Here's a 25-second video showing the depiction of an artist of how this site might have looked during the first and second centuries AD. Though it's not very precise, it does provide an idea of how big these monuments were.
You get assigned a guide that will give you a tour first of the Necropolis itself, going through all the Roman tombs and finishing with a kind of confusing look at the Tomb of Saint Peter. You cannot actually enter the mausoleums, you see each through thick glass at the door. The tour goes through nearly fifteen mausoleums making its way up the hill before finally reaching the site of Saint Peter's burial. The Vatican Necropolis (remember that it's also called the "Scavi") is completely underground, the space is small and confined, dimly lit and a bit humid so one needs to remember that the ceiling of the Necropolis would actually have been open to the sky. Also, I wouldn't recommend this tour for people who suffer from claustrophobia, though I can assure you, the place has proper ventilation. You need to play close attention to what the guide is telling you, since this is a sacred place, they won't raise their voice too much and you are expected to maintain the appropriate reverence as well. The guide will generally advise you to hold questions until the end of the tour, which is a pain because as I've said, if you haven't researched beforehand you are going to miss out on a lot of this great experience. Here's a fantastic 10-minute video that explains further the generalities of the Basilicas and the Necropolis.
In the next post I'm going to let you know about each of the mausoleums, how they're laid out and what you'll see, the touching decorations and the very interesting early Christian mausoleum, halfway between a pagan burial and a fully Christian tomb. I will also share the practicalities for your visit. In the final post, we'll uncover the confusing passageways surrounding the Tomb of Saint Peter and I'll show you exactly where and what to look for in order to recognize just where Peter is buried. Look forward to those during the week! Have you visited the Vatican Necropolis? What was your experience? What did you feel? Could you relate to these people from ancient time and their remembrance of their dead?