Is it really the Tomb of Saint Peter under Saint Peter's Basilica?

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Saint Peter the Apostle

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!

Who Was Saint Peter?

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).

What we saw last time...

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)

Elevation Vatican Necropolis

You also need to understand the following drawing: Three levels of St Peter's Basilica. (Illustration by Fabbrica of Saint Peter's)

Three levels of St Peter's Basilica in Vatican City

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?

How did the tomb of Saint Peter come to be?

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.

Video finished? Okay, let's resume our tour...

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:

Mausoleum S at the Vatican Necropolis

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

Composite view of the corridor next to Mausoleum S from the 3D virtual tour of the Vatican Necropolis

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)

Remains of original Tomb of St Peter under Saint Peter's Basilica in Vatican City

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)

Side view of the original Tomb of St Peter in Vatican City

Then you go through the door on your left and encounter the Clivus!

Floorplan of the Clivus at the Vatican Necropolis

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

Composite view of the Clivus from the 3D virtual tour of the Vatican Necropolis

Here's a reconstruction drawing of the Clivus (Photo via saintpetersbasilica.org)

Reconstruction drawing of the Clivus at the Vatican Necropolis

Let's proceed upstairs...

Next, you go up a flight of stairs. You are now on the second level, the Papal Grottoes level.

Section detail of the Clementine Chapel in Vatican City

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:

Floorplan of the Clementine Chapel in Vatican City

But before going any further, let's see another little bit of history...

The Papal Altars

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)

Model of the Gaius Trophy -- front view

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 of Constantine for the Tomb of St Peter in Vatican City

Model of the marble box (back) of Constantine for the Tomb of St Peter. (Photo via mcsmith.blogs.com)

Model of the marble box (back) of Constantine for the Tomb of St Peter in Vatican City

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)

Model of Gregory I's altar on top of the Tomb of St Peter in Vatican City

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)

Papal Altars Tomb of St Peter in Vatican City

Let's get back to the tour...

Floorplan of the Gaius Trophy room

Composite view of the south side of the Trophy
Composite view of the south side of the Trophy

Composite view of the south side of the Trophy with montage from the Virtual 360° tour of the Vatican Necropolis
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:

Tomb of Saint Peter under Saint Peter's Basilica
Composite image of the south column of the Trophy of Gius fom Rai Video Secrets of a Basilica - Part 2 - The Grave

Next you step into the Clementine Chapel...

Floorplan inside Clementine Chapel in Vatican City

This is what you'll see: (Photo via mcsmith.blogs.com)

Constantine memoria at Clementine Chapel in Vatican City

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:

Clementine Chapel in Vatican City
Photo via Catholic Eye Candy

The Bones Of Saint Peter

Floorplan of the Graffiti Wall at Saint Peter's Basilica in Vatican City

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:

Tomb of Saint Peter under Saint Peter's Basilica
Rotated model of Gaiu Trophy, Tomb of St Peter. Composite picture from Rai Video Secrets of a Basilica - Part 2 - The Grave

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)

St Peter's bones are center left in glass container
Here's another view. See the niche with the bones in the middle left of the image? Those are St Peter's bones center left in glass container. (Photo via Blanca & Ian's Travels)

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.

Detail of the Graffiti Wall with the Chi-Ro at the Tomb of St Peter
Detail of the Graffiti Wall with the Chi-Ro at the Tomb of St Peter

Closer look at the niche in the graffiti wall, on the Tomb of St Peter

The Graffiti Wall at the tomb of Saint Peter under Saint Peter's Basilica
Here's a view of the niche in the Graffiti Wall (G) on the Tomb of St Peter

Model of the niche in the graffiti wall G on the Tomb of St Peter in Vatican City

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

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."

The Confessio And The Niche Of The Pallia

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:

Confessio at Saint Peter's Basilica as seen behind glass doors

Saint Peter's Confessio
Here's the Confessio as seen from the main level of Saint Peter's Basilica (Photo by Franco Cossimo Panini)

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:

Close up of the Confessio at Saint Peter's Basilica in Holy See
Photo via the Maxwell College of Syracuse University.

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)

Front and side diagrams of the Niche of the Pallia

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:

  Visited the Vatican Necropolis? Share your experience!

And if this material was in any way helpful for you, please leave me a comment!

Resources:

Carolina Ayerbe

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.

Website: www.culturaltravelguide.com/

Comments  

0 # Joseph T. Richardson 2012-05-02 20:36
You have no idea how timely this is. Just this week, I picked up The Bones of St. Peter by Walsh, and am completely obsessed with St. Peter's tomb now. And then I find your post of just a few weeks ago with so many helpful links and videos... Thank you.
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