Thursday, 23 May 2013

To the bones of St Peter

Exactly one month ago, on Monday 22nd April, we were privileged to visit the "Scavi"- the archaeologically excavated area under St Peter's Basilica- having booked our place on an English language guided tour well in advance back in January via the Vatican website. Our guide was a young Roman lady- an art historian- and we were the only Britons in the group.

The present basilica, as is well-known, was begun by Pope Julius II in 1506- the original basilica, built under Constantine, having become dangerously unstable. Immediately below the floor of the present basilica lie the Vatican Grottoes- the rather exotic name given to what would normally in other churches be termed the crypt- which extends under a large part of the building. It is here that many of the popes lie buried. Work carried out in 1939 for the construction of the tomb of Pope Pius XI revealed part of the Roman burial ground  or Necropolis which had been sealed and buried with the levelling of the site for the building of the basilica in the fourth century. Pope Pius XII authorised excavations which continued throughout the 1940s which revealed several mausolea and, ultimately, both the original grave of St Peter with the original monument over it, dating from the second century, and the loculus into which the bones of St Peter were later- presumably when the basilica was erected- replaced.

Entry to the Scavi is through a gateway to the south of the colonnade past security and Swiss Guards. Here, in a courtyard on the south side of the basilica, one stands on the site of the ancient Circus of Nero where St Peter was crucified. A tablet set in the paving marks the original site of the obelisk which was placed on the central spine of the circus and which now stands in St Peter's Square. Entering through a couple of rooms in which artefacts found in the excavations are displayed one soon descends through sealing doors to the ancient street level where the feeling of having been taken back through time is palpable and where almost the first sight that greets one is, in fact, a street!

The "houses" that line this street are in fact mausolea or tombs- despite looking from the outside very like houses of brick or stone in which the living might dwell. Inside they are decorated - mainly with fresco work but are also some mosaic work and as well as terracotta mouldings and the tombs served to house both burials (inhumation) and urns of ashes from cremation. The remarkable preservation is due to the siting of the basilica and the decision to raise the level of this part of the site in order to provide the foundations.

The Necropolis was on the southern slope of the Vatican hill along the northern boundary of the Circus of Nero. Following his martyrdom the body of St Peter was buried in a simple earthen grave on what was, at this stage, an undeveloped site. During the Second century the necropolis developed as wealthier citizens built tombs in the vicinity. Already at this time a priest named Gaius referred to a "trophy" or monument marking the grave. 
During the second and third centuries more mausolea were built and the Circus fell into disuse. An interesting feature of many of these edifices may be seen in the inscriptions announcing the will of the owner carrying information about who- generally other members of the family- the tombs are for. In some of these texts reference is made to the location "on the Vatican hill next to the Circus". During this period both cremation and inhumation were practised with an increasing tendency toward the latter as time went on. The occupants of the excavated part of the Necropolis appear to have been mostly pagan but one later mausoleum displays Christian imagery- an adapted image of Apollo as the Sun but with cruciform nimbus- is seen in a ceiling mosaic. Oddly enough, although I had long been familiar with this image through photographs, I was quite unprepared for its beauty and the sight of it was one of those rare occasions where I found my breath quite taken away by a sheer vision of loveliness. Unfortunately, from my point of view, one is not allowed to take photographs in the Scavi. By the time one sees the mausoleum with this mosaic the Apostle's tomb is quite close at hand.

Constantine's decision to close the Necropolis and erect the basilica was of profound significance implying both immense political will and extraordinary material resources. From the outset the intention was clearly to raise the altar of the basilica over Saint Peter's grave. Given the  grave's location with the surrounding necropolis and the fact of the Vatican Hill's falling away to the south it was deemed necessary to level the entire area. The roofs of the mausolea were removed and the site packed with earth and rubble. The walls of the mausolea were left in situ and additional walls strategically inserted as retaining structures for the massive infilling. The result for posterity of this infilling of this city of the dead may, I think, be compared to that of the ash of Vesuvius upon the city of the living Pompeiians with everything preserved snapshot-like at the moment of destruction. An additional benefit here is that excavation did not begin until modern archaeological techniques were available in the twentieth century. 

The experience of walking along the street of the Necropolis is barely like anything else I have experienced. From the light of mid-afternoon we had descended into a sort of night-time world- an ancient Roman street with modern, if subdued, lighting. One might make visual comparisons with a stage- or film-set because one looks up above the lighting and the rough top edges of the buildings to a "floating" hard reinforced concrete ceiling which is the base of the current floor of the Vatican Grottos. 

The tour lasts about an hour and a half and initially I found myself champing at the bit somewhat. I was eager to get to the relics of Saint Peter and we seemed to be spending rather a lot of time on the preliminaries. Guides do like to talk! Nevertheless it was absorbing and when we arrived in the area next to St Peter's tomb the site had been well and truly contextualised.

When Pope Pius XII  authorised the excavation the area around St Peter's tomb  had been initially excluded. A subsequent campaign involved the area around and underneath the tomb. It is possible to see a column from the original "trophy" referred to by Gaius and, through a small hole broken through into the loculus into which the bones were raised at the time of Constantine, some of the bones. These, following the excavation, were replaced in what I take to be perspex containers. Above this I think it is possible to see part of the base of the altar erected at the time of Pope St Gregory the Great- but I was unable to make out that particular structure. I do, however have a vivid recollection of seeing a clear part of the polished white marble facing of the altar erected over this by Pope Callixtus II in the twelfth century.

I should have liked longer to make out these several layers of masonry from the grave at bottom, to  the trophy of Gaius, the Constantinian loculus, the base of the altar of Gregory the Great and the altar of Callixtus II but it was nevertheless clear how this one small area had been repeatedly overbuilt with increasing grandeur for above those mentioned came the present altar, Bernini's baldacchino and Michelangelo's dome.

 All this honours the little spot of earth where the Fisherman's bones were laid after his ignominious death in the adjacent circus. And our guide pointed out an interesting fact. Most Christian churches are oriented, that is with the altar towards the eastern end but in St Peter's the altar is towards the west. This, she told us, is because the alignment of St Peter's burial followed Jewish custom and the basilica  follows the alignment of his burial. And the same is also true of other papal basilicas.

All too soon our visit was coming to an end.

We left the Scavi through the Vatican Grottos pausing at the Confession where the outer "casing" of the tomb is marked by an icon of Christ and the niche of the pallia. Here it is that, close to the Apostle's bones, the pallia rest before the pope gives them to metropolitan archbishops as a symbol of their union with the apostolic see.

It is an enormous privilege to be able to visit that holy spot and to catch a glimpse of St Peter's bones as I did on that afternoon. Given the way the world has changed even since my last visit to Rome in 2000 I can only marvel and wonder how much longer the opportunity will be available with such ease to ordinary pilgrims like myself. Thirteen years ago I was able to simply saunter into St Peter's Basilica unhindered to a mass and a Papal appearance. Now one has to queue and pass through security metal detectors and baggage X-rays simply to enter the Square.


  1. That's now on my bucket list. Thanks P.

  2. Don't miss it, Richard! I'd advise go sooner rather than later.