St. Peter’s Basilica– The name itself brings the extravagant image of the world’s most famous church in Christendom that hosts some of the most spectacular jewels of the late Renaissance art!
But apart from being an exceptionally beautiful piece of architecture & the holiest place for the pilgrimage for all the Catholics around the world, this majestic monument holds few most important secrets which, according to the geologists, are the real treasury of this miraculous structure!
This structure hides the great history worth 2000 years in its bowels that complements nicely with it’s equally grandeur appearance! Although, most of the visitors are aware of the presence of the holy relics of the first apostle- St. Peter, invaluable artwork & the grottoes of Popes inside the Basilica, apparently, many of them lack the most crucial information that raises the question, what is actually residing underneath this mammoth structure?
Underneath the St. Peter’s, there exists the remains of the bygone era & the footprints of the first Christians who worshiped & sacrificed themselves in an act of faith in the lord Jesus! It is nothing but the Vatican Necropolis, a first century cemetery belonging to the city of Rome. The actual tomb of St. Peter is believed to be right here even today!
The vastly interesting tale of the Vatican Necropolis & the secrets associated with it cannot be completed without mentioning three crucial points:-
- The history of the Romans at the time of St. Peter’s demise.
- The excavation of the Necropolis.
- The mystery associated with the authentication of the Peter’s tomb.
The History of the Romans:
The great fire of Rome has occurred during the year 64 AD in the reign of Nero, who was the emperor of this great city. Although, Nero was allegedly held responsible for the fire by many people, he himself accused the Christians of being arsonists & soon started persecuting them in order to wash out his own sins.
The apostles Peter & Paul fell prey to the wrath of the insane Nero & were executed in the Nero’s Circus, which was used for horse races & other shows & later on were buried in the Vatican Necropolis, just outside the Circus. Peter was famously crucified upside down upon his request as he thought himself not so worthy of dying in the manner Jesus had died.
The devout Christians, after the burial of Peter, marked that place by erecting a simple crypt in red stone which later on became the place of pilgrimage for the rest of the Christians who started visiting the crypt to venerate the Apostle.
A few years later, a humble temple-entrance shaped shrine, which later became famous as the ‘Gaius Trophy’, a part of which can be found even today, was built. A letter sent by a priest named Gaius is considered as the first ever evidence that depicts the presence of Peter’s relics in the Necropolis.
The year 324 saw the rise of the new dawn in the history of Christendom as the emperor Constantine constructed the first Basilica of St. Peter right above the burial place. However, before constructing the massive Basilica, he flattened the part of the Janiculum Hill, where the Necropolis was residing.
The new Basilica was constructed in the 16th century due to the aging of the over thousand years old Basilica. Pope Pius XI later on in 1939, employed the archeologists to unearth under the Basilica ground in order to locate the actual position of the Apostle’s tomb as the Pope wanted to be buried as close as the great Apostle. The thorough excavation beneath the Basilica unveiled several secrets that were hiding deep for centuries. The Vatican Necropolis is one of such secrets that were revealed during the extensive excavation inside the Basilica.
The Excavation of the Necropolis:
The Vatican Necropolis was based on the Janiculum Hill, just outside Nero’s Circus, right under the center of the current Basilica. A road named ‘Via Cornelia’ used to separate the circus & the Necropolis from each other as the road was present between the two.
Before erecting the Basilica, Constantine firstly flattened the part of the hill, keeping the Peter’s tomb intact & covering the rest of the Necropolis with the debris. The Necropolis, which once upon a time, was open to the free air, thus got buried 10 meters under the ground of the Basilica. Constantine then built the high altar on top of the ‘Gaius Trophy’ to commemorate the first Apostle!
The Mystery of St. Peter’s Tomb:
The ‘Scavi’ tourarranged by the Vatican City officials takes into the bygone age of the Vatican Necropolis which resides completely underground. The tour goes through around fifteen mausoleums & makes it way uphill before stopping at the speculated place of the Peter’s burial right underneath the current location of papal altar.
St. Peter’s Basilica has three levels:-
Level 1: The present Basilica.
Level 2: The Grottoes.
Level 3: The Vatican Necropolis.
The Gaius Trophy, which is believed to be the shrine of the St. Peter is situated right in the Vatican Necropolis. The Trophy was supported by two adjoining walls perpendicular the red wall of the trophy. The wall on the right side was the thickest of two. The shrine was surrounded by a couple of more mausoleums separated by a corridor called as ‘Clivus’ which is still used for visiting other mausoleums present in the Necropolis. Most of the parts of the surrounding mausoleums are filled with the foundation of the Baldacchino. On the 2nd level, i.e. on the level of grottoes, Clementine chapel resides right behind the ‘Confessio’ under the Baldacchino.
Before getting further, we must take a look at a brief history of the development of the Papal Altars.
Constantine had constructed a marble enclosure around the Gaius Trophy in order to protect it from damage discarding the upper part of the trophy. This monument was further covered by using the Constantine canopy called the ‘Memoria’.
Three different Popes made the modifications around the shrine. The first change was made by Gregory I (590-604) who wished to perform mass above the Constantine’s monument for which he elevated the floor. He also made an arrangement to visit the tomb from behind & made a small altar behind it.
Pope Callixtus II (1123) covered the Pope Gregory’s altar by another one & later on, Pope Clement VIII (1594) had added the present altar on top of everything.
Today what we see through the circular trellis above the altar in Clementine chapel is the reconstructed part of the Constantine’s Memorial with the vertical porphyry stripe in its center.
The relics of the St. Peter can be seen by going underground once again at the level of Necropolis. The thick wall perpendicular to the red wall of the shrine can be seen over there which is now called as the ‘Graffiti Wall’ due to the myriad inscription which were found on the surface of this wall.
The same wall has a Constantine period niche carved right in its middle from where some bones preserved in rich purple-gold fabric were recovered during excavations in 1941. Prof. Margeritha Guarducci performed carbon dating of the recovered bones which revealed that the bones were from the 2nd century & belonged to a person, roughly 60-70 years of age. It was also discovered that the bones were buried in the ground once upon a time.
The scientific study & the rich draping around the bones pointed towards the fact that they must be belonging to St. Peter- the Apostle.
Pope Paul VI, in the year 1968, made an announcement that the bones of St. Peter have been recovered which were placed later on in 19 plexiglass boxes. 10 of the boxes are kept back to the place from where they were recovered, i.e. inside the niche in the Graffiti Wall. A piece of red wall which was discovered during the excavation also points towards the authenticity of the Apostle’s tomb as that piece was believed to be read as ‘Petros Eni’ which means ‘Peter is here’ in Greek.
The biggest surprise is yet to appear! The ‘Confessio’ that resides right below the Baldacchino hosts the most important visible portion of the actual Gaius Trophy, which was a true part of the first shrine of the Apostle.
Though, people are not allowed inside the Confessio, one can locate through the glass wall, the ‘Niche of the Pallia’ situate at the center with the Jesus mosaic in the background. ‘Pallia’ are the white woolen bands bearing black crosses which are offered by the Pope to the Bishops.
Closer inspection of the niche reveals that it is bit off-center. Further closer scrutiny of the niche & you will be thrilled by what you are seeing! The niche is actually a part of the holy Gaius Trophy! The Trophy is hiding right behind the mosaic of Jesus & marble casing.
So, all this story thus come to a conclusion as from the entire description, it is now clear that every time we look down to the ‘Confessio’, we see the remains of the first ever shrine of the great Apostle that stood right on top of his place of martyrdom.
The secrets of the St. Peter’s Basilica, thus, finally reveled!
Source : Culture travel guide