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The Confessio
 
Confessio St Peter's


Carlo Maderno 1615-1617
 
The word 'Confessio' refers to the Confession of faith by St. Peter which lead to his martyrdom. Here the Confessio area is the space created directly in front of the tomb of St Peter. This semicircular space located at the level of the grottoes is accessed by a double staircase.

The niche at the end of the Confessio, directly under the altar and closest to the tomb, is called the Niche of the Pallium. In this niche, is placed a bronze coffer with fabrics (stoles called "pallium") woven from the wool of lambs blessed on the feast of St. Agnes (Jan 21) and bestowed upon patriarchs and metropolitans as a reminder of the Church's unity
The bronze coffer, donated by Benedict XIV, was on permanent display, but this lead to the confusion of people thinking it held the bones of St Peter. It is now only placed here when it holds the palliums on the night before June 29, the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul. On this Feastday the pope bestows the palliums.   
Carlo Maderno started work on the Confessio in 1615, the same year the dividing wall erected by Paul III, between the old and new basilica, was demolished. It is a version of the stairs that Maderno built leading down to the crypt of Santa Susanna in the 1590s. The existence of a Confessio is attested since the ancient foundation of the basilica, but the present structure and rich decoration dates to the time of Clement VIII, and for the most part to Paul V. It was discussed in 1606, announced in 1611, and built from 1615-1617.  The pope decided to make this area visible, and provide a balustrade with steps to go down and celebrate mass close to the body of St Peter.  Previously, the area was accessed only by a small passageway in the grottoes. The new arrangement gave St Peter's Tomb its former central role.

The balustrade is in white marble with 74 brocatel balusters alternated by 24 small pillars of eastern alabaster.  The steps were made from parts of the architrave of the old basilica, and doubtless still retain Constantinian molding on the undersides.  Martino Ferrabosco presented an earlier design, but the plan realized is by Maderno.  An entrance from the basilica floor has a gate decorated with heraldic lilies from the coat of arms of Pius VI. The polychrome marble balustrade is an important place for prayer and the veneration of St Peter.

Three frescoes by Giovan Battista Ricci
1. St Anacletus has a small chapel built over the tomb of St Peter
2. St Sylvester consecrates the altar in the presence of Constantine
3. Paul V kneels in prayer with his cardinals before the recently decorated Confessio
Two statues by Ambrogio Buonvicino
4. Bronze statue of St Peter
5. Bronze statue of St Paul

6. Gate to the Niche of the Pallium
The Confessio is closely associated with the pallium, which is a circular band of white wool with six black silk crosses that the pope places on the shoulders of each archbishop appointed during the past year. It symbolizes the twin responsibilities of shepherding the flock entrusted to him and fostering communion with the vicar of Christ. This event takes place each year on June 29, the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, to remind each Archbishop that he is to be a shepherd in union with Peter and an evangelizer in imitation of Paul. Before an archbishop is granted the pallium, it is left overnight in a bronze coffer in front of the niche. This provides a direct connection to St Peter, a symbol of the Apostolic Succession, and continuity from the Apostles. The pallium serves as a badge of the Archbishops authority.



Opening from the Grottoes
into the Confessio


1. Coat of Arms Paul V
2. Gates leading to the Grottoes
3. St Peter mosaic
4. St Paul mosaic
5. Niche of the Pallium


The mosaic of Christ is from the 9th century.
The two of Sts Peter and Paul were also ancient, but remade in 1625 and refurbished in 1863.




      Pius VI statue

The oil lamps in gilded bronze cornucopias, burn night and day around the shrine; these are by Mattia De Rossi. The reported number of oil lamps around the Confessio has been a matter of some confusion.  It is recorded that 89 lamps adorned the area since the 17th century. This was changed in 1963 to allow for a portable extension of the Papal Altar platform over part of the Confessio, requiring the removal of some of the lamps.  This arrangement allows for 55 candles: : 46 oil lamps of the cornucopia type and 7 large lamps hanging before the Niche of the Pallium. In addition, there are two small candles directly in the Niche, behind which rests the bones of the Apostle.

With the platform removed, there are then
99 candles.
Cornucopia oil lamps: 7 groups of 3, and a single group of 2 on each side of the balustrade; 
8 groups of 4 in front of the Papal Altar;
12 along the inner stairs,
Hanging lamps:
7 in front of the Niche of the Pallium. 
Small candles: 2 in the Niche of the Pallium.

   
The Confessio was not originally open to view from the grottoes, and held the statue of Pius VI, kneeling in prayer, one of the last works by Canova. On November 2, 1979, Pope John Paul II inaugurated a new opening that allows visitors to the grottoes to view the tomb of St Peter. A dividing wall was opened with an arch containing glass panels, and Canova's statue was moved back into the grottoes.  An inscription above the arch contains the words: SEPVLCRVM SANCTI PETRI - APOSTOLI.  Two high reliefs of angels, probably from the monument of Boniface VIII (1295-1303) in the old basilica, were placed on the sides. Two medieval marble lions that once decorated the sarcophagus of Urban VI (d.1389) were placed at the base of the opening.

On the inside walls of the arch are two Latin inscriptions. The one to the left is a quotation from Sermon IV of St Leo the Great from 444, delivered on the anniversary of his consecration, stating that all the churches, shepherds and faithful converge on Peter, who is the center of the Ecclesiastical unity.  The inscription to the right commemorates this new layout completed by Pope John Paul II. 
 
When the Confessio was being built, excavations had to be done on the level of the grottoes for the new foundations of the stairways. A number of ancient Christian monuments were discovered, right in front of the tomb of Peter.  These were drawn with topographic precision by Benedetto Drei, on his map of the grottoes. He even indicates where the earth from the Confessio was taken: to the southern end of the old grottoes, more or less where the tomb of Pius XII is today.

"Many tombs of saints were found there, as I myself saw (in the presence of Cardinal Evangelista Pallotta, the arch-priest of this basilica, of the Canons and others), including a Pope of imposing stature wearing a chasuble and a Pallium.  He was not touched, however, as by high orders he was immediately covered. Many other corpses were found bandaged with stripes an inch wide. Moreover, in another three-palm high coffin, the corpse of a child was found, but it was not touched either. In another one, the inscription Linus was found, yet another one gave out an odor that everyone present considered miraculous, as someone who was present referred to me. One coffin with a body in it had to be taken out as it was in the way, and it was transferred to  the wall (of the peribolos)." 
Confessio - Letarouilly Confessio and Clementine Chapel
Letarouilly, 1882

1. Clementine Chapel
2. Niche of the Pallium
3. Altar of Clementine Chapel
4. Tomb of Pius XII
    (previously Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus)
5. Previous position of Pius VI statue
6. Entrances from the Grottoes
7. Circular corridor of the Grottoes
8. Stairs of the Confessio 
Sources:
Vittorio Lanzani, The Vatican Grottoes, 2012
Antonio Pinelli, ed, La Basilica di San Pietro in Vaticano, 2000
Fr Jeffrey Kirby, 101 Surprising Facts about St Peter's, 2015
Howard Hibbard, Carlo Maderno, 1971
Toynbee and Perkins, The Shrine of St Peter and the Vatican Excavations, 1957
Related Links:
The Grottoes
Papal Altar
 

Contact: stpetersbasilica@gmail.com

 

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