by James Lees-Milne, ©1967

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Square & Area
Tourist Info

Vatican City
Colonnade Saints
Floorplan #2




Peter Saint and Man
Christianity in the Making
Constantine's Basilica
The Site
The Shrine
The Church
The Sacks of Rome
Influence of the Old Basilica
The Vatican Palace
The Renaissance Basilica

Nicholas V
Paul II (1464-71)
Sixtus IV (1471-84)
Innocent VIII (1484-92)
Julius II
St Peter's in 1505

Death of Julius & Bramante
Leo X (1513-21)

Baldassare Peruzzi

Clement VII (1523-34)
Paul III (1534-49)
Michelangelo and Followers
Sistine Chapel
Michelangelo as Architect
Michelangelo's Death (1564)
Gregory XIII
The Dome
The Obelisk

Clement VIII (1592-1605)
Maderno's Nave
Paul V (1605-21)
Problem of the Facade
The High Baroque and Bernini
The Baldacchino
The Bell Towers
Tomb of Urban VIII
Innocent X (1644-55)
The Colonnades
Cattedra Petri
Monument to Alexander VII
Clement IX (1667-9)

Clement X (1670-6)
Blessed Sacrament Chapel
Innocent XI (1676-89)
Carlo Fontana
Innocent XII (1691-1700)
Liturgical Significance
Clement XI (1700-21)
Benedict XIII (1724-30)
Clement XII (1730-40)
Benedict XIV (1740-58)
Sobieski Monument
Clement XIII (1758-69)
Clement XIV (1769-74)
Pius VI(1775-99)
The Sacristy
Pius VII (1800-23)
Stuart Monument
Mon. Leo XII, Pius VIII, Gregory XVI
Pius IX (1846-78)
Vatican Council I
Pius X (1903-14)
Pius XI (1922-39)
Pius XII (1939-58)
A Final Assessment

Constantine's Basilica

Constantine the Great brought about the triumph of Christianity in making it the religion of the State. The subversive, oppressed, underground creed had been raised out of obscurity to a height of authority of which no third-century pope could have dreamed. What the Faith owes to this extraordinary layman cannot be assessed in terms of ordinary human gratitude. Constantine was a soldier and dictator, a ruthless and ambitious ruler, whose worldly interests played a prominent, but not a predominant part in his determination to advance the banner of Jesus Christ. He was helped and exhorted in the role of supreme protagonist of Christianity by Pope Sylvester. The reigns of popes are not usually long. The longest in history has been that of Pius IX, which was thirty-two years. Before his death in 1878, no pope had covered more than twenty-five years, the presumed limit of St Peter's spiritual sovereignty in Rome; and until Pius reached his quarter of a century of tradition always maintained that it would never be exceeded. Pope Sylvester did not reach twenty-five years, yet he reigned twenty-two, which was a record not to be broken before the death in 795 of Adrian I who surpassed it by one year. Very little is known about Sylvester's character or life beyond the legend that he baptized Constantine and cured him of leprosy in the process. He clearly laboured diligently to promote the Faith and encouraged the emperor's pious reinstatement of martyrs' remains and erection of magnificent churches over their tombs. That he was a saintly, disinterested bishop we guess from his achievements. We may surmise that he was also a man of immense tact and diplomacy to have worked in partnership and apparent harmony from 314 until 335 with an autocrat of Constantine's passion, violence and unpredictability.

The munificent emperor founded, in addition to St Peter's and St John Lateran, the original basilicas of S. Croce in Gerusalemme (in which to deposit the sacred relic of the cross brought to Rome by St Helena his mother), S. Agnese, St Paul and S. Lorenzo, (five of them over the remains of the titular saints and only St John's and S. Croce within the city walls,) the churches of the Nativity at Bethlehem and the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, besides lesser churches outside Rome and in other parts of the ancient world of which no vestiges now remain. No pagan emperor Constantine had raised so many temples to the old gods within so short a space of years; and it is exceedingly doubtful if before his reign a single Christian assembly room had ever been built specifically for a Christian congregation. That the Church ha downed property in the third century we already know from the fact that the Emperor Gallienus, a tolerant predecessor, restored it after the Decian persecutions. And by property land, and not churches, is meant. There was no church architecture before Constantine's day, even if some private houses were used more or less exclusively for worship, and had been given decoration of a religious character. Architecturally, such places would be indistinguishable from dwellings, for which purpose they had been erected. From the earliest times the houses of rich Christians may have contained small oratories set aside for prayer, and nothing else. With Constantine all was changed. There was no longer any need for the worshippers of Christ to assemble behind closed doors. Christianity was adopted as the state religion and came into the open. Artists appeared whose talents were in sudden demand. The emperor's churches glowed with rich decoration and treasure. An appreciative contemporary describes the 'paints of every colour' of church exteriors, 'reflecting their gold, which the water blends with green reflections in the ornamental pools,' made for ablutions in the courtyard. He rhapsodizes over the interiors and their 'ceilings with gilded beams that make the whole chamber seem like a sunrise. And in the windows glowing stained glass, so that they look like fields studded with gorgeous flowers'.

We shall only be dealing with one of Constantine's basilicas, and that the greatest in the Christian world. In precisely which year St Peter's was begun is not known. Certainly not at the beginning of the emperor's reign. Whereas the endowments for the earlier Lateran basilica came from Italian sources, those for St Peter's were financed by the eastern provinces which only fell to the emperor in 324. The year 322 has been suggested for the foundation date by Toynbee and Perkins. They believe that Constantine may have anticipated the colonial riches which were shortly to come to him. By his death in 337 at least the structure of St Peter's was completed.

The Site

The first questions which present themselves to us are these. Why was the particular site on the Vatican Hill chosen by the emperor for his church? And did a previous building associated with St Peter exist upon it? These questions, which have been examined and thrashed out by many eminent past and present-day scholars with the most scrupulous attention, I shall endeavour to summarize. For a start, let us consider the history of the site in ancient times.

The Mons Vaticanus, or Vatican Hill, derives its name from the worship of Cybele, whose fertility rites associated with her youthful lover Attis were performed here, ex vaticinatione archigalli - that is to say in accordance with the prophecies of the goddess' high priest. On this hill of prophecy the annual spring festival was held. A pine tree, the phallic symbol of Attis, was reared outside the temple in preparation for the Day of Blood. The events that took place on this occasion were to commemorate the self-castration of the youth at the instance of Cybele, whose motives were to prevent him marrying another. In Asia Minor, whence the Cybele cult was brought to Rome, Attis was called Papas, or Zeus Papas. By certain ancient writers his myth has been confused with that of Apollo and, like the great god of perennial youth and beauty, he was supposed to have been slaughtered by a wild boar. But Attis was rather a god of vegetation and propagation, and the spring festival coincided with his death and resurrection. The hill to which the worshippers resorted at the festivals being outside the city walls was indeed until medieval times at the mercy of enemy assaults. This was a cogent reason why the earliest popes preferred not to reside in the Vatican but in the comparative safety of the Lateran Palace. The elder Pliny clearly thought the hill a barren and unattractive spot. He referred to it as infamis Vaticanis locis, an area infested with mosquitoes, which in the summer of 69 decimated the troops of Vitellius posted there. Few people lived on it apart from some fabricators of cooking utensils and wine jars. Worse still, the hill produced a horrible wine. 'If you drink Vatican wine', wrote the satirist poet Martial, 'you are drinking poison: if you like vinegar you will like Vatican wine: Vatican wine is perfidious.' From time to time members of the imperial family attempted to improve the soil. Agrippina senior, Nero's grandmother, drained it, digging channels to take the water down the sticky clay slopes, altering the contours and constructing terraced gardens, and even a covered way to the Tiber. When Nero inherited or appropriated the gardens after murdering his mother, Agrippina junior, in A.D. 59 they were flourishing. He built a bridge over the river near where the Santo Spirito hospital now stands. So whenever he wished to dally in his grandmother's pleasances or to disport himself in the circus which his predecessor Caligula had made on the lower ground, he could go there at a moment's notice.

The whereabouts of Caligula's Circus was until only a few years ago a puzzle. Most historians were of the opinion that the south wall of Constantine's basilica had been built on the foundations of the northern boundary of the circus. The misapprehension was caused by a belief that the famous Egyptian obelisk, which had been brought from Heliopolis by Caligula, was set up on the central point of the low wall, called the spina, dividing lengthwise the new circus around which the emperor raced his chariots; and that, until its re-erection by Pope Sixtus V in the present piazza in 1586 it had never been moved from its original setting. This was on a spot fairly close to the south side of the medieval St Peter's, and midway between the east and west ends. Yet the excavations which Pope Pius XII put in train in 1940 have proved conclusively that Constantine did not build his basilica over the northern boundary of Caligula's Circus. So contemporary historians now suggest that the great needle must have been shifted after Caligula's and before Sixtus's time. But when, and by whom? Did Constantine in discontinuing the use of the circus need the site for some buildings ancillary to his basilica, and finding the obelisk in his way move it closer to his new south wall? This question will be considered when we come to the story of Pope Sixtus V's removal of the obelisk in a later chapter.

At all events Nero made his predecessor's racecourse his favourite playground. Here on every possible occasion of popular holiday he would take the reins and drive frenziedly round and round, his egregious vanity tickled by the obligatory plaudits of his embarrassed subjects. Here too after the Fire of Rome, in order to distract the minds of the miserable citizens from their plight and the whispered allegations of his reckless responsibility for the disaster, he organized in A.D. 67 spectacles of ineffable carnage and brutality at the expense of the Christians. We may therefore assume, until archaeological or literary evidence to the contrary is forthcoming, that St Peter met his death by crucifixion in the field of blood, Caligula's Circus. Why then did Constantine not select the circus terrain for the foundations of his huge basilica? As the presumed site of the Apostle martyrdom and as a relatively level space at the foot of the Mons Vaticanus, it offered sentimental as well as physical advantages apparent to the least percipient builder.

On the contrary, Constantine did a very extraordinary thing. He chose to erect the great basilica in honor of the Apostle Peter on the steep slope of the Vatican Hill and right on top of an existing cemetery. We shall come to the difficulties he encountered from geographical causes in due course. First of all, there were distinct legal and moral ones involved in the total destruction of a burial ground in full use. The profanation of a Roman cemetery (violatio sepulchri) was in Roman law a criminal offence. Not even the highest officials of the land dared do such a thing without risking prosecution and the direst penalties. And here was the emperor himself razing tombs and sepulchers in order to build over the rubble to which they were reduced. That he could flout public opinion and the law in this flagrant manner is an indication of the height of power the emperor had now attained. The Vatican cemetery was not a very old one. It had developed within a comparatively short period. The large majority of its tombs date from A.D. 125-200. Pope Pius XII's excavators have established that it was not a particularly high-class cemetery. Few persons belonging to the old Roman families were buried in it. Some of the deceased had been freeborn, many not. Most were of Greek-speaking origin. Nearly all came from the lower clerical and administrative grades of the civil service. As the place became a more and more popular burial ground - remember it was outside the city walls - speculators began buying up plots which they resold for the building of family tombs. The process continued on somewhat haphazard lines and showed little advanced planning. Several of the excavated tombs are, in spite of their middle-class ownership, objects of much beauty as well as interest. Those which escaped total pulverization by Constantine lie below the western half of the old basilica where the land slopes steeply away to the south. The emperor left their roofs intact, merely filling the interiors with rubble to make a firm foundation. The rubble has lately been dug away. The tombs below the eastern half of Constantine's church, which unlike the western half was not built over a crypt, were absolutely razed and cannot for reasons of safety to the present fabric be investigated.

The most notable of the surviving tombs are those facing south across a very narrow street. The fronts, which were of course originally above ground, are more finished than the side and back walls, which were thrust into the northern slope. They present a long line of carefully coursed and jointed brick, washed with thin coats of crimson. They have doorways of travertine and windows and relief panels of terra cotta. The surrounds and lintels of the windows are sharply cut. The perspective reliefs of receding arcades and the figures of quails and other birds are delicately moulded. The street façade is as functional and satisfying as that of a late Georgian London street - which it somewhat resembles only in miniature - where exceedingly plain surfaces are broken by an economy of classical detail in door and window features. The interiors on the other hand are exuberant and aglow with colour and decoration. The barrel-vaulted roods are either paneled with stucco squares and hexagons, framing little rosettes, or painted with arabesques and figures. The walls which provided for the urns or sarcophagi are pierced with shell-headed niches stuccoed in allegorical reliefs, with recesses in lunettes and simple pigeon-hole boxes. In between are crude divisions framing birds and animals finely painted in tempera. The marble sarcophagi are sculptured. Some bear scenes in relief; others are strigilated (that is to say channeled in the familiar Roman S scrolls), flanking a single maenad, a naked Dionysus, or perhaps a bust of the deceased in relief. The second century saw a gradual supercession of cremation by burial, since the Christians favoured the latter way of disposal of their dead, regarding the former as essentially pagan. In the third-century tombs of the Vatican cemetery more definite proof of Christian burial is supplied by some of the inscriptions. Familiar phrases like Dormit in pace are taking the place of the old pagan ejaculations such as 'I am ash, ash is earth, earth is divine; therefore I am not dead', or that moving epitaph to a dead boy: 'I pray that his ashes may become violets and roses, and that the earth, whose child he now is, rest light upon him, as he in life weighed heavy on no man.' Paganism was obsessed by speculations on the hereafter.

There are even earlier hints of Christian burial in the mosaic decorations on vault and wall of at least one of the Vatican tombs, namely that of the Julii family. These fragments are the oldest Christian mosaics so far discovered. They date from the late second century. On the east wall Jonah is depicted falling feet foremost from board ship into the whale's jaws. A matrix, deprived of the tiny cubes, shows what looks like St Peter casting his net into the sea. On the west wall the Good Shepherd carries a sheep on his shoulders. Again, on the ceiling vault appears the earliest discovered representation of Christ. Surrounded by spreading vines, in three tones of vivid green, the beardless figure wearing a tunic, his cloak flying in the wind, stands driving a chariot of which one wheel and two white horses in scarlet harness are intact. From his head nimbus rays shoot upwards and sideways. In his left hand he carries a globe. The mosaic is known as the Christ-Helios and illustrates the syncretism of Christianity with the pagan sun-worship instituted at the winter solstice by Emperor Marcus Aurelius at the end of the second century.

Lastly, in the tomb of the Valerii the excavators revealed what they believe to be the head of St Peter drawn in faded red lead, with an inscription, 'Peter, pray Christ Jesus for the holy Christian men buried near your body.' Several experts have claimed that the drawing and inscription date from before the basilica was built. Toynbee and Perkins on the other hand conclude that they were roughly daubed by one of Constantine's workmen at the start of the emperor's building operations. There is no reason to regret the later date. On the contrary, it affords striking corroboration of the motives which were behind the whole gigantic enterprise. The sketch and inscription are important evidence of the emperor's own belief. They go a long way to answer the question raised earlier why Constantine chose the awkward site of an existing cemetery on the slopes of a hill for the foundation of his great basilica. He was convinced that the remains of St Peter lay buried there. And he was determined, no matter what the cost, to raise the most central, sacred part of his basilica right above the Apostle's resting place.

Clearly then Constantine made a distinction between the site of St Peter's martyrdom and that of his burial. If, as all the records suggest, Peter met his death among hundreds, and perhaps thousands of other victims in the circus, it would have been difficult for his disciples, after the carnage was over, to identify the precise spot. Moreover, did it greatly matter? They will have had a delicate enough task secretly gathering together, probably by night, the cherished remains, of which a reverent interment was their chief concern.

Even the manner of the Apostle's death is conjectural. The first written reference to it comes in the Acts of Peter, supposedly compiled by the Gnostic Pseudo-Linus in the second or third century. He stated that the Apostle was crucified 'ad locum qui vocatur Naumachiae iuxta obeliscum Neronis in monten' in the place called Naumachia [i.e. the artificial lake where sea battles amongst other diversions were staged] close to Nero's obelisk and on the hill. The artificial lake could only hae been made on level ground, with the rising stone seats of the circus acting as a bank to the waters. Eusebius writing a little later than the author of the Acts asserted that the crucifixion took place head downwards, and that the body was buried in the Vatican 'field'. Did he mean by 'field' the pagan cemetery nearby? And was this understood to be the case by all Christians in the centuries intervening between the martyrdom and the building of the first basilica? Eusebius evidently thought so, for he went on, '…his memory among the Romans is still alive than the memory of all those who had lived before him'.

It is true that men born Greeks and even slaves have their tombs in the Vatican cemetery, but before their death they had presumably become Roman citizens, who observed Roman customs and rites. St Paul, who suffered an ignominious death similar to St Peter's, was buried in a pagan cemetery. But unlike Peter he had from birth been a citizen in spite of his Jewish descent. There can be little doubt that during or just after the Neronian pogrom the less attention drawn to Peter's burial the better. The Acts of Peter maintains that the body was placed in the tomb of a senator, named Marcellus, presumably a Christian convert and follower, a kind of Joseph of Aramathea. But it does not state where the tomb was.

Constantine had absolutely no doubts in his mind where the Apostle lay buried. In order to get the centre of the apse of his basilica over what he believed to be the grave he was obliged to cut deeply into the rock of the Vatican Hill which rose in a northerly direction. To extend the level platform to the south, an equally formidable operation had to be undertaken. This was the raising of massive foundations by means of artificial terraces over the descending hillside to a height of Thirty-five feet above the bottom of the southern slope. Into the space tons of earth and rock scooped from the northern slope and debris from the desecrated cemetery were shoveled, then packed with concrete and faced with brick and tufa stone.

What exactly the emperor found over the Apostle's grave before he began to build will be discussed shortly, and can in the light of the recent excavations be assessed fairly accurately. What, if anything, he found within it is still open to conjecture. Let us deal first with the last query. This involves taking into account the claims of another resting place, or grave of the Apostle Peter. Pope Damasus (366-84) left an inscription in verse (long ago destroyed) to the effect that Peter and Paul 'once dwelt' on the site now covered by the Church of St Sevastian, likewise built by Constantine, three miles outside Rome along the Appian Way. Gregory the Great (590-604) recorded that the two saints' remains were taken there immediately after their deaths and before their final resting places were prepared for them. It is not impossible that during the lull that followed the Neronian persecution Peter's body, after being hidden at St Sebastian's, was transported to the Vatican cemetery, and Paul's to the Ostian Way. Be this as it may, early documents and a plethora of tradition claim that for a second time the bodies returned to the catacomb of St Sebastian in the year 258 when the persecutions under Valerian were impending, and that they remained there until Constantine's basilicas were ready to receive them. I see no reason to dispute the likelihood of these precautions having been taken. After all, a similar situation arose more than thirteen hundred years later. When Sir Francis Drake threatened to sack the tomb of St James at Santiago de Compostella, the archbishop and three clerics hastily removed the body to a safe place. They died and when the danger lifted no one knew where the body had been hidden. Not until 1879 was it rediscovered. The St Sebastian tradition is given credence by the discovery under the church of over two hundred graffiti scratched on plaster by pious pilgrims invoking the intercession of Peter and Paul. The date of the graffiti is late third century. Why, if the bodies were not in the locality, should these prayers have been addressed to the saints?

The Shrine

Whether the remains of St Peter were in the tomb on the Vatican Hill when Constantine began to build, or whether the emperor brought them back again from St Stebastian's we may never know. We can only be sure that a monument or shrine to Peter of some kind already existed in the Roman cemetery. Apart from the recent archaeological discoveries, there is written evidence. First of all, the Liber Pontificalis tells us that St Anacletus (A.D. 79-91), the second pope after Peter, who had ordained him, erected a memorial 'in the vicinity of the Neronian Circus beside the Vatican', to mark the spot where the Apostle's remains were buried after his crucifixion; and that Linus, Peter's immediate successor, had been 'buried there beside Peter's body'. Unfortunately, the Liber Pontificalis is not an invariably trustworthy guide and, as we are about to see, the recent excavations throw doubts upon this early claim. A more revealing quotation is the well-known extract from a letter by a certain Roman priest, named Gaius, written some time between the years 199 and 217. This is what he, an eyewitness, tells his correspondent. 'If you go to the Vatican or to the Ostian Way [where St Paul's outside the Walls is] there you will find the trophies [tropaia, for he writes in Greek] of those who founded this church.' Now the meaning of the Greek word tropaion is neither place of martyrdom, nor indeed place of burial, but monument, to be exact triumphal monument, in this context signifying the victory of the winged soul over darkness. In early Christian years before the cult of relics and the morbid lamentation over death had become common, the glory rather than the suffering of martyrs was recorded. Shrines were erected over their graves where commemorative celebrations were held from time to time by jubilant - not mourning - friends and admirers. In the same spirit, early Christian art represented Christ by a variety of cheerful symbols, like the fish, loaf of bread and vine, but never depicted him hanging in agony on the cross.

The extract from the letter of the priest Gaius need not be questioned. It affords very important written evidence. The evidence of the Liber Pontificalis compiled several centuries later, although probably taken from earlier testimony, is, as I have suggested, less reliable. It is not, however, necessarily a fabrication. Pius XII's excavators incline, on the archaeological data revealed to them, to believe that the name Anacletus, the second pope after Peter, was a mistake made by the scribe of the Liber Pontificalis for Anicetus, a pope in office from A.D. 155-66. Tiles discovered by them in a drain close to the site are stamped with the name of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius whose reign coincided with that of Pope Anicetus. In their view, the remains of the shrine, or tropaion, which Gaius knew and saw are of the same date as the tiles, that is to say about A.D. 160, only four years after the death of Polycarp, who had been the pupil of St John!

The long and exciting story of the investigations of the Apostle's grave and monument beneath the basilica has been most skillfully and impartially recorded in Professor Jocelyn Toynbee and Mr John Ward Perkins's exciting book, The Shrine of St Peter and the Vatican Excavations, 1956. It would be redundant to go over their ground in detail. I will just summarize very briefly indeed what the excavators' discoveries amounted to. They found immediately below the central chord of the apse of Constantine's basilica sufficient remains of an aedicular shrine for a conjectural sketch to be made of what the structure looked like in A. D. 160. Somewhat similar aedicular shrines to this one have been found intact in other Roman cemeteries in Italy. The St Peter's shrine, a fairly straightforward and simple affair, was built against and into a wall of the same date, called by the excavators the Red Wall because it is lined with a red plaster - which runs from south to north. The so-called Red Wall was built in order to form a division in the cemetery between certain tombs on the west and an uncovered space, or court, on the east. The shrine within the court and facing east consisted of two superimposed niches, originally visible above ground. The upper niche was round headed and was contained within a little tabernacle under a pediment. The little tabernacle rested on a projecting ledge like a table - only slightly higher from the ground than an ordinary table would be - supported in its turn by two advanced columns. Under the ledge and in front of the lower niche were found the remains of a carefully fitted, moveable slab. The odd thing about the slab is that it was not set flush with the shrine and the Red Wall, but asymmetrically at an angle of ten degree to the north. The irregular setting of the slab at first gave rise to much conjecture until it was found that two very deep graves on either side to much conjecture until it was found that two very deep graves on either side of the shrine were orientated at precisely the same angle. These graves have been dated from the first century, one of them, again owing to a sealed tile, from Vespasian's reign of A.D. 69-79. The inference to be drawn from the irregularly set slab and the first-century graves parallel to it is that a previous shrine existed on the site of the A. D. 160 one, but flush with the slab. Other graves dating from the next century were found grouped around the foundations of the shrine, not at the same angle buy, as it were, radiating from them. A statement in the Liber Pontificalis that Linus, the first pope after Peter, who died in 79, and the next eleven popes were buried round the remains of St Peter may then be borne out by these first - and second-century graves. The fact that the graves are inhumation, not cremation, resting places and were all humble ones, compared with the richly decorated tombs in other parts of the cemetery, contributes to the likelihood that Christian bodies reposed in them.

(In 1626 when the deep foundations for Bernini's baldacchino were being dug the workmen came upon a number of Christian corpses clad in linen, their heads turned towards a central point beneath the high altar. There is no means now of telling the date of the burials.)

And what did the excavators find directly beneath the second-century shrine? Below the lower niche, under the floor level, and hacked out of the foundations of the Red Wall, a third niche or arch, the purpose of which can only have been to avoid disturbing a grave below it. On the south side of the lowest niche, and below the foundations of the Red Wall were traces of a short projecting wall parallel with the first-century graves and the moveable slab already referred to. Clearly this deep wall had been built to form on the slope of the hillside a revetment to a grave above it. On examination, the grave proved to be shorter than it originally had been. One third, which lay on the west side of the Red Wall, had at the time of the wall's building been filled in. In the recess which the remainder of the grave formed, on the east side of the wall, was found a pile of human bones without a head. Heaped together the bones were obviously not in the position of their original burial, and the area showed distinct signs of subsequent looting and desecration. Scientific tests have certified that the bones are the remains of a person of the male sex, of advanced age and powerful physique. Tradition has always maintained that Peter's head was removed for safety in 846, when the threat of Saracen invasion reached Rome, to the Lateran church, where it still remains. Of the many sacks of Rome by barbarian tribes and Christian potentates, the only one which did not spare the tomb of Peter was the Saracens'. Whereas the Nordic invaders of Rome had all been Christians of a sort, the infidel Saracens alone were in no awe of the Faith's most sacred shrine in the west. Contemporary writers mention that they destroyed the altar over the grave, committing unmentionable wickednesses around it. The excavators are satisfied that they went further than this in smashing and looting what they found within the tomb itself. Toynbee and Perkins sum up their synopsis of the long official report made by Pope Pius's excavators with these words: 'Although it is not certain that the aedicula marks the site of an earlier grave, the hypothesis that it did so explains much that is otherwise obscure; and although there is nothing to prove that this grave was that of St Peter, nothing in the archaeological evidence is inconsistent with such an identification.' To which we may merely add that the second-century builders of the aedicula, or shrine, must have had sounder reasons for putting it where they did than any which we of the twentieth century are likely to discover.

The excavations carried out by a group of highly-trained and skilled archaeologists in most difficult circumstances, chief of which was the abiding threat of danger to the great fabric of the present-day St Peter's above ground, have not then established once and for all, as so ardently hoped, that the Apostle's body rests beneath the heart of the basilica. On the other hand, they have enabled the experts to draw a picture of what Constantine the Great saw when he decided to raise a vast basilica in Peter's honour on the slopes of the Vatican Hill. After crossing the Tiber by Nero's bridge, the emperor would leave on his right hand the great drum of Hadrian's Mausoleum, (now the Castle S. Angelo) which dominated the river where it loops sharply to the south. He would then ride, or be driven, along a narrow straight road to where the southern arm of the present colonnade now claws at the entrance of St Peter's Piazza. Ahead of him no sharp cliff of papal palace buildings so familiar to us today, but a steepish slope of poorly cultivated vine terraces. At this spot his road would incline to the west. On his left, on the low ground stretched the oval expanse of Caligula's Circus, punctuated in the centre perhaps by the sharp needle brought from Heliopolis and now gracing the piazza. On his right, reaching to the very edge of the road, the rows of the cemetery tombs, looking like little garden pavilions, spruce and compact and huddled closely together. Dismounting, the emperor would walk through an entrance gate up a narrow path paved with rough concrete, the Red Wall of brick coated with washed plaster to his right, and some grandiose family mausoleums to his left. Skirting the Red Wall, he would emerge into the small courtyard by an entrance in either its northern or eastern enclosure. He then found himself in an altogether humbler quarter of the cemetery. Rising above the unpaved earthen floor a few headstones, or twin slabs of stone leaning together in the form of a tent marked the inhumation graves of St Peter's spiritual heirs. Only against the west wall of the court stood the more prominent aedicula, or shrine, which we have already described as open to the skies. This was the object which the emperor sought to make the central feature of the most ambitious church yet projected by a member of the new Christian faith. As he stopped to gaze upon it and then turned to survey the extremely awkward and steep contours of th surrounding land, which sloped to south and east, he must have pondered the immense task confronting him as well as the odium to be incurred in the total destruction of the cemetery crowded with sepulchers and graves of rich an poor alike.

The Liber Pontificalis states quite categorically that the emperor's first action was to put the Saint's remains, which he either found below the shrine or brought back from St Sebastian's, in a new coffin of cypress wood; this in turn he enclosed within a sarcophagus of bronze. Over the sarcophagus fecit crucem ex auro purissimo - he laid a cross made of purest gold, on which an inscription recorded that it was his and his mother, Helena's gift. This statement has given rise to what in the light of the excavation discoveries must be a fable, namely that the gold cross was seen in 1594.

The Church

Constantine's next move was the leveling of a great space at least 750 feet long and 400 feet broad to accommodate his projected basilica and atrium. That the emperor regarded the whole enterprise as an act of piety is suggested by the tradition that he carried on his imperial shoulders the first twelve basketfuls of earth for the foundations. Then came the orientation of the church. At St Peter's the setting is the reverse of the later, general custom of having the sanctuary at the east end of the axis. Here the entrance is at the east end and the sanctuary, upon which the body of the church is focused, at the west. This arrangement, not unusual in Constantinian churches, was to enable the rays of the rising sun to fall on the celebrant as he stood before the high altar facing the congregation at Mass. In fact at the vernal equinox the great doors of the porch and those of the church were thrown open at dawn to allow the first beams to illuminate the Apostle's shrine, while the choir and congregation burst into a paean of thanksgiving. The setting is compatible with Constantine's youthful predilection for sun worship and the Roman Christians' tendency to identify Christ with the god of the rising sun.

Just as many pagan traditions of ritual were adapted to the requirements of the new Faith, so too was pagan architecture largely copied in the building of churches by the early Christians. The plan of Constantine's several churches deliberately followed the conventional plan of the Roman hall of justice, called the Basilica. This law court was habitually rectangular, divided by rows of columns into nave and aisles. At one end, steps led to a platform within a semi-circular apse, in the middle of which sat the chief judge on an armed chair, or throne, made of marble. On either side of him assistant judges perched on curved benches of marble, or stone. A rail or low screen would separate the judges from the populace in the hall below. Before either end of the arc of the apse, and in the body of the hall, stood a box, called the 'ambo', from which counsel and witnesses could address the court. In the middle of the chord of the apse there was often an altar dedicated to Minerva, goddess of wisdom, to whom sacrifice might be made before the legal proceedings began.

Out of these various conventional features the Christian basilica derived. The chief judge's throne was turned into the bishop's throne. The assistant judges' benches became those of the presbyters. The two 'ambos' the pulpits from which the Gospel and Epistle were read. The altar of Minerva gave way to that of the Christian Lord. In execution the chief difference between old St Peter's and a basilica like that of Maxentius lay in the roofing. Whereas Maxentius's basilica had elaborate coffered vaults carried on stout piers in the classical manner admired and followed by the Renaissance, the Christian basilica was roofed in a simple wooden construction which was to be widely imitated by early church builders in Italy. The effect was less remarkable as architecture burttr more aspirant spiritually. The open timber roofs of most Gothic churches were filled in by later ages contemptuous of this primitive form of carpentry. S. Sabina on the Aventine Hill, dating from about 425 and owing much to St Peter's model, has a flat boarded ceiling inserted beneath the timbers. This church, or nave and two aisles separated by arcades in place of architrave, is in other respects the perfect example of an early medieval Roman basilica, its ample width savouring of serenity and peace.

When St Peter's Basilica was built, the second-century shrine was not buried beneath an altar. On the contrary, it was purposely allowed to stand above the pavement level, but encased in a lavish, contemporary framework befitting so precious a relic. Everything else formerly around it in the old pagan cemetery had been flattened. It alone was made the focal point to which all eyes in the church were to be turned. We may refer once again to the Liber Pontificalis to learn precisely what Constantine did. 'Et exornavit supra,' we read, 'ex columnis purphyreticis et alias columnas vitineas quas de Graecia perduxit.' The little, old-fashioned and rude shrine he enclosed with corner columns, or to be accurate, with pilasters of porphyry. The 'other vine-clad columns', specially brought from Greece, formed part of a new screen across the apse and the canopy over the shrine. This is the earliest reference to six of the strange barley sugar columns of translucent white marble, wreathed with vine tendrils, which still remain in the present St Peter's. Each column, capital, shaft and base is a single block, carved probably around the year 200. Their provenance is not known, and the legend that they came from Solomon's Temple is worth no more than the name of solomónica, which they have given to those ubiquitous twisted columns copied on altars and reredoses in in numerable Spanish renaissance churches. Presumably their pagan significance was Dionysiac, which conveniently became translated by the Christians into the vintage of the Lord. For two centuries and a half the Constantinian setting of the shrine survived. A fifth-century ivory casket, unearthed in 1906 at Samagher, bears in relief a faithful outline of what the canopy looked like. Curved ribs from the corners of four of the columns meet in a boss from which is suspended a lamp shaped like a crown, another gift to St Peter's from the emperor. Between each rear column of ht canopy and a pair of separate columns placed at the corners of the apse curtains are hanging. Two priests officiate at the shrine while four more with hands upraised in blessing face the congregation from the sides. Shortly before the Constantinian arrangement was altered a certain deacon, called Agiulf, gave a description of the shrine and the strange antics that took place at it. For anyone wishing to pay particular reverence to the Apostle's tomb, the doors, probably at the rear of the shrine, were unlocked and a small window was opened. The pious person thrust his head inside and was sure to be granted whatever he asked for, provided of course that it was meritorious. Then, having weighed a piece of cloth he might have brought with him, he dropped it on the end of a string into the tomb below. After fervently praying, fasting and waiting, he drew up the cloth. If he was a person of worth, the cloth on being weighed again would prove to be appreciably heavier than before on account of the special virtue with which it had become impregnated while in contact with the holy remains. Agiulf spoke of the 'snow-white columns of wondrous elegance, four in number' of the canopy, as did his contemporary Gregory of Tours in almost the same phraseology - mirae elegantiae, candore niveo.

About 594, however, Gregory the Great thought fit to raise the presbytery some four and a half feet above the level of the rest of the church. The platform contrived was approached by steps leading to a central throne and benches fitted into the apse. In consequence of this alteration, the shrine was left below the presbytery pavement and must henceforth be looked at through a grill from the lower level. A new canopy with different supports was provided for an altar which was now built over the sunken shrine. The six twisted columns were advanced to form a screen to the sanctuary. By these means, a primitive sort of confession was formed. It was entered from the sides at the base of the platform and gave access to the shrine by a passage running round the apse. Thus was established a precedent to be widely followed in Italy and France in early medieval church building. The first purpose of St. Gregory's alterations was to protect from barbarian incursions - alas, he did not forestall that of the Saracens! - the shrine now enriched with the treasure of successive donors. This had been accumulating for over two centuries. Emperors and popes competed with one another in making splendid gifts to the Apostle in earnest of their devotion. Pope Pelagius II, St Gregory's predecessor, had, according to the Liber Pontificalis, 'enclosed the body of Blessed Peter, the Apostle, in plates of gilded silver', which will mean that he had started to redecorate the shrine. Gregory's second purpose was to form out of the two upper of the three niches of the shrine - all now submerged below the raised presbytery level - one high and narrow niche to contain the historic pallia. The pallium is a circular band of white material, marked with six purple crosses, having pendants on the front and back, to be worn on the shoulders over the chasuble. It is solely the Pope's right to grant the pallium to archbishops in symbolism of the plenitude of the pontifical office. The coveted garment is made from the wool of lambs blessed on St Agnes's Day in the church of S. Agnese fuori le Mura, and before being dispatched to each recipient rests for a night in front of St Peter's tomb. In the course of forming the single Niche of the Pallia, the axis of the shrine was shifted some ten to twelve centimeters to the south.


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