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The Irish Chapel of St Columbanus in the Vatican Grottoes

On the right side of the peribolos (semicircular corridor), just past the Polish Chapel, is an opening with a bronze grid onto the floor of the basilica above. Immediately to the right is the entrance to the Irish chapel of St Columbanus the Abbot, the first national chapel built in the Vatican grottoes. Inserted in the iron gate are two gilded Gaelic crosses.



 

During the Holy Year of 1950, Pope Pius XII gave his assent to the request presented by the Knights of Columbus, to commemorate in the vicinity of Peter's tomb, the evangelizing work carried out in Europe by the Irish monks starting from the 6th century.

The building of the new chapel started on February 9, 1951. It was necessary to open the floor of the basilica in the first span of the transept of SS Processus and Martinian to create the needed space. At the same time, a mosaic representing the sainted Irish monk was made at an altar that already existed in the grottoes. The excavations, in the course of which 800 cubic meters of earth were extracted, brought to light a big section of the northern transept of the Constantinian basilica, 6 big columns and several marble sarcophagi. The area was consolidated to guarantee the stability of the floor and, finally, the construction of the chapel started.

The technical director of the Fabbrica di San Pietro, Engineer Francesco Vacchini projected and supervised the work. The chapel was inaugurated on September 12, 1954 with Mass celebrated by the Archbishop of Dublin Giovanni C. McQuaid.

Detail of the St Columbanus mosaic and altar in the Irish Chapel
Detail of St Columbanus mosaic

View of the Irish Chapel in the Vatican Grottoes
Irish Chapel in the Vatican Grottoes

Inscription noting the archeological remains of the Constantinian Basilica
Constantinian Basilica Inscription

In 1999, part of the chapel was restored and the presbytery and furnishing were modified according to the new liturgical norms of Vatican Council II. On June 22, the new altar was consecrated by the Archbishop of Armagh and the Primate of the Catholic Church of Ireland, His Eminence Sean Brady, in the presence of the Irish Bishops and the Government officials.

The simple and austere chapel harmonizes with the style of the grottoes. On the back wall, in the apse under an arch, is the mosaic in a sea-green tonality, made by the Studio of the Fabbrica di San Pietro. It represents St Columbanus with a pastoral staff and the book of the Regula, between four monks, in their symbolic walk from Ireland to Italy. They are preceded by the symbolic sun, indicating the destination of their journey; following the group is a dove.

The first inscription: PEREGRINANTES PRO CHRISTO (Pilgrims for Christ) illustrates the apostolic goal of the peregrination of the monks. The second inscription, a quotation from a letter of St Columbanus: SI TOLLIS LIBERTATEM TOLLIS DIGNITATEM (If you take away liberty, you take away dignity) indicates the humanitarian and spiritual aspect of their mission.

On the low part of the mosaic are the points of departure and arrival of the long peregrination (pilgrimage) of Columbanus: BANGOR with the tower and the Celtic cross and BOBBIO with the ancient bridge and the abbey where Columbanus ended his days.

To the sides from the mosaic there are two Latin inscriptions. The one to the right commemorates the founding of the chapel, while the one to the left its modification.

HOC SACELLVM
S. COLVMBANO DICATVM
PIO XII PONT. MAX. PROBANTE
CONDITVM EST / IMPENSA
SACRORVM HIBERNIAE ANTISTITVM OPE
JOSEPHI PATRICII WALSHE
EIVSDEM NATIONIS APVD SEDEM APOST.
ORATORIS / CONSILIO ET CVRA
A. MCMLIV
ORATE PRO ANIMA IOSEPHI
PATRICII WALSHE

This oratory dedicated to St Columbanus
with the approval of Pope Pius XII, was
sponsored by the Bishops from Ireland
and realized under the supervision of
Joseph Patrick Walshe, the Ambassador of
Ireland to the Holy See, in 1954.
Pray for the soul of Joseph Patrick Walshe.

ANNO ADVENIENTE MAGNI JVBILAEI MM
IOANNE PAVLO II PONT. MAX.
EPISCOPI HIBERNIAE
EQVITES HIBERNICI S. COLVMBANI
CONSILIVM JVBILAEI HIBERNICVM ROMAE
HOC SACELLVM S. COLVMBANO DEDICATVM
RESTITVERVNT
DIE XXII IVNII MCMXCIX

Approaching the great Jubilee of 2000,
in the pontificate of John Paul II,
the bishops of the Ireland,
the Irish Knights of Saint Columbanus
and the Irish Council of Rome for the Jubilee,
red-adapt this oratory dedicated to
Saint Columbanus, 22 June 1999

 


On the furnishing by Giuseppe Lombardi (1958) are the decorative patterns characteristic of the Irish art of 6th and 7th centuries. The small altar has a square table with an inscription on the edge: DEDICATVM D. XXII IVNII A. MCMXCIX (Dedicated on June 22, 1999). It sits on a cross-shaped pillar from the original altar, with a typical Irish cross with a golden rim. A similar pillar holds the pulpit. The bronze chair bears the crest of John Paul II and the figures of SS Peter and Paul in relief. It is the work of the sculptor Tommaso Gismondi and was part of the furnishing of the central altar in the grottoes. On the decorative frieze is the dedicatory inscription: S(AN)CTO. COLVMBANO ABB(ATI) / HIBERNORVM NATIO MCMLIV (To St Columbanus the Abbot / The Irish Nation)

One special thing in the chapel - on the left wall one can see the archeological remains of the inner wall of the northern transept of the old basilica. Above is a travertine fragment with the sculptures representing the symbols of the four Evangelists that was part of the old altar.

 

Source: Roma Sacra The Vatican Grottoes, Fabbrica of St. Peter's, June 2003

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