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The Tomb of Nicholas III

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Tomb of Pope Nicholas III

As you enter the old Grottoes, the first tomb on the left is that of Nicholas III, Giovanni Gaetano Orsini from Rome, pope from 1277-1280. This pope is remembered in St Peter's Basilica for reforming the Vatican clergy and promoting spiritual life. He was buried in an earthen grave in the oratory of St Nicholas that he had founded and consecrated in 1279, then, in 1285, the remains were transferred to the new monument.











There are no specific testimonies concerning that new monument, but it seems to have been of remarkable quality. When the construction of the new basilica began, the monument was moved to the southern aisle. In 1576 it was transferred again, this time to the northern aisle. In 1606 the monument was dismembered and the remains of the pope were placed in a simple sarcophagus in the grottoes, together with those of his relative, Cardinal Rainaldo Orsini, the Archpriest of the Vatican basilica (d. 1374).

During the restoration in the middle of the 20th century, the remains were reburied in a sarcophagus that had been used to bury Pius II found in 1607 during the construction of the basilica.

The frontal is divided into five compartments by little columns and low arches. The 3 central compartments are more profound and the relief figures are more accentuated, while the 2 lateral arches appear unfinished. In the center is the representation of the Savior on a rock with 4 rivers springing from underneath. At His feet are 2 spouses who may have originally been buried in the sarcophagus. To one side is St Peter with the cross on his shoulder, receiving the scroll with the new law; to the other side is St Paul, both are accompanied by a disciple. The last scene to the left represents the Washing of the Feet with Peter holding a towel sitting in front of Jesus and a basin on the floor. To the right is Jesus in front of Pilate, who is represented sitting on a Roman sella and holding a jar with water to wash his hands. On the left is the coat-of-arms of the Orsini family, probably from the original shrine. Above the sarcophagus is the inscription from the old tomb with the names of the deceased.

Pope Nicholas III
Rainaldo Cardinal Orsini
Cardinal Deacon of St Hadrian
Archpriest of this Vatican Basilica


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

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