The Bones of St. Peter
The First Full Account of the Search for the Apostle's Body
by John Evangelist Walsh
© 1982, Doubleday & Co.
(all rights reserved, this material should not be copied)
Imagine an immense square shaft, say of concrete, twenty feet on a side and measuring some forty feet from top to bottom. Picture this shaft standing upright just beneath the basilica's high altar. Its top touches the undersurface of the broad platform on which the altar rests, the bottom nestles far down in the virgin soil of Vatican Hill. Crowding confusedly round the shaft is an agglomeration of marble hangings, metal partitions, mosaic designs, and brick and mortar which run in several directions, at right angles and in curves.
Opening off the shaft's west face, at the rear of the high altar, is a small underground chapel. At the altar's front, the east face, there is a sunken area. This is not covered over by the basilica floor as is the chapel behind, but is open to view of anyone standing on the main pavement above. Here a large cupboard-like space is let into the face of the shaft, and secluded behind bronze grillwork doors.
In essence, this imaginary shaft describes and delimits the physical problem confronting the archaeologists beneath the high altar: a hoary pile of masonry and other unknown materials, hemmed in on all sides, its mysterious core made up of the structural detritus of past ages. No one in the twentieth century, or for many centuries past, had any real idea of what lay inside this ancient assemblage; no one could say for certain what lay under it.
Early Christian sources supplied scant help, having little to say about the nature or exact location of Peter's original grave, or its subsequent history. Some thirty documents of all sorts had survived from the earliest times, all long pored over by scholars, which treated various aspects of Peter's Roman sojourn and death. But while these supplied strong support for the tradition that he was martyred on Vatican Hill, and had been buried in the immediate vicinity, they told little about the actual circumstances of his death and burial.
Curiously, the New Testament itself offered nothing at all about Peter's final end, beyond the prophecy of Jesus that he would die in old age, a victim of crucifixion. "When you were young," Jesus had told him, "you girded yourself and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go." These words of Jesus were reported in the Gospel of John, who comments, "This he said to show by what death he was to glorify God." (The phrase "stretch out the hands" was well understood in antiquity to mean crucifixion.)
Even the book of Acts, which has much to tell of Peter's leadership of the infant church in Jerusalem, maintains a cryptic silence on the mater of his last days and death - in fact, except for one brief reappearance, he simply vanishes, abruptly and rather mysteriously, from its pages. After escaping from prison in the year 43, he pays a hasty visit to Marks's house, leaves certain instructions and, as Acts laconically finishes, "Then he departed and went to another place."
For whatever reason, that other place is not identified, and for the approximately twenty-five years of Peter's life thereafter almost nothing is known with certainty, except that he attended the Jerusalem Council in the year 49, stayed briefly at Antioch and then, soon or late, made his way to Rome. There, during Nero's mad slaughter of Christians following the great fire of A.D. 64, which destroyed a large part of the city, he was executed by crucifixion. Sometime before his death, according to tradition, he provided the materials on which Mark's Gospel is based. It is even possible that he reviewed the finished Gospel himself, or an earlier version, and approved it for reading in the churches.
One famous legend asserts that when Nero's persecution first began, Peter was persuaded by the Christian community of Rome to flee the city.
One the road, however, he encounters a vision of Christ, who announces that he is on his way to Rome to be crucified a second time. Peter then returns, resigned to the fate predicted by Jesus and for which, during nearly the whole of his adult life, he had patiently waited. That he faced his ultimate ordeal with the serenity born of faith can be seen in one of his last letters, perhaps dictated in a Roman prison. "So put away all malice," he exhorted his followers, "and all guile and insincerity and envy and all slander. Like newborn babes, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up to salvation."
It is said that, at the last, feeling unworthy to die in the same manner as his Master, Peter asked to be nailed to the cross head downward. The date of the event, even after much scholarly probing to determine it exactly, can be given only as sometime between late 64 and mid 68 A.D..
It is just possible, however, that Peter did meet his death, as some maintain, in the first ferocious wave of Christian executions ordered by Nero two or three months after the great fire. If so, then a description left by a near-contemporary, the Roman historian Tacitus, affords a brief glimpse into the harrowing spectacle that accompanied the apostle's last moments. After Nero's police had swept through Rome, rounding up as many Christians as possible, several days were given over to the public executions: "Their death was turned into a diversion. They were clothed in the skins of wild beasts, and torn to pieces by dogs; they were fastened to crosses, or set up to be burned so as to serve the purpose of lamps when daylight failed. Nero gave up his own gardens [circus] or this spectacle." The orgy of slaughter became so revolting even to pagan sensibilities that among many Romans it "aroused a feeling of pity" for the otherwise despised victims.
Surprisingly, details of Peter's burial were also passed over in silence, even in most of the apocryphal writings, where imagination usually was prompt to fill in such oversights. Nowhere in any of the early documents was the location of the grave on Vatican Hill given with a precision which would allow it to be pinpointed. The sole surviving reference to the actual interment, its accuracy very doubtful, occurs in the second-century apocryphal book Acts of Peter: "Marcellus, not asking the leave of any, for it was not possible, when he saw that Peter had give up the ghost, took him down from the cross with his own hands, and washed him in milk and wine; and he cut seven minae of mastic, and of myrrh and aloes and Indian leaf fifty, and filled a coffin of marble of great price with Attic honey and laid it in his own tomb." Marcellus was a Roman senator converted by Peter, supposedly, but whether he ever in fact existed, or where his tomb may have been situated, or whether there was any slightest basis of truth in the story at all, remain unanswerable questions.
Within twenty years of Peter's death, according to one source, some sort of "memorial shrine" had been erected over the grave by Pope Anacletus, in apparent and rather surprising disregard of the pagan authorities. At the same time, it was claimed, a burial ground for future popes was also prepared nearby. In any case, that a monument did eventually adorn the grave can be taken as certain because of a chance remark made by a priest named Gaius, a known figure in the early Roman church. About the year 200 Gaius referred, familiarly and in writing, to the "Tropaion" of Peter, which he said was then standing above the actual grave, not a cenotaph, and not simply a marker fixing the place of martyrdom (its closest English equivalent, trophy, misses the full meaning and association of the Greek term). When Constantine erected his basilica about a century and a half later, it must have risen above this Tropaion, if it was then still in place.
The bronze sarcophagus supposedly provided by the Emperor for Peter's body was mentioned in documents that went back at least to the fifth century, only some hundred years after the fact. But there was much disagreement as to the full and true import of these none too clear accounts. Many rejected even the possibility, calling the bronze coffin nothing but a myth, or arguing that, in any case, Peter's remains would never have been disturbed. Others accepted a reburial as possible, perhaps even probable, but they differed as to the form of the bronze coffin. Some saw it as a square chest, about five feet on a side, buried in the original grave. Others pictured it as a large casing, fifteen feet long and nearly ten feet in both height and breadth, situated either above or below ground.
Among the excavators, Monsignor Kaas, who had long studied the question, was inclined to favor the tradition, at least in its essentials. He confidently expected to find a bronze casket, large or small, of whatever design, in or under the pile of masonry. His four colleagues were less sure. So much of precisely this sort of detail in the non-canonical writings, even in documents otherwise reliable, sprang from hearsay, misunderstanding, or pure exaggeration. Doubts were always justified, especially in the absence of corroboration from independent sources. Peter's body, or his bones, if moved at all, might have been placed in any sort of receptacle, even an urn. Despite the Marcellus legend, it was quite probable, even likely, that the original grave had been no more than a simple earthen trench, several feet below the surface, with the corpse protected by slanting marble slabs in the manner of the poor of the time. Constantine might well have preferred to leave the primitive aura of such a grave unimpaired, erecting his monument over and around it.
What form the aboveground shrine might have taken - rising in the basilica at the juncture of apse and nave - was completely unknown. Concerning only one detail did the excavators feel sure: the shrine must in some way have been centered on a large altar for the celebration of mass, with ample space around it to accommodate the daily stream of visitors. "To this tomb," one eyewitness reported even while the basilica was still under construction, "countless crowds come from all parts of the Roman Empire, as to a great sanctuary and temple of God."
What these things saw, or exactly how they went about their devotions, were matters unrecorded, except for a single tantalizing instance. A sixth-century account, referring to a time when the early shrine still stood unchanged, describes how a visitor should conduct himself, providing in the process a fleeting glimpse of the shrine itself, but telling little about the overall design. Its reference to a pious superstition of the day may indicate that the grave had not been entirely closed off:
The man who desires to pray opens the barriers which enclose this holy place and comes to the tomb. Then he opens the little window, leans his head through it and asks for what he needs. He will not have to wait long for a successful answer if he has prayed properly. If he would like to have a holy relic, he should leave a small cloth there, which he has already had weighed. Then he should pray devoutly, with watching and fasting, that the apostolic power may come to aid his devotion. And then - wonder of wonders - if his faith be strong the cloth he draws up from the tomb will be so rich with divine power that it weighs more heavily than before, and so he understands that he has received the grace for which he prayed.
The small cloth, evidently, was let down on a string through some sort of narrow shaft to make contact with the "tomb," whatever that word may here imply. It is also clear from the description that the pilgrim is on a higher level than the grave, but that perhaps meant little, since he might have had to mount a platform to reach the "barriers." So close an approach to the shrine was a privilege probably not granted to everyone.
In later centuries, on several occasions sweeping alterations were made in the shrine's superstructure. As a result, when Constantine's basilica was finally demolished in the sixteenth century, the form of the central aboveground shrine could have borne little resemblance to the original. Three times new high altars had been installed, the first about A.D. 699 by Pope Gregory the Great, the second five hundred years later by Pope Callixtus, the third in the seventeenth century by Pope Clement. But in exactly what manner all these changes had been accomplished, how much of the previous designs were obliterated, and whether the old altars were removed or left in place, were questions admitting of no certain answers.
Of more concern than the gradual metamorphosis o the upper shrine was the disturbing fact that no one definite occasion it had been sadly desecrated by foreign invaders. In August of A.D. 846, a fierce army of Saracens, numbering ten thousand men, landed in Italy from seventy-five ships and with little opposition entered Rome. Conquering armies had plundered the city several times before, but the Saracens, ferocious haters of Christianity, were the first to vent their wrath on its holy places. Storming into St. Peter's, destroying and looting, they despoiled even the high altar. While the records of this melancholy event are fragmentary, one source employs a phrase of chilling implication when it asserts that the marauding troops in the basilica perpetrated "unspeakable iniquities." Whether this mean that they broke into the space below the shrine, laying impious hands on the grave itself, no one in later centuries could tell.
When the Saracens, under pressure of Italian troops from Spoleto, withdrew from Rome and eventually from Italy, their depredations were soon patched up. For more than a thousand years thereafter, up to the moment the four archaeologists mounted their own scientific invasion, the shrine had remained undisturbed, effectively sealed off from intrusion. Only twice in all that time - once by accident and once on purpose - had anyone been afforded even a glimpse into its dark interior.
The accident, which happened in 1594, occurred while some reconstruction was in progress near the high altar. A large piece of masonry broke from the top of a pillar, plummeted down, and smashed against an undetermined part of the shrine (the documents mention a vague "floor"). The impact produced a jagged crack, and some workmen gazing in wonder through the slim opening were dazzled, as they later claimed, by the sight of a golden cross. Pope Clement, hastily informed of the damage to the shrine, immediately ordered the crack closed with cement. Further work in the vicinity was forbidden.
No proof exists that the men actually saw a golden cross, but that the shrine once included such a rare ornament was a tradition well known to the excavators. When first erected in the fourth century, the monument received from St. Helena, mother of Constantine, a sumptuous gift consisting of a kingly crown and an oversize cross, both made of pure gold. In the early days the crown had been suspended directly above the shrine's center. The sources said nothing definite about the location of the cross.
The second glimpse into the tomb took place at the end of the nineteenth century when a Jesuit historian, Hartmann Grisar, prompted by the development of the electric light, was permitted to try an experiment. His focus was the cupboard-like niche sunk into the east face, in the open area at the altar's front. Known as the Niche of the Pallia (a new bishop's official stole, or pallium, rested here overnight before being bestowed), this space contained in its ornate metal bottom a tiny hinged door which opened on a small vertical shaft. Lined with green porphyry, at least in its upper portion, the shaft was very small and narrow, measuring only five by eight inches. Thinking that this could easily be the same shaft through which early pilgrims had lowered their bits of cloth, Grisar let down a feeble electric light.
At a depth of about fifteen feet the light stopped. With his face pressed to the small opening, the anxious Grisar could make out little below except murky shadows, slowly shifting in the yellowish glare of the swaying bulb. He concluded that the shaft opened on a small chamber, apparently measuring only a few feet on a side but perhaps a great deal larger. No object was discernible in the dim circle of light, no gleam of metal. What the chamber might contain, what part of the original grave it represented, or if indeed it bore any connection with the grave at all, Grisar had found it impossible to say.