THE TOMB OF ST. PETER
by Margherita Guarducci
© 1960, Hawthorn Books
(all rights reserved)
- H. V. Morton
The basilica built by the Emperor Constantine in honor of the Apostle remained substantially intact for many centuries. About the middle of the fifteenth century, Pope Nicholas V decided to replace the original apse with another much more ornate one. But it was not until 1506 that the humanist Pope Julius II commissioned Bramante to undertake a sweeping change, that is, to tear down the old building and to supplant it with a new one inspired by the renewed classical ideals of the Renaissance. The work took more than a century. Finally, on November 18, 1626, Pope Urban VIII was able to consecrate the new church. Already, work had begun on the magnificent bronze baldacchino of Gianlorenzo Bernini, inaugurated by the same Urban VIII on June 28, 1633.
The work on the new building had presented several opportunities to cast a fleeting look under the foundations of the basilica. In 1574, during the pontificate of Gregory XIII, while working on the foundations of some columns in front of the papal altar, workmen discovered a tomb decorated with mosaics. The canonist Tiberio Alfarano, reporting on this excavation, notes that the tomb was "all in ancient mosaics with figures that seemed to be horses," and he adds that the surroundings, almost filled with mortar or earth, contained a "marble platform on which there was a dead body surrounded and covered by pure lime to preserve it." Alfarano thought that this body was probably the corpse of a Christian fallen from the level of the basilica through an opening still visible in the ceiling. As I shall demonstrate in a moment, it is quite probable that the mosaic described by Alfarano is the same one that was discovered during the recent excavation in the Christian tomb of the Julii.
More discoveries were made in 1615, during the work for the foundations of the modern Confessione. We have information on this excavation from the description published in 1618 by the canonist Francesco Maria Torrigio and from a sketch engraved in 1635 by the architect Benedetto Drei. The Liber Pontificalis, edited in the sixth century, had fixed in many minds the idea that St. Peter's close successors, Linus, Cletus, etc., were buried next to Peter's tomb. The seventeenth century excavators were therefore prepared to find these venerable tombs. Thus we find Torrigio speaking of the finding of the tomb of a Pope dressed in a chasuble and pallium, and in Drei's sketch we find pictures of various corpses with this description: "These Pontiffs, marked with fasces and crosses, are Saints Linus, Cletus, Anacletus, Euaristus" etc. It was also believed that Pope Linus' epitaph had been found, but it had not come down to us.
Besides the tombs off the presumed Popes, other tombs were found, among them one from which a sweet aroma came forth. Coins from the time of Constantine, marked with the Cross, and various other objects were also found. These excavations of 1615 did not get down to the virgin soil, and perhaps not even down to the pagan stratum, but they did bring to light a small part of the burial place which had been formed under the basilica built by Constantine.
The excavations of 1626, made for the foundations of the Bernini baldacchino, went deeper. Begun on June 29, 1626, from the southeast corner off the papal altar, these were described by the canonist Ugo Ubaldini and by the author of an anonymous diary now preserved in the archives of St. Peter's. The excavations brought many tombs to light, reaching the pagan necropolis at various points. In one of these tombs, explored more deeply by recent excavations, there was found a sarcophagus that aroused great interest at the time. On the lid was represented a man lying on a couch with a cup in his hand, and on the front of the sarcophagus was carved en epigram in which the deceased, a certain Flavius Agricola, a native of Tibur (Tivoli), stated his theories as a devout epicurean. These beliefs differed considerable from those of his wife, who died before him, a good and pious woman who had been initiated into the mysteries of the Egyptian Isis.1 The pleasure-loving Tiburtine's verses caused such a scandal in 1626 that it was found necessary to throw the sarcophagus into the Tiber, but not without first copying the famous epigram which has thus been preserved for us.
It appears that the 1626 investigations reached virgin soil. But the researches ended abruptly as soon as the purpose of giving solid foundations for the columns of the bronze baldacchino had been accomplished. An irresistible prudence, almost an unconfessed fear, prevented a through investigation of the terrain. The fear of finding something down there which would contradict or modify the tradition dear to the faithful overcame the desire to appease a burning curiosity. It seemed better, all things considered, to respect the veil of prudent silence which the centuries had woven over St. Peter's tomb and to leave intact in faithful minds a consoling though unproven certitude.
Not until our own century did the time seem ripe to begin the memorable undertaking, and Pope Pius XII had the distinction of beginning it in the name of Science and of Faith.
The idea of systematically exploring the ground under the Vatican basilica may have appealed to Pius XII many years before he was raised to the Papal throne. But the real impulse came to him just before he was elected to the papacy, from the works undertaken between February 10 and 20, 1939 to prepare the tomb of Pius XI. In his will, Pius XI had expressed a wish to be buried in the Vatican Crypt, near the tomb of Pius X and as close as possible to the Confessione area. To satisfy the dead Pontiff's wished, an excavation was made along the southern wall of the Crypt. This excavation brought to light some traces of the burial place which lay underneath. This was, so to speak, the first breach in the wall of centuries. Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, having become Pope Pius XII, decided to continue what had been begun, and on June 28, 1939, vigil of the feast of the Apostles Peter and Paul, he gave the order for the investigations. So far, there have been two phases to this work. The first was carried out without interruption during the decade from 1939 to 1949, and concluded with the Holy Year, 1950. The second opened in 1953 and still continues.
The ancient street (probably the Cornelia) which ran from the Tiber to the heights of the montes vaticani2 followed a route corresponding to the modern Via della Conciliazione, St. Peter's Square, the apse of the basilica, and the site of the present church of St. Stephen of the Abyssinians. As I have explained in dealing with the Vatican in antiquity,3 there were already tombs along this road in the first century A.D. At the site of the modern basilica, the road must have been flanked on the left by the arena of Gaius and Nero; but on the right, even in this area of amusement, the line of tombs continued. At this point, the tombs must have been relatively poor and unpretentious, and perhaps this is the reason why, in the first half of the second century, large and rich mausoleums began to crowd into the same place.
But if the bodies remained physically in the tombs, did the souls also stay there? Or did they go off to dwell somewhere else, in distant, mysterious lands? On the floor of one tomb there is a mosaic showing the symbolic scene of the maiden Proserpina, abducted by Pluto, god of the dark underworld, while she was gathering flowers (Fig. 19). This scene agrees very well with the belief, widespread among the ancients, that the souls off the dead went beneath the earth into the silent kingdom of Avernus, to wonder there, pale shadows, in darkness. On the wall of other tombs are shown idyllic landscapes, or cornucopias overflowing with flowers, fruits and corn: pictures which seem to refer to those far-off isles of the blest to which - according to another idea - the souls set out, anxious to enjoy at last a serene life in a perpetual holiday of light and joy. Other walls of the necropolis show us painted pictures of Psyche and of little Cupids; and these pretty winged beings remind us that, according to an idea fairly common at the time, spirits flew into the sky, to find their final resting place among the stars or in the halo of the moon's silvery light.
Corresponding to this variety of ideas about life beyond the tomb there is a veriety of religious currents which met and mingled at this time. This variety is well demonstrated in the plaster ornaments in the tomb of the Valerii. There, beside Minerva, the wise goddess of Olympus, can be seen Isis, Apollo Harpocrates and Jupiter Dolichenus, three exotic divinities very dear to the Romans of the imperial period; while satyrs and maenads proclaim, with their frenzied dances, the invincible power of that Dionysus-Bacchus whom the pagan society of the time considered a symbol of supreme happiness in earthly life and also in the future world. It might even be said that the religion of Dionysus predominates in this silent city of the dead. The young Dionysus, with his gay cortege of satyrs and maenads, his panthers and his thrysus and his festive, heavily-loaded bunches of grapes, seems to promise, from the walls of tombs and from the carvings on marble saracophagi, the end of troubles in an eternal happy drunkenness. (Fig. 20).
This was, approximately, the spiritual milieu in which the elements of the new Faith came to find their place. Side by side with the dead pagans in this necropolis, Christians found their eternal rest. This promiscuity sprang, undoubtedly, from the desire of the faithful to place their dead in a cemetery which, as they firmly believed, held the sacred remains of the Apostle Peter.
What are the Christian elements which, not including references to St. Peter, have been found so far in the Vatican necropolis?
A very important Christian document is preserved for us in the tomb of the Valerii; but, since it also concerns St. Peter, I propose to speak of it later.5 There are also some compartments found in the tomb of the Matuccii which may be Christian, as, most probably, are the many resting places revealed by the latest excavations under the pavement in the tomb of the Valerii. There are also, here and there, funeral inscriptions which clearly refer to the new Faith. Thus, a mutilated epigraph found in the so-called tomb of the Egyptian (because of a resco representing the sparrow-headed Egyptian god Horus) is shown to be Christian by the formula in pace followed by a palm symbol. Similarly, in the tomb of the Cetennii, there are unquestionably Christian inscriptions: the epigraph of a certain Siricius (a favorite Christian name in the early centuries) and the moving epitaph of Aemilia Gorgonia (Fig. 21) a woman, according to the inscription, of "remarkable beauty and chastity." The stone is decorated with the customary motif of doves and with the unusual figure of a woman taking water from a well. The artist certainly wished this scene to represent the soul of the pious dead woman receiving the symbolic water of eternal refreshment. Other Christian epitaphs have been found in the tomb of the Valerii. The epitaph carved on the sarcophagus of one Valerinus
Vasatulus must be considered Christian particularly because of the fact that it mentions the date on which the deceased was placed in the tomb. Among the Christians, the day of burial was considered worthy of being recorded as a happy event, since it opened the gates of Paradise for the soul, while among the pagans the custom was to avoid mentioning it since it was considered a cause of everlasting sorrow. Another stone in the tomb of the Valerii, shown to be Christian by the presence of the sign of the Redeemer (), records a man of good character who, as a true Christian, had passed his life in perfect happiness: "he joked with everyone and never had quarrels."
But besides these stones which speak with suggestive frankness the language of the Faith, the necropolis has preserved for us an entirely Christian tomb which constitutes one of its greatest attractions. It is the tomb of the Julii, which was inserted between two older tombs, using their side walls. Belonging originally to pagans, as is indicated by the remains of some urns for ashes, it soon became a Christian tomb and was richly decorated with splendid mosaics. The transformation seems to have taken place in the first half of the third century. The brilliant mosaics which decorated the walls and the ceiling are now mostly fallen away, but the tesserae have left traces in the plaster, showing the design of the figures which have been lost. And the remaining section of the mosaic has a remarkable beauty and liveliness.