THE TOMB OF ST. PETER
by Margherita Guarducci
© 1960, Hawthorn Books
(all rights reserved)
- H. V. Morton
In studying the problem of St. Peter's tomb, we find a third voice, that of the epigraphs, joining in the eloquent testimony of ancient authors and excavations. It is a voice that we must hear with the greatest attention, since the epigraphs are usually precious witnesses bringing us the direct, live echo of past events. In this case, we are dealing with epigraphs written by the faithful in ancient times on various walls of the Vatican necropolis. Almost all of them belong to the category which scholars call "graffiti": that is, epigraphs scratched on a suitable surface with a pointed instrument.
There are three groups of graffiti in the immediate vicinity of the Apostle's Memorial: (a) those on Wall G, (b) on the Red Wall, and (c) on Tomb R. To these may be added a group of inscriptions (d) written with red lead and charcoal in a niche of the Valerii tomb about twenty meters away from the Memorial.
Wall G, which has already been discussed,1 stands about six meters underneath the papal altar. When the Pope is facing the people during the celebration of Mass, this wall is on his left, that is, on the Gospel side. The wall is 0.87 meters in length, 0.45 meters thick and 0.47 meters high. This height is not, however, its original dimension; the top of the wall was cut off in the time of Constantine for the construction of the monument in honor of St. Peter.2 As I have already mentioned, it leans perpendicularly on the Red Wall,3 and was built about 250 A.D. to stabilize in some way an area that was thought worthy of particular respect. Later - apparently about 3154 - it was enclosed within Constantine's monument.
Into the thickness of Wall G, a strange quadrangular repository is set, 0.77 meters long, 0.29 meters deep and 0.31 meters high, lined with marble. This repository contained some bones, remains of some precious cloth with thread of gold woven in, pieces of ancient glass, small silver nets (perhaps used for ornaments) and coins. Scholars have disagreed considerably on this material and there have been some rather bold conjectures. Among other opinions, for example, there is one that holds that during the time of Constantine the remains of St. Peter himself were put in this container, after their return to the Vatican from a stay (which many consider proved) at the shrine in Catacumbas on the Appian Way.5 The more probable opinion, at present, seems to be that the mysterious repository was made in the time of Constantine when the monument was built in honor of St. Peter, and that it was used to hold various remains found in the vicinity. Rightly or not, these remains were apparently considered worthy of being kept in a sacred place.
Wall G, built, as I have said, about 250 A.D., was decorated on its northern side with a simple pictorial motif. The part of the wall still preserved shows a zone of red between two azure borders. For some time, the wall remained intact, then it began to be covered with graffiti. Apparently this began near the end of the third century; and the custom of writing on the wall continued until it was enclosed in Constantine's monument, about 315 A.D. As we shall see, some of the graffiti are certainly later than the autumn of 312.
But now let us glance at the inscribed section of Wall G. The first reaction to it might be one of dismay. There is a regular forest of lines, running in all directions, pursuing and running over each other. Only here and there are a few letters or, occasionally, a few short lines of letters, clearly legible.
In itself, this throng of inscriptions already tells us something important: that we are in a place much visited and venerated by the faithful. This type of evidence can be found at pagan as well as Christian shrines, in antiquity and also in our own time. Limiting ourselves to Christian antiquity, we might mention that in the Roman catacombs the wall near places where martyrs' bodies rest are usually covered with inscriptions. Thus, there are many epigraphs in the catacomb of St. Callistus on the Appian Way, near the crypt where the bodies of ancient martyr-popes lie; the same phenomenon is found in the catacomb of Priscilla on the Via Salaria near the tomb of the martyr Crescentio and in the cemetery of SS. Peter and Marcellinus on the Via Casilina near the resting places of those heroes of the Faith. All these writing belong to the faithful who, close to the martyrs' remains, wished to leave a memorial of themselves or, more often, of their deceased friends and relatives. Usually they consist of the names of persons, accompanied by a wish for salvation in the next world; simple and moving expressions of souls raising themselves toward God and, in the memory of the martyrs, asking God to grant peace to the dear spirits that have left this world.
The inscriptions covering Wall G in the Vatican necropolis are also of this kind. But there is something that distinguishes them from inscriptions in other Christian cemeteries. In the first place, they are much more crowded than usual, and this crowding does nnot merely reflect the lack of space but also, without doubt, the exceptional importance the faithful attribute to this spot. Another meaningful characteristic is their very intense use of a cryptographic system. The discovery of this cryptography, used by the faithful in the place sacred to the Apostle to express the deepest feelings of their hearts, represents - in my opinion - one of the most conspicuous benefits from my long work in the excavations under St. Peter's.
But this cryptography is also found outside the Vatican. The same keys that unlocked the "code" on Wall G also unlock the hidden meaning of other inscriptions in and out of Rome. In these inscriptions, students of Christian archaeology had already noted certain irregularities but had not considered them very important, explaining them as whims or errors on the part of those who had written the texts. But now it is possible to show that the irregularities were intentional, part of the cryptographic system whose existence is revealed to us by the graffiti on Wall G.
So far as I have been able to determine in my researches up to now, the use of this cryptography appears in laudatory epigraphs, particularly on tombs, between the second and sixth centuries. It was used in Rome and outside Rome, even in regions far from Italy. But the Roman documents are by far the most numerous, so much so that one is led to consider this a phenomenon which originated in Rome and then spread, more or less rapidly, to other parts of the Empire. Still it is possible that, as research progresses, many other examples may be found outside the City, and traces of its survival may even be observed in the Middle Ages.
But before explaining this cryptographic system, it would be well to inquire why the early Christians used it. What purpose was served by this secret and conventional mode of expressing the secrets of the Faith? The many brutal persecutions suffered by followers of Christ, from the time of Nero onward, leap immediately to mind; and certainly it is easy to see why the faithful would want to hide their identity and the most intimate, precious concepts of their Faith from the enemy. But if the historic fact of persecution had some importance in the development of this unique cryptography, it was certainly not its cause. The first roots of the phenomenon must rather be sought in two tastes which the ancient Christians had in common with the pagans of their time: a taste for artifice and a propensity toward mystery. These are two very ancient qualities. The first originated in the classical world some centuries before Christ and the second is directly connected with human nature, which finds an air of mystery most favorable for thinking of God and hearing His voice. This irrepressible thirst for the divine is precisely what men hoped to satisfy in the foundation of the famous mystery religions which, having flourished in Greece and other parts of the Eastern Mediterranean, were transplanted to Rome where they found enthusiastic adherents during the late republican and early imperial eras. But though they shared these tendencies with the pagans, the Christians made them their own, infusing in them the spirit of the new Faith.
The religious importance and also the practical value attributed by Christianity to the element of mystery can be seen, if we look closely, in the Gospels, where Christ often uses the symbolic veil of parables to hide His highest teachings. This tendency grew stronger, little by little, and finally gave birth, from the third to fifth centuries, to the so-called disciplina arcane (a term which did not come into use until the seventeenth century). This is the system set up by the Church to keep certain truths of the Faith and certain liturgical actions (particularly those of Baptism and the Eucharist) hidden form the eyes of the uninitiated, under a veil of reserve and silence, since it was believed that a gradual learning was more useful than a flash of revelation. As we approach the fourth century, the desire for secrecy becomes more lively and takes a particular form. The beauty of mystery begins to be enjoyed in itself, and the idea arises that veils of secrecy give nobility to the thoughts and actions they cover. This idea reaches its full development about the end of the fourth and beginning of the fifth century. It is shown clearly by the great Doctor of the Church, St. Augustine, who more than once in his writings praises the providential obscurity of the Bible and, at the same time, the veils with which the Church conceals the most important and delicate actions of its liturgy.
This is the spiritual climate in which the cryptographic system began and developed. As I have mentioned, it was widely used in Rome from the third to the fifth century and it is found in full bloom in the graffiti of Wall G. Its purpose was not only to give the Christians freedom to express their feeling during times of persecution, but also that of bringing by its own power, comfort to the faithful. The one who wrote must have felt the joy of expressing the highest ideas of the Faith in a brief and effective form. The reader certainly felt an equal joy, recognizing, hidden in these epigraphs, the divine truth which sustained and gave hope to his life. When the text was written on a tomb, there was also the desire to weave thoughts of salvation, and wishes for eternal joy, secretly into the names and phrases.
Now it is time to explain the keys to this cryptographic system. They are very simple keys, and their very simplicity proves that they are authentic. They can be reduced essentially to three:
attribution of the symbolic value to almost every letter of the alphabet;
The most frequent phenomenon is the first: that of alphabetical symbolism. Let us stop here for a moment to look at it more closely. In itself, it is nothing new. Everyone knows, at least, the meaning of "beginning" and "end" attributed by Christians - from the time of the Gospels until our own - to the Greek letters alpha and omega. In the Apocalypse, written at the end of the first century, these two letters, the first and the last in the Greek alphabet, are applied sometimes to God and sometimes to Christ, to say that the Supreme Being and the Son who is identified with Him are the beginning and the end of created things. It is also known, from a Christian writer who lived in Egypt at the end of the first and beginning of the second century,6 that the ancient Christians saw in the Greek letter tau (T) a symbol of the Cross; evidently because this letter resembles the Cross in its form, and also because it is derived from a Semitic sign (the taw) which the ancient Hebrews considered lucky. The letter ypsilon, which the pagan sect of Pythagoreans considered very important, was also given special values by the early Christians, its significance for them (as also, perhaps for the Pythagoreans) rising from the fact that it was the beginning of the word (hygieia) meaning "health." (In the Greek, the "h" is a simple breathing mark, making the ypsilon the first letter of the word.)
All these meanings have long been recognized, but it is difficult today to image how far the Christians had gone on the road of alphabetical symbolism. The inscriptions on Wall G and other Christian epigraphs of the first centuries show that the faithful finally came to attribute a symbolic value to many letter of the alphabet; usually to the initial letters of favorite words. Thus, to mention a few examples, E took on the meaning of Eden, N (because it was the beginning of the Greek nika) that of "victory," the R that of "resurrection" (from the Latin resurrectio), and S that of "health" (from the Latin salus), the double V (W) signified, as it does today, a widh for life (vivas or vivatis - "may you live").
Very important is the letter A, which keeps its original meaning of "beginning" in the formula (or in Latin letters AO) and in other cases takes the meaning of "life" or "Christ-life." And it is not hard to understand the reason. The idea of "beginning" could lead naturally to that of "beginning of eternal life" and later to that of "life in the absolute sense," i.e., "Christ-life," since the Redeemer is, for Christians, life par excellence. Thus we should not be surprised to read, on Wall G and elsewhere, the wish IN A (or I A) with the same meaning as IN (in Christo), and to find the well-known formula AO sometimes inverted into OA, with the evident purpose of wishing the soul safe passage "from the end to the beginning," that is, from the end of human life to the beginning of heavenly life, which is equivalent to Life in the absolute sense, or Christ. Wall G also presents frequent groups of three A's, or three V's or three N's, variously arranged. It is an ingenious way to express the concept of the Holy Trinity. In the first two cases, the three A's or the three V's evidently indicate the Trinity in its aspect of life, while the three N's are intended to exalt the eternal victory of the triune God.
The second phenomenon of this religious cryptography concerns adjoining or connected letters. The alphabetical signs are intentionally placed side by side or joined together by added lines to associate two or more concepts. The third phenomenon, that of transfiguration, consists in transforming one letter into another or into a symbol of special significance as, for example, the monogram of Christ ( or or ) to enrich the epigraph with new mystical values.
Before examining closely some of the graffiti on Wall G, it seems appropriate to consider briefly some phenomena of mystical cryptography in Roman inscriptions outside the Vatican necropolis.
1. A tombstone found in the cemetery of Sant' Ermete on Via Salaria, now kept in the Lateran Museum (Fig. 29), bears a wife's dedication to her dead husband named Renatus: RENATO COIVGI BENEMEREN(TI) ("to Renatus, an excellent husband"). Looking at this stone, one immediately notices a strange detail: from the vertical stroke of the T in Renato three small parallel lines extend to the right. Why this addition? The three lines, added to the T, produce a combination of T and E. Since the T means "Cross" and the E "Eden" (or Paradise), the union of the two letters also represents the union of the Cross to Paradise, since the Cross is the necessary condition for reaching heavenly joy. The group TE is between the letters A and O, which signify Christ as the Beginning (A) and End (O equals omega) of the universe. The meaning, then, was that in Christ, beginning and end (AO), it is possible, thanks to the Cross (T) to reach Paradise (E). Applied to the deceased, this naturally becomes a prayer for eternal happiness.
2. On a small piece of marble, coming from an unknown location in Rome and now kept in the Lapidary of the Vatican Museums (Fig. 30), we find, carved on a single line: a large vase, an M, a dove, and finally the letters RA. The vase - it is already well established - is a symbol of eternal refreshment, i.e., of heavenly life, and so also of Christ, life of the faithful; the dove usually signifies the soul of the deceased. But what is the M? As we shall see, the graffiti of Wall G demonstrate with certitude the M signified the name of Mary. And now everything becomes clear: the soul (dove) turns toward Mary and toward the mystical vase to express the idea that through Mary we reach Life, i.e., Christ; the letters RA, to the right of the little scene, are closely united and seem to sup up the scene itself. R and A signify "resurrection" and "life" and recall to our minds the famous words of St. John's Gospel in which Christ, just before the resurrection of Lazarus, says of Himself: "I am the Resurrection and the Life."
3. A gravestone in the cemetery of St. Callistus (Fig. 31) has an inscription dedicated to the exorcist Celer (the exorcist, it is well-known, had the function of driving away evil spirits through prayer) and his wife: CELERI EXORC(ISTAE) CVM COMPARE SVA IN PACE ("to Celer the exorcist, with his companion, in peace"). The upper right corner of this stone gives us a significant example of mystic cryptography. The E, meaning "Eden," is decorated with special care by a branch which crosses it and which - one might say - is intended to represent ideographically the joys of the heavenly Garden. The M of cum is strangely transfigured into a combination of M and A. Why? Notice that above the M, on the preceding line, there is a letter X. This (as is well known) represents Christ, being the Greek initial of the Redeemer's name ( ). Now, it was precisely the nearness of an M to the symbol of Christ that suggested the idea of expressing the comforting association of the names of Christ and Mary. The M, by itself, could indicate the name of the Virgin. But to make this name stand out more clearly, the M was transformed into a combination of M and A, i.e., the two letters which are the first and the last in MARIA and represent in abbreviation the name of the Mother of God. The sign , which can still be found on altars dedicated to the Madonna and other sacred objects is precisely the same. The hidden meaning of the epigraph in St. Callistus is therefore the wish that the deceased may reach Paradise (E) through the protection of Christ (X) and Mary ( ).
4. A graceful little stone in the cemetery of St. Agnes on the Via Nomentana (Fig. 32) offers us a very clear specimen of cryptography. Only the lower right corner of the piece of marble is preserved; the rest of the stone has broken off. We find a large A, certainly the end of a woman's name (that of the deceased) and, on the line below, two vertical strokes which undoubtedly belong to the number of years, months or days lived by the deceased. At right, completely isolated, is an N, whose right stroke extends strangely between the feet of a bird. The bird holds a bunch of grapes in its beak and extends it toward the A of the first line. Recalling that the N, beginning of nika, was used symbolically by Christians to express the idea of "victory," it is eay to find the hidden meaning of the little scene. The soul, represented by the bird, stands upon victory (N) to reach life (A). In other words, the wish is expressed that the deceased may enter victoriously into eternal life.
To this wish is added the meaningful idea represented by the bunch of grapes which the bird holds in his beak. The grape had a well-known and deep symbolic value for Christians; it indicated the joys of the other world, and at the same time, it often referred to the sacrament of the Eucharist which the faithful took as an anticipation and a guarantee of the joys of Paradise. In this case, the meaning might be that the soul, for which victory and life were involved, had departed to the heavenly kingdom prepared and nourished on this earth by the comforts of the Eucharist.
5. A tomb inscription, found some time ago in a Roman catacomb and now kept at Urbino in the Museum of the Ducal Palace (Fig. 33), referred to a Christian woman named Ursa. The epitaph is very brief: VRSES SEP(VLCRVM) ("Ursa's tomb"). The Greek genitive Urses instead of Ursae and the abbreviation sep. for sepulcrum are normal. But strange and very worthy of note is the disposition of the name VRSES. The V and the R are together, united with each other, and a large space separates them from the remaining letters SES. Exactly under the group VR a monogram of Christ ( ) is carved. The symbolic meaning is transparent. The intention is to state that Christ ( ) is the Life and Resurrection (VR); a thought which, applied to the deceased Ursa, corresponds to a wish that she may live and rise in Christ.
Now let us consider the graffiti on Wall G.
The first excavators of the Vatican necropolis, not recognizing the cryptographic system on this wall, could read and understand only a very small part of its inscriptions. They said that all they could find there was the name of Christ, expressed by the sign ( ), but not that of Peter. This absence of the Apostle's name, precisely in the place which more than any other should be sacred to him, naturally seemed very strange. Some scholars tried to explain it with more or less complicated reasoning, while others found it a sufficient reason to deny flatly the presence of the Apostle's tomb. In reality, the Apostle's name occurs more than once on Wall G. But it is not written out completely, rather it is abbreviated to P or PE or PET.
Peter's name is also expressed on Wall G and in other epigraphic documents by a characteristic sign: or or . This sign links the letters P and E, initials of the name Petrus, and, at the same time, reproduces the very significant for of a key.
The presence of this symbol on Wall G, with the evident meaning of Petrus, permits us to solve an age-old riddle which has irritated scholars since the eighteenth-century. Although many examples of the symbol were known, almost all of them in Roman documents datable between the fourth and fifth centuries, its meaning had never been determined. It appeared on sepulchral epigraphs, usually next to the symbol of Christ (Figs. 34, 35), on public inscriptions (such as the epigraph commemorating a restoration of the Colosseum), on mosaics, facets of rings, game boards, domestic objects of various kinds and, in particular, on medals of Roman coinage which have been found throughout the Empire.
With the discovery of the symbol's meaning, we now have an idea of the immense popularity enjoyed by Peter during the early centuries of the Church. The widespread use of Peter's name on profane objects such as rings and gaming tables might seem strange, but the difficulty vanishes when we consider that, like the symbol of Christ, that of Peter took on an added value with the passage of years: that of a charm for good luck and protection. It is also very probable that, in Peter's case, still another new meaning was added: that of a symbol of Rome. The presence of Peter's symbol on profane objects is therefore fully explainable.
The protective value was also increased by the resemblance of the abbreviation to the form of a key, a very popular symbol of good luck from ancient times to the present. Of course in Peter's case the key also has another special significance: it is an allusion to the "keys of the kingdom of heaven" which Christ conferred on the Chief of the Apostles as a sign of his authority to represent the Lord on earth and to guide the faithful to eternal salvation. The famous words of the Gospel of St. Matthew,7 in which Christ declares that he intends to give Peter the symbolic keys, very soon gave him the position of heavenly gatekeeper in the popular imagination. This idea, or more precisely the hope that the gatekeeper will open the gates of Paradise for the deceased, can be traced in a key carved, as a good luck symbol, at the beginning of a Christian epitaph taken from one of the catacombs and now preserved in the Museum of Naples (Fig. 36).
On Wall G a characteristic formula appears frequently: AP or APE or APET. In this formula we can easily recognize the name of Peter (P, PE, PET), preceded by the preposition ad, which in Latin is often reduced to a simple a. The existence of the formula ad Petrum is also confirmed by analogous formulas such as ad Crescentionem, ad Hippolytum, etc. With these expressions, the faithful were accustomed to express the nearness of the deceased to the tombs of the martyrs (Crescentio, Hippolytus, and so forth). This refers to the idea, widespread among the early Christians, that the deceased buried near the remains of martyrs would obtain from this nearness a guarantee of eternal salvation. But when it refers to Peter, the formula ad Petrum seems also to have taken on a further votive meaning: that of nearness to Peter in Paradise.
Besides Peter's name, Wall G naturally presents that of Christ. This usually occurs in the abbreviations or or (Christus Iesus) or (in only one case) the abbreviation . It often appears intimately united to the sign of Peter. This union, as can easily be seen, has a profound meaning, since it reflects the intimate link between Christ and Peter in the hearts of the faithful and gives us a very clear proof of the immense importance attributed to Peter as legitimate Vicar of the Redeemer. It even reached a point where some epithets that originally belonged to Christ alone (such as lux et dux) were extended to Peter.
But near to the names of Christ and Peter Wall G also offers, several times, that of Mary; this is another great surprise reserved for us by the precious wall. The name of the Mother of God is sometimes expressed by a simple M, sometimes by the syllable MA (which might be the first syllable of the name, or, better, its contraction: Ma(ria) or M(ari)a); but one graffito, which we shall examine in a moment, fortunately presents it complete: MARIA, and thus permitting us to recognize the Virgin's name also where it appears in the abbreviated forms M or MA.
I have already mentioned that Wall G was built around 250 A.D. and that writing on it began only several decades later; in any case the graffiti are earlier than the monument built by Constantine in honor of the Apostle, since Wall G was enclosed in that construction and - at least on its inscribed side - remained invisible and inaccessible until the excavations brought it back to light. I have also explained that Constantine's monument seems to be no later than the year 315.8 Therefore we can assign our graffiti, approximately, to the years between 290 and 315 A.D The last graffiti, as we shall see, refer to the battle of Constantine against Maxentius near the Milvian Bridge (October 28, 312). This date is in complete harmony with the character of the graffiti carved on the wall, that is, with the religious cryptography which distinguishes them, since the maximum development of the disciplina arcani was between the end of the third and the beginning of the fourth century.