So here’s my final post of this three-part series about the Vatican Necropolis under Saint Peter’s Basilica and the Tomb of Saint Peter.
In the first article we covered some generalities and the historical background for Saint Peter’s Basilica.
In the second article we went one by one through the mausoleums in the Vatican Necropolis tour, explaining each major highlight.
Today we finally reach St Peter’s Tomb!
Who was St Peter?
Peter was one of Twelve Apostles who accompanied Jesus.
After Jesus’ death, Peter led the founding the Christian church and became the first pope.
What we saw last time
Here’s an elevation view of the mausoleums we visited in the last article. We started from right to left of this diagram (east to west) going up the slope of the Vatican Hill.
You also need to understand the following drawing:
Saint Peter’s Basilica has three levels.
Level 1: The present Basilica in black.
Level 2: The Papal Grottoes in magenta.
Level 3: The Vatican Necropolis in blue.
The floorplan we used in the second article is the blue portion of this cross-section drawing.
The drawing in the previous paragraph is also the blue portion. Can you see it?
How did the tomb of Saint Peter come to be?
It’s very important that you watch this video before moving on, because it explains what we will be seeing and the terminology.
If the video is too small for you, you can watch it here in YouTube.
Let’s resume our tour
I will be using different views of the same place to explain what we are actually seeing.
Last time we were in Mausoleum S and I’d told it was mostly filled by the foundations for Bernini’s Baldaquino
At this point in the tour you’re in a corridor outside of Mausoleum S on its south side, not actually in it:
Here’s a closer look:
You are seeing the underground tomb as it looks today, from the south side. This area is under the Trophy of Gaius.
Here’s another view:
Then you go through the door on your left and encounter the Clivus!
Here’s a reconstruction drawing of the Clivus:
Next, you go up a flight of stairs. You are now on the second level, the Papal Grottoes level.
Number 20 is the Clivus, see Mausoleum S on its right? Where we are now is not visible because we’re on the south side just above the Clivus, just outside of the Clementine Chapel (number 6) which I’ve highlighted in red here.
We need a floorplan of the second level, the Papal Grottoes level:
The Papal Altars
In the last part of the video above, we saw that Gaius Trophy was protected by two adjacent walls perpendicular to the Red Wall, walls s and g, being g the thickest.
In this model we can see wall g on the right side of the Trophy. The transparent structures above represent the bases of Bernini’s Baldaquino.
Constantine encased the Trophy of Gaius in a marble enclosure to protect it, discarding the top part of the monument.
The marble box had porphyry vertical decorations, with white and blue marble as the main body, like we see in this model:
This monument from Constantine was covered by its own canopy called the Memoria.
After Constantine, three different Popes made changes to the altar, the first being Gregory I (590–604) who wanted to perform mass on top of Constantine’s monument and the tomb itself and for that, he raised the floor.
He also made it possible to visit Saint Peter’s tomb from behind and so he made a small altar behind it.
Later on Pope Callixtus II (1123) had another altar covering the one from Pope Gregory.
And finally Pope Clement VIII (1594) had the present altar built on top of the others.
Here’s an image from the Virtual 360° tour of the Vatican Necropolis that shows us the different altars and an excavation image that shows us Gregory’s small altar still in place on what is now the Clementine Chapel.
Let’s go back to the tour
Here is the same image, with a montage of the Trophy as it’s positioned from this point of view. Can you see the small marble column? That’s the left column of the Trophy of Gaius.
The marble portion on top of it is part of Constantine’s Memoria, the marble box in which the Trophy was encased. Here’s another view:
Next you step into the Clementine Chapel
See what’s behind the circles lattice? It’s the back of Constantine’s Memoria (which has been reconstructed) with its central vertical porphyry stripe.
Here’s another look:
The bones of Saint Peter
Next you’ll be asked to go across the Chapel through another door on the west side:
What you are looking at now is wall g, the graffiti wall, which is named after all the graffiti that people throughout the centuries carved on its surface to let others know that they were there.
Here’s what you see:
Here’s another view (see the niche with the bones in the middle left of the image?):
But there’s more… At the time of Constantine a niche was carved inside wall g and some bones were preserved there in royal purple and gold fabric wrappings.
They remained inside the niche until the excavations in 1941 when they were taken to a nearby location up to 1953.
Then Professor Margherita Guarducci had the bones examined. The studies revealed that they belonged to a robust man, approximately 60 to 70 years of age.
Earth incrusted in the bones confirmed that they were previously buried in the ground.
These facts and the expensive wrappings are another indication that these are likely to be the bones of Saint Peter.
In 1968 Pope Paul VI announced that the bones of Saint Peter had been discovered.
The bones were placed in 19 plexiglass containers, ten of which are inside the niche in wall g, as you can see in the image above. Here’s a closer look:
And here’s a couple more views of the graffiti wall g:
Here’s a view of the niche in wall g in a model:
Another indication that archaeologists believe points to this being the real tomb of the Apostle Peter is an inscription in a tiny piece of stone that fell from the Red Wall, that is believed to have said “Petros eni” which means “Peter is here”.
Once you’ve seen the graffiti wall and the bones, you’ll go back to the Clementine Chapel, and this is the tricky part:
If you’ve done your homework beforehand you’ll recognize that behind the altar inside the Clementine Chapel is actually Gaius Trophy partially covered by the monument of Constantine I.
I appreciated that our guide was pretty honest about the certainty with which the church affirms that these are Saint Peter’s bones.
She never said they were. She said, archaeological and circumstantial evidence point to this fact and Christians choose to believe that they are real.
The Confessio and the Niche of the Pallia
Back inside the Clementine Chapel you’ll exit from the back through an iron gate. The guide will close the gate behind you and you can’t go back.
Then you will be escorted towards the Grottoes and you’ll pass in front of the Confessio on the level of Constantine’s Basilica.
Tthis is what you see through glass doors:
Here’s the Confessio seen from the main level of Saint Peter’s Basilica:
People are not allowed access to the Confessio. The small doors on the front are closed. Notice the columns of Bernini’s Baldaquino on the upper part of the picture.
Here’s a closer view from Maxwell School of Syracuse University.
The center piece, with the mosaic is the Niche of the Pallia, “Pallia” being the white stoles priests wear around their necks.
Notice how the niche is a bit off-center?
If you look closely to the two following diagrams (though dimensions do not match between them), you’ll see the Niche of the Pallia is actually part of Gaius Trophy.
That’s right, Gaius Trophy is right behind the mosaic veneer and marble covering.
When you look down to the Confessio from the Basilica, you are actually seeing the ancient monument that stood on top of the Apostle’s grave.
Here’s a final ten minute video explaining this in a very easy way:
If you’ve visited the Vatican Necropolis, share your experience!
And if this material was in any way helpful for you and your next cultural travel to the Vatican, please leave me a comment!
- Two videos from Father José Antonio Iñíguez, a Spanish priest who explains everything about Saint Peter’s Tomb (in Spanish).
- Video music: J. S. Bach: Brandenburg Concerto No4-1 BWV1049 by Kevin MacLeod.
- Virtual 360° tour of the Vatican Necropolis