Episode 37: A Visit to the Tombs Buried by St. Peter’s Basilica
When Constantine built the first St. Peter’s Basilica, he buried a burial ground that was not excavated for over 1,500 years. It included tombs of both Pagans and Christians, perhaps including that of St. Peter himself. We visit it today.
The Catacombs are the underground cemeteries of Rome’s early Christians, and in our recent discussion of them, we were struck—to speak very generally—by the simplicity of their art, its frequent representations of various saints and martyrs, and the absence of church officials, such as bishops or popes. Christ tended to be depicted as a shepherd, not as a judge or king. Above all, the images in the Catacombs advance the consoling view that Christ is by our side and will protect us even from death itself.
Scholars and tourists alike visit another site in Rome that is similar in feel to the Catacombs, but instead of having been dug deep beneath the surface of the Earth, it was built in the light of day but buried later. It is called the Vatican Necropolis, and we visit it today. What buried it was the first basilica devoted to St. Peter, the one that was replaced in the Renaissance and Counterreformation by the vast basilica we visited in episodes 15, 19, and 22.
I need to interject a quick practical point for anyone who wishes to visit this Necropolis in person. It is one of the few sites in Rome for which you must schedule and pay for your visit well in advance. Tours are organized and led by the Vatican, so if you want to arrange a visit, do a Google search for the Vatican Excavations Office, and follow their instructions. Arrange your tour well in advance. I failed to mention it earlier, but the Galleria Borghese is another site for which you need to get your tickets in ahead of time, unless, of course, a pandemic keeps the crowds away.
Reconstruction of Mausoleums before their burial (by digitalisiert von Mogadir, CC BY 3.0)
“Necropolis” is Greek for “city of the dead,” and there were several of these built on the outskirts of ancient Rome. The ancient city was concentrated in the area near the Forum and the Capitoline Hill. It had a clearly defined religious boundary, the pomerium, and burial grounds had to be outside of this boundary. The Vatican was well beyond the pomerium, and it included a necropolis used by the ancient pagan Romans. Like many others, it was a narrow street lined on both sides by little houses bunched together, but the houses were the tombs of Roman families. The tombs were decorated and contained the ashes or bodies of deceased loved ones. Most of the burials in the Vatican Necropolis took place in the second century.
As I am fond of emphasizing, the fourth century was the main century in which the Roman Empire changed dramatically from Pagan to Christian. It began with Diocletian’s persecution of Christians, and it ended with the closing of the pagan temples and with laws against pagan practices. We can thus locate the heaviest use of the Vatican Necropolis to have been about two centuries after Christ and about two centuries before the Christian faith was legalized. At this time, the Christian community was small and threatened but nonetheless was growing.
Scholars study the Necropolis to learn more about early Christianity and, especially, about ways Rome changed as it gradually became Christian. It includes many more pagan tombs than Christian ones, but there are more of the latter over time, so a visitor can compare the art and burial practices of both groups. Inhumation is the burial of the entire body, and this practice appears to have gradually become preferred over cremation during this period; and although it was especially the Christians who began to bury the whole body, pagans began to do so also.
Most visitors to the Necropolis are not scholars, but they are not exactly tourists either. I’ll call them pilgrims. St. Peter’s Basilica is believed to sit over the site of St. Peter’s tomb, and thus pilgrims have been coming to pray here since the first basilica was built. Peter, after all, was the Prince of the Apostles, the man on whom Jesus said that he was building his Church, and, according to the Catholic tradition, the first pope. But it is only since the late 1940’s, relatively recently when compared to the long life of the Church, that the old Necropolis under the basilica has been excavated. The excavations discovered tombs, and further evidence suggested that one might even have been the burial place of the saint. Then, about a decade after the tombs had been discovered, an archeologist named Margherita Guarducci claimed she had found the bones of St. Peter; and in 1968, Pope Paul VI seemed to declare that she was correct and that the bones of the saint had finally been recovered. Visiting the Necropolis thus became an act of even greater veneration. This strong contemporary interest in the bones of St. Peter also helps to illustrate a feature of the early Church, for the relics of saints have been important to it from the earliest years.
I should acknowledge that the four popes since Paul VI have not spoken with equal confidence about the identity of the bones, and even Paul showed some caution in his declaration. What he said was that the “relics” of St. Peter had been “identified in a way which we can hold to be convincing,” which implies that the evidence is not conclusive.
Apart from questions of archeology and the veneration of relics, a visit deep beneath the floor of St. Peter’s shows some of the foundations the Renaissance architects had built to support the massive dome that towers above it. It also makes it easy to believe that it was tricky business to dig out tons of earth in and around these foundations so archeologists could study what had been buried for 1,500 years. Foundations sometimes crack, after all.
Cross Section of Vatican Necropolis above and plan below
Let’s start with the question of why anyone would bury a burial ground, especially in likely violation of ancient Rome’s strict laws that protected tombs as sacred. The answer is that someone very powerful, generally agreed to have been the Emperor Constantine, decided to build one of Rome’s very first Christian basilicas on this site and dedicate it to St. Peter. As you can still infer when you walk uphill to the Vatican Museums, St. Peter’s was built on the side of a hill. To make the floor level, workers had to cut into the hill on the west end of the planned church and then use the fill to build up the lower ground to the east, which is where the Necropolis sat. This required them to move about a million cubic feet from the west and north side of the basilica to its southeast corner, which had to be built up thirty-five feet higher than natural ground level. They left the walls of the mausoleums in place but scraped off their roofs, which made a sort of honeycomb foundation to hold the fill in place. While supporting the basilica above, the filling of these mausoleums also preserved much of the Necropolis for later discovery, rather as volcanic ash did for Pompeii. This later discovery came during those tricky excavations that removed the fill from the mausoleums, thus revealing for the first time in over 1,500 years, carved stone coffins, walls painted in lively colors, mosaics, and reliefs in stucco. There are also epitaphs and brief descriptions of some of the deceased. What they found makes the Necropolis the most richly decorated burial place in and around Rome, apart from its other claims on our interest.
So, the burial ground was buried to help build a platform to support the eastern half of the first St. Peter’s, and it was kept buried to support the second St. Peter’s in the same way. But why was such an awkward location chosen for the great basilica? Why not build it on level ground? The awkwardness of the building site is one of the reasons given to support the view that the Christians at this time believed strongly that this is where St. Peter’s tomb was. Like the second St. Peter’s, the first was shaped like a cross, and it was built so that the meeting of the nave and the transept was positioned just over the presumed tomb of St. Peter. This belief might well be true, but even the first St. Peter’s was not built until 250 years after the saint’s death, and there were no detailed records of his burial. In the eyes of the Roman regime, then ruled by Nero, he would have died as a criminal, so even the recovery of his body might have been difficult. As Pope Francis put it, there has been “an uninterrupted tradition of the Roman Church” which “has always testified that the Apostle Peter was buried in the necropolis on the Vatican Hill.” This seems right: Church tradition is clear, and it was followed in locating the great basilica on the side of the hill and in burying the necropolis. What’s behind the tradition is murkier.
When descending into the excavated necropolis, we find a very narrow street or, rather, a single paved path between rows of mausoleums. The tour begins at the eastern end of the street and ends at the western end, which is directly below the crossing of the church above and at the presumed location of St. Peter’s tomb. Archeologists have mapped and labeled the tombs, and I’ll put a floorplan and links on the website. I’d also like to acknowledge that on today’s subject, I think one book stands out from among the many available; it is The Shrine of St. Peter and the Vatican Excavations, by the distinguished archeologists Jocelyn Toynbee and John Ward Perkins.
A Tomb in the Vatican Necropolis, with niches for urns of ashes and graves for bodies (Fabbrica di San Pietro)
Most of the mausoleums were built from about 125 to 200 AD, during the reigns of the so-called “Good Emperors,” which Gibbon judged to be the period “during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous.” The tombs vary in size, type and richness of decoration, and the information they convey about the families that used them. The largest (Tomb H) is about thirty feet by eighteen and is roughly five times bigger than the smallest (Tomb M). The mausoleums on the north side of the little street are often older, and their back walls were partly buried into a steep hill. Perhaps the most important subject touching them all is that of changing burial customs and ideas about death.
Besides the mausoleums, we see the contours of the hill that preexisted the basilica and thus can better appreciate the challenge of building on such an uneven site. The foundations of the huge church above are sometimes visible, including large piers that support the western end of St. Peter’s, where the enormous weight of the dome presses down from above. Weight is distributed to the piers by arches, so the excavations of the tombs could be carried out without putting the dome at risk. There are no such piers supporting the eastern end of the nave, however, which helps explain why the excavations do not continue further in that direction.
Although the excavated necropolis is not that large, differences among the tombs and their artwork make it intriguing. Comparing the older tombs with those added later shows a movement from cremation to inhumation, which is partly but not entirely explicable by the movement from a pagan to a Christian society. Inhumation required architectural changes, like thicker walls to accommodate graves, and these then reduced the space available for decorative niches or projections from the wall. The movement away from cremation thus resulted in simplicity, which was favored also by the more modest means of those using the tombs.
While the Christians practiced inhumation consistently, the pagans of this period also began to do so. Some speculate that this change in practice reflected a change in beliefs: perhaps some pagans were beginning to hope for more from the afterlife than they previously had. It would be a mistake to rely on one burial site in drawing conclusions about the relationship between Christian and pagan ideas of death. Not only is the sample size too small, but funerals may catch us in moments when we are under pressure to be hopeful and hence bury our doubts. But if the evidence in the art and the inscriptions is not conclusive, it is nonetheless intriguing.
The tombs that remain in the necropolis show other differences between pagan and Christian ideas on life and death. While these are sometimes pointed and consequential, they do not entirely succeed in obliterating similarities based on what might be called our common humanity. Christianity teaches the priority of the life to come, and early Christian art stresses this, but their graves in the necropolis, such as the one of a certain Aemilia Gorgonia, confirm that the death of a loved one is still experienced as a profound loss. And although lacking a clear, confident, and uniformly reiterated doctrine on the afterlife, pagan art in the necropolis sometimes emphasizes stories vaguely suggesting the possibility of some sort of postmortem existence. How much to explain this by grief, which recoils at the thought of permanent obliteration, or by more general changes in late pagan thought, which may have led it to become more ready to imagine a world beyond, I do not know.
Here are a few ways in which pagan myths represented in the necropolis might suggest some connection with another life: In Tomb F, a fresco of Venus rising from the sea, attended by Tritons is a possible allegory of rebirth, and beautiful landscapes may suggest a postmortem paradise. In Tomb Z, a sarcophagus shows Dionysius discovering a sleeping Ariadne, whose awakening may suggest that of an initiate in the Dionysian mysteries waking from Death’s deep sleep. Pagan sarcophagi sometimes show hunting scenes, as does the one in Tomb H, and these could suggest that death, like game, can be overcome by a skilled hunter, perhaps as the labors of Hercules imply that a life of unusual exertion might win one the status of hero. Nevertheless, as compared with these uncertain or groping interpretations, the reassurances of many passages in the New Testament make for a sharp contrast. They not only insist that the hunt for life after death can succeed, but they offer guidance about how to conduct it, so it is not surprising if these vital assurances become central themes of Christian art.
I am not an expert, but it seems to me that some of the representations of Dionysius in the Necropolis do not indicate that this god will help us escape death. The front panel of the sarcophagus in the center of Tomb φ features a naked and tipsy Dionysius, flanked and held upright by a Satyr and a Pan, also naked. Separate panels to the sides show a Maenad and a Satyr, both dancing. Still another sarcophagus featuring Dionysius is displayed in Tomb Z, where he is featured with his panther and his drinking cup. He and his companions are enjoying themselves ways that are all too obvious. Christ’s message is distinctly different.
The most arresting representation of Dionysius, or Bacchus, is in a mosaic by the entrance to Tomb φ. It captures the murder of Pentheus by his mother and other of Bacchus’s female devotees, whom the god had driven to a murderous frenzy. Read about it in Euripides, Bacchae lines 1041-1153. In the play, the Messenger draws the lesson that it is wisest to revere the gods. He acknowledges Bacchus’s power without suggesting that he uses it justly, however. On the face of it, at least, this disturbing play is a bitter indictment of the god, even as it counsels submission to him. Perhaps the gods are more powerful than human rulers but wield their power no better. If this is the message at Tomb φ, it certainly contrasts with the messages of the Christian art.
Our immediate circumstances certainly affect what we say, and perhaps even what we think; and funerals call out for sweetened words and thoughts, not our darkest intimations about death’s ravening power. Even so, the some of the art in the pagan tombs strikes me as more candid than consoling. A sarcophagus between tombs X and ψ contains a front panel with scenes from the story of Meleager, Atalanta, and the Caledonian boar, which conveys the painful parting between lovers when death intervenes. The events surrounding Meleager’s death offer no solace: the men involved are quick to take offense and revenge, while story again testifies to the power of the gods but not their justice.
Christ as Sol Invictus (Public Domain)
The mausoleum with the most consistently Christian art is also the smallest. It is Tomb M, a rectangle less than six feet wide and deep. Its mosaics all have Christian themes. On the back wall, a fisherman catches one fish, or rather a soul, while another soul swims away, a reference to the Fisher of Souls, who are blessed if caught. On the east wall, the prophet Jonah falls from his ship into the mouth of a waiting whale, or death. A sacred text, such as the pagans lacked, declares that he would later be set free, which the early Christians understood to be the resurrection even of the body. The mosaic on the opposite wall is more heavily damaged but once bore a representation of Christ the Good Shepherd, who carries on his shoulders a sheep, not one to be sacrificed on an altar, pagan-style, but one that will enjoy everlasting life with God. It too has Old Testament roots, this time Psalm 23.
Mostly intact, the mosaic in the vault is harder to interpret. It resembles pagan representations of a god of the Sun drawn in a chariot. But early Christians seemed to have taken over the pagan god, Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Son, who happened to have been reborn every year on December 25, and they associated him with Jesus. The charioteer is here represented with a cross discernable through his halo or nimbus. Just as the decorative vines in the room resemble but have a deeper and more hopeful message than the vines of the god of wine Dionysus, so Christ is like the Sun in rising from darkness and death, but he offers to believers a still richer and more durable blessing.
This quick introduction to the Necropolis has mostly avoided two topics to which I’d like to return during our next visit to Christian Rome. One concerns a pagan tomb that was discovered way back in 1626 but was deemed scandalous for its hallowed location; the other concerns what is called “Field P,” the possible location of Peter’s tomb. But for next week, it’s back to Mussolini and Fascist Rome.