|St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City|
It was not until Constantine, the Augustus of the West, and his co-Augustus, Licinius, issued the Edict of Milan in October of 312 that the Christian Church could contemplate creating large, purpose built structures for the liturgy. As we have seen, one of the earliest of these structures, the Church of St. John Lateran, was begun almost immediately after the issue of the Edict, with the active involvement of Constantine himself. Similarly, at about the same time (319-324), another huge basilica was under construction across the Tiber River. In this location there was an open air cemetery on a hill a short distance from the banks of the river. It overlooked a road and a circus (racecourse) built by Caligula, but then known as the Circus of Nero. Nearby was the large circular tomb of the Emperor Hadrian.
|Model of the "Trophy of Gaius" over the |
burial place of St. Peter in the
necropolis underneath the basilica
St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican
|Cross section of old St. Peter's|
|Maerten van Heemskerck, St. Peter's Basilica|
Berlin, Staatliche Museen
In addition we can gain an idea of what it was like by looking at the second building that the Church commemorates today – the Basilica of St. Paul-outside-the –walls.
|Basilica of St. Paul-outside-the-walls|
This basilica was constructed about 70 years after St. Peter’s and appears to have been based on it. 4 Built over the resting place of St. Paul, the great missionary to the Gentiles, it stood for 1,500 years before partially succumbing to a fire in 1823. The nave was badly damaged, but the apse was barely touched.
|Engraving of the aftermath of the 1823 fire|
It is fortunate that its destruction came so late in time. Had it occurred in an earlier era the building would doubtless have been rebuilt in a contemporary style, just as had happened to the other great early Christian churches of Rome. But, the damage came after a full century of archaeological exploration had placed a high value on the style of past ages. Hence, it was reconstructed to look exactly as it had before the fire and reconsecrated in 1854.
The bones of Saint Paul lie underneath the main altar. In 2006 the sarcophagus containing them was uncovered for the first time in centuries and can be seen through an opening below the altar.5
|St. Paul-outside-the-walls, Interior|
These were significant structures, intended by their Imperial sponsors to make a statement about the importance of Christianity and of the persons buried underneath them. 6
1. Krautheimer, Richard. Rome, Profile of a City, 312-1308, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2000, p. 20.
2. Some relevant texts: Matthew 16:18-19, John 20:1-10, Acts 1:15-22, 2:14-40, 3:12-26, 4:8-12, Chapters 10 and 11.
3. It is possible to visit this subterranean world by applying to join a tour group through the Vatican Office of Excavations (the Ufficio di Scavi). Information at http://www.vaticanstate.va/EN/Monuments/Saint_Peters_Basilica/Pre_Constantinian_Necropolis.htm.
4. Krautheimer, op cit., pp. 42-45.
6. You can participate in virtual visits to these two churches, plus other papal basilicas and chapels at http://www.vatican.va/various/basiliche/index_en.html The speed of the servers seem to vary greatly by location.
© M. Duffy, 2011