Friday, November 18, 2011

Basilicas of Saints Peter and Paul – November 18

St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City
During this month of November the Church commemorates the construction and dedication to Christian worship of some of the earliest structures specifically built for that purpose. In her first three centuries Christians had been meeting in whatever location they could find that was suitable for the purpose of performing the developing liturgy. This might be in a private house, in a meeting hall or in buildings such as apartment houses, owned by members and renovated to provide space for the congregation and the priest. (In Rome, these were the tituli, some of which still survive through the churches constructed later on top of them.)  There were also gathering places in association with the graves of the deceased, especially of the highly venerated martyrs, in locations such as the catacombs of Rome or in other, open air cemeteries in Rome and elsewhere. But none of these were on anything like a par with the temples of the Greek, Roman or other religious cults of the time.

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
This cemetery was not very different from our own contemporary American cemeteries. There were numerous mausoleums, owned by rich families, and there were humble graves, set directly into the earth.

One of these simple graves was special to the Christians of Rome and to Christian visitors, as indicated by the inscriptions found all around it. In it was buried Peter, leader of the first Apostles, and first bishop of Rome, who had died in the persecution of Nero. He had been crucified (upside down according to tradition) in the circus just across the road, and his body had been carried into the cemetery where he was buried. Within a short time after his death
a small marble monument, resembling a miniature temple façade, was erected over the grave (see model at right).

As Richard Krautheimer, the great historian of early Christian architecture, points out, it was only the graffiti that surrounded the location that makes this resting place different from hundreds of others in the cemeteries surrounding Rome.1  For, the inscriptions indicate that the man buried in this commonplace grave was Peter, leader of the Apostles and first bishop of Rome, the “Rock” on whom Jesus said that He would build the Church.2

The importance of the grave to Christians can be clearly seen in the way in which Constantine’s architects planned the new building. With Imperial power behind them, they leveled the hill, removing the roofs of the private mausoleums and filling the shells with the dirt and debris of their excavation. Above the grave of Peter they constructed the altar, the focal point of the huge new basilica.

This basilica stood for over a thousand years, until in the late 15th century the decision was made to replace it with a new church. 

While Constantine’s building rose in less than 10 years, it took nearly a century to build the new one, which we see today.

The “new” St. Peter’s was built over the Constantinian basilica and there is one constant point of reference. The altar of today still stands directly over the grave in the Roman cemetery. The “Rock” still lies in the deepest layer. 3

This cross section of St. Peter's shows the three layers we see today:  at the top in brown ink is the current basilica, below that in black ink are the remains of the Constantinian basilica (now called the grottoes and open to the public), at the lowest layer in purple ink is the necropolis, where the tomb of the Apostle lies.  It may be visited by appointment.  Below the cross-section is the plan of the excavated parts of the necropolis.

Another look at the relation of the layers of St. Peter's through a comparison of floor plans.  In red we can see the layout of the necropolis, on top of this is the straight lines of the basilica of Constantine in purple, with radiating chapels built out of it that are shown in green, and finally we can see the huge outline of the current church.

The original St. Peter’s was destroyed in the process of building the current structure, but we can get some idea of how it looked from old drawings. 

Cross section of old St. Peter's

Maerten van Heemskerck, St. Peter's Basilica
Dutch, c.1535
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
In St. Paul’s we can gain a good idea of what the Constantinian churches looked like. These were simple structures with long naves (central part of the church), side aisles and a semi-circular apse at the end opposite the entrance. The interior space is vast and clear, obviously intended to handle large crowds of worshippers. It was also richly decorated. In front of the building there is an open space called the atrium, surrounded by colonnades.

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

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 The speed of the servers seem to vary greatly by location.

© M. Duffy, 2011

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