Cemetery of the Week #92: The Tomb of St. Peter

Exterior of St. Peter's Basilica on a rainy day taken by Mason Jones

Exterior of St. Peter’s Basilica on a rainy day taken by Mason Jones

St. Peter’s Basilica
Piazza San Pietro, 00120 Rome, Italy
Telephone: + 39 06 69 885 318
Email: scavi@fsp.va
Established: 64 AD?
Open: St. Peter’s tomb and the Vatican necropolis are only allowed 250 visitors per day. A guide leads small groups of 12 at a time, so you must request a ticket well in advance. Tours last an hour and a half. Details are here.
Admission: $16.50 for visitors age 15 and up. Children under 15 are not allowed.

In the bible, one of the apostles is called Simon until Jesus says, “You are ‘Rock’ and on this rock I will build my church, and the jaws of death shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). Simon became Peter, who denied Christ three times before the crucifixion and, after Christ’s resurrection, received the command to “Tend my sheep” (John 21:16). After Christ’s ascension, Peter was the undisputed leader of the new Christian church. The modern popes draw their authority as Successors of Peter.

On July 19, 64 AD, an enormous fire started in Rome. The initial suspect was Emperor Nero, who wanted to clear the area to build a more beautiful Rome. When he began to fear the civil unrest, he blamed the Christians. At Nero’s Circus, Christians were fed to wild animals, crucified, or turned into living torches so that spectacle could continue through the night. The remains of these martyrs were taken afterward to Vatican Hill, a Christian and pagan graveyard at the edge of town.

There is no contemporary account of Peter’s martyrdom, but later historians tell us that he was crucified upside down. The earliest surviving account of Peter’s martyrdom comes from a letter written about 95 AD, several generations after his death. It says that Peter was martyred in Rome and buried on Vatican Hill.

Interior of St. Peter's Basilica showing the baldachino above the altar over St. Peter's grave.

Interior of St. Peter’s Basilica showing the baldachino above the altar over St. Peter’s grave. Vintage postcard.

In 324, the Emperor Constantine – the first Emperor to convert to Christianity – began construction of a basilica (a large oblong building with a semi-circular sanctuary on one end) over Peter’s tomb. The building enclosed Peter’s tomb on three sides and allowed pilgrims to see it on the East. It was visible until Pope Gregory the Great covered it with an altar during his reign from 590-604.

By the 15th century, the basilica was in dire straits. It had been repeatedly sacked during the barbarian invasions and completely neglected with the Popes moved to Avignon. In 1506, Pope Julius II began demolition of the old basilica. It was completed in 1593, but by then, St. Peter’s tomb was covered in construction debris and lost.

When I toured the Catacombs of Saint Sebastian, the guide told us that graffiti found there said that Saints Peter and Paul had rested there. This confused me, since I knew Saint Peter was supposed to be buried under the basilica that bears his name in the heart of the Vatican. Church doctrine holds that Peter’s bones were taken from his grave during the reign of Emperor Valerian, when Christian graves lost their protected status. They were taken to the catacombs out on the Appian Way, where they were hidden until it was safe to return them to the original grave.

The "confessio" below the altar, above St. Peter's grave.

The “confessio” below the altar, above St. Peter’s grave. Vintage postcard.

The two basilicas and their attendant buildings covered much of the ancient Roman-era graveyard, but excavations of the area continue. One excavation beneath the floor of the basilica, begun in 1940, discovered stone tablets with inscriptions that showed veneration of Peter was well underway by 120 AD. It also discovered a tomb surrounded by a brick wall, covered in reddish plaster, that bore the graffito PETR and EN, which Vatican archeologists translated as “Peter is here.” Peter was buried beneath the present altar of the “Confessio.”

In 1941, some bones were found in a niche in the red wall, wrapped in purple and gold fabric. These were declared by Pope Paul VI to be the bones of St. Peter in 1968. The bones were placed in Plexiglas containers, ten of which remain in the tomb now.

Useful links:
A virtual tour of St. Peter’s tomb

A fully-illustrated guide to St. Peter’s tomb

A map of the Vatican grottoes

The Vatican’s English-language website

Other cemeteries in Rome on Cemetery Travel:
Cemetery of the Week #8: the Protestant Cemetery of Rome

Cemetery of the Week #15: the Capuchin Catacombs

Cemetery of the Week #29: the Pantheon

Cemetery of the Week #32: the Mausoleum of Augustus

Cemetery of the Week #67: the Catacomb of St. Sebastian

4 responses to “Cemetery of the Week #92: The Tomb of St. Peter

  1. Pingback: Cemetery of the Week #99: Santa Croce | Cemetery Travel: Adventures in Graveyards Around the World

  2. Pingback: Cemetery of the Week #101: the Medici Chapels | Cemetery Travel: Adventures in Graveyards Around the World

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