Vatican Grottoes, St. Paul’s Outside-the-Walls, St. John Lateran
Jun 15, 2000

Vatican Grottoes, St. Paul’s Outside-the-Walls, St. John Lateran

Jubilee Rome, Part III
Vatican Grottoes, St. Paul’s Outside-the-Walls, St. John Lateran

(Part III of V)


Vatican Grottoes

Below the main basilica of St. Peter’s, the sacred grottoes of the Vatican — the burial places of saints and popes — lie on a level between the floor of the first basilica and the main floor of the present church. This level can be reached through one of the four doorways in the main level near piers bearing the statues of Sts. Andrew, Helen, Veronica and Longinus.

The semi-circular passageway of the grotto opens onto a number of chapels and to the tombs of many popes, all wrapping around the resting place of St. Peter.

Take note of this one: in the richly decorated Clementine Chapel (named after Clement VIII), also known as St. Peter’s Chapel, the grillwork behind the altar reveals a white marble wall with red porphyry stripes. That wall touches St. Peter’s tomb below. The Apostle’s remains were discovered here during an archeological excavation beneath the basilica conducted after World War II, almost exactly at the site traditionally believed, and they were re-enshrined in 1968 by Pope Paul VI.

On the main floor of St. Peter’s, as you stand before the grand Confessio [a pit in the floor -Ed.], just in front of the high altar at the crossing, where the heralding angels point to the banner identifying this as the Sepulchre of the Holy Apostle Peter, you will see before you the ornate Pallium Niche. On the right side of the niche is a small marble wall which encloses these remains.

To view the relics of St. Peter, you must take a guided tour of the excavation.

That tour examines the subterranean level beneath this, discovered in 1939, when workers dug down to prepare a place in the grottoes for the tomb of Pius XI. They came upon the site of the first basilica, and discovered beyond that part of the wall of Nero’s circus, where games and races were held (also martyrdoms of Christians), and the ancient necropolis with it, a “city of the dead” complete with streets and mausoleums in the form of Roman houses.

Tombs of early Christians were discovered in this ancient cemetery, along with ancient graffiti on nearby walls, one of which read in Greek “Peter is here,” at about the site that was traditionally believed to hold his grave.

Within the crypt under the main floor of the basilica are hallways lined with many tombs of popes, including those of John XXIII, Pius XII, Paul VI and John Paul I. In the final corridor leading out of these grottoes, some of the columns and portions of the wall from the 4th century Constantinian basilica are exposed. And on a stairwell near the exit is a statue of St. Peter that resembles the popular one in the basilica. This statue was originally a representation of a pre-Christian philosopher, found without a head or hands. In 1565 it was given St. Peter’s name and traditional features, and placed here.

St. Peter’s Square

In front of St. Peter’s Basilica is the piazza, designed by the 17th century sculptor Giovanni Bernini, wrapped by the embracing arms of the colonnades which hold the great assembly of Christians.

The obelisk in the center was brought to Rome from Hierapolis by emperor Caligula in the year 37 and erected in his circus, better known as Nero’s circus. At that time, its location was on the left side of the basilica, near where the sacristy now stands. It is amazing to consider that St. Peter likely saw this same obelisk on his way to his crucifixion. In 1586 the obelisk was moved, over a period of four months, to the center of the piazza (825 feet), and was topped with a cross (and a relic of the True Cross), bringing its height to 135 feet.

On the left side of the piazza, as you face the basilica near the steps to the porch, and through an arched entrance to the grounds of St. Peter’s where Swiss Guards are stationed, is the office where pilgrims can make reservations for the tour of the excavations beneath the grottoes. (Applications are accepted Mon-Sat from 9 am to noon, and again from 2 to 5 pm.)

Much useful information can be obtained from the Vatican Pilgrim and Tourist Information Office on the same side of the piazza, near the Post Office and bookstore. They have information about tours of the basilica, the Vatican gardens and the museums.

Audiences, Masses and Adoration

Papal audiences are held on Wednesday mornings, either in St. Peter’s Square or in the Paul VI Audience Hall, just behind the colonnade to the left. Tickets are required. It is best to ask your local bishop’s office ahead of time to arrange it for you.

The dress code at St. Peter’s is always in effect and enforced by guards at the door of the basilica: no shorts, no short skirts, no bare shoulders for women at any time.

Masses are said at St. Peter’s Basilica almost continually in any one of the many chapels, and confessions are heard throughout the day in many different languages.

There is perpetual Eucharistic Adoration in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel inside the basilica, on the right aisle just before the crossing. All pilgrims to St. Peter’s will wish to make a visit to the Blessed Sacrament here.

In Tertio Millennio Adveniente, Pope John Paul II writes: “The Year 2000 will be intensely Eucharistic: in the Sacrament of the Eucharist the Savior, who took flesh in Mary’s womb twenty centuries ago, continues to offer himself to humanity as the source of divine life.”

And in the 2nd century Didache, or Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, we read:

In regard to the broken bread: We give you thanks, our Father, for the life and knowledge which you have made known to us through Jesus your Son. Glory be to you forever. As this broken bread was scattered on the mountains, but brought together was made one, so gather your Church from the ends of the earth into your kingdom. For yours is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ forever. Let no one eat or drink of the Eucharist with you except those who have been baptized in the name of the Lord…

Didache (ca. 140 AD)

St. Paul’s Outside-the-Walls

The Apostle Paul was martyred in Rome around the year 67 during the persecution of the Emperor Nero.

He was buried by Christian faithful on this site on the Ostian Way, some distance from the city walls. In 324, during the construction of St. Peter’s, the Emperor Constantine began erecting a basilica over Paul’s burial site, and placed the Apostle’s body in a bronze sarcophagus covered with a marble slab.

The next three emperors (Valentinian II, Theodosius and Honorius) added on to the church, and in the ninth century, Pope Leo turned it into the largest and most beautiful church in Rome at that time.

In July 1823 a tragic fire destroyed most of the basilica. Pope Leo XII was elected soon after, and began rebuilding this beloved basilica with donations coming from all parts of the world. Work extended over the next 30 years and three popes, and an essentially new building replicating the old was completed and was consecrated by Pius IX in 1854.

Facade mosaics

The facade of St. Paul’s is covered with brilliant mosaics made from the gold glass usually found in Byzantine art, symbolizing God’s glory and splendor. The effect is spectacular. Christ is seated in the center on a throne, his hand raised in blessing, with Sts. Peter and Paul on either side. Below them is the Lamb of God on a mound from which the four rivers of Paradise flow. Twelve sheep, representing the apostles, approach the lamb from the holy cities of Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Below this, between the windows, are the four major prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel.

In the center of the courtyard is a statue of the tenacious St. Paul with the inscription “To the preacher of truth, the teacher of nations.”

The center bronze door to the basilica holds panels depicting scenes from the lives of Sts. Peter and Paul, and they highlight the events of Jesus giving the keys to St. Peter, and St. Paul’s conversion.

The door on the far right is the Holy Door, which was originally the main entrance to the basilica before the fire of 1823. Crafted in Constantinople in 1070, this Byzantine bronze and silver door has 55 panels with scenes from both the Old and New Testament and the lives of the apostles and martyrs.

Arch of triumph

Inside, this basilica is most representative of early Christian churches with its long, rather dark, open nave. The intention of an open expanse was to allow the faithful space for movement to and from the altar unobstructed. The arch framing the sanctuary was also the idea of the early Christians, who borrowed it from the Romans.

Triumphal arches were built by Romans to honor victors in battle, and the Christians knew there was no greater honor and no greater victory than that of Christ. So the triumphal arch entered the sacred spaces of the church. This one bears the scene from the Book of Revelation with twenty-four elders dressed in white robes, bearing crowns in homage to Christ. And in the center is the rendering of Christ as Lord of the Universe, Pantokrator, Lord of all things.

Before Him, along the walls of the nave are the famous mosaic portraits of the popes, from Peter to John Paul II. The portrait of Pope John Paul II, near the right transept, is always lit. Above these are frescoes of the life of St. Paul.

The outer walls of the nave contain ten niches with statues of the apostles. Peter and Paul stand at the base of the columns holding the triumphal arch.

Inside the altar, behind a grille on its front, a red light perpetually burns to designate that this is the resting place of St. Paul. Below the altar in the Confessio is a crypt similar to that in St. Peter’s, which holds the sarcophagus with the inscription “To Paul, Apostle and martyr.”

The apse mosaic behind the altar shows Christ surrounded by his Apostles, and a Greek cross covered with gold and jewels to signify his glorious victory over death. Near the altar stands a very old and precious paschal candlestick carved with scenes of Christ’s Passion. What made it unusual for its time (about 1200) was its depiction of Christ on the cross.

In the left transept are two very interesting side chapels. One is dedicated to St. Stephen, the first martyr, whose stoning was witnessed by Paul before his conversion. The one next to it, the Blessed Sacrament Chapel designed by Carlo Maderno, was the only one not destroyed in the great fire. On the altar here is the 14th century crucifix which is said to have spoken to St. Bridget of Sweden when she came to Rome for the second Holy Year in 1350. A kneeling statue of the saint is nearby, shown speaking with Christ. St. Bridget has always been regarded along with St. James as a patron saint of pilgrims.

The 13th century Benedictine cloister here is considered the most beautiful in Rome. It was designed by Pietro Vassalletto, who also created the elaborate Paschal candleholder. Next to it is the chapel of the relics, containing the chains that once bound St. Paul while he was a prisoner in Rome.

“I remind you to stir into flame the gift of God that you have through the imposition of my hands. For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice but rather of power and love and self-control. So do not be ashamed of your testimony to our Lord, nor of me, a prisoner for his sake; but bear your share of hardship for the gospel with the strength that comes from God.”

– 2 Timothy 1:6-8

St. John Lateran

Over the doorways of the facade of the basilica of St. John Lateran, the inscription reads: “Mother and head of all the churches of the city and of the world.”

This great distinction and honor owes to the history of the Lateran as the cathedral of Rome and as the location of the papal palace and seat of the Church’s government for many years before the papacy moved to the Vatican.

Between the 12th and 16th centuries, five ecumenical councils were held in this basilica and adjoining palace. The popes resided here from the time Constantine had this basilica built until 1304, when they moved to Avignon.

It is an amazingly resilient basilica: ransacked and destroyed by Vandals, then damaged in 896 by an earthquake and destroyed twice by fires in 1308 and 1360, it was rebuilt and fully restored to its grandeur.

The name “Lateran” comes from the Laterani family who owned the land until it was confiscated by Nero. It came into Constantine’s possession, and he donated the site to Pope Melchiades (311-314) to build the first papal cathedral and residence in Christian history.

It was first dedicated to Christ the Redeemer, and later to St. John the Baptist and then St. John the Evangelist. Statues of the Savior and both Saints John are found in the center of the facade. The other statues are of Doctors of the Eastern and Western Churches. The bronze entrance doors in the center are from the Curia, or Roman Senate, in the Forum. The Holy Door is on the far right.

Inside, a fragment of the famous Giotto fresco of Boniface VIII proclaiming the first Holy Year in 1300 is on the first pillar on the right.

By the second Holy Year of 1350, Pope Clement VI decreed that St. John Lateran be added to the basilicas of Sts. Peter and Paul as holy sites of pilgrimage to visit in order to obtain the Jubilee indulgence.

First image of Christ

One of the reasons for this was to encourage veneration of the image of the Redeemer in the splendid apse mosaic, believed to be the first image of Christ to be seen in public, and therefore the model for those that followed. Romans believed that Christ had visited this basilica in person at the time of its consecration and left his impression upon the apse wall, as he had on Veronica’s veil.

This image dates back to the original 4th century Constantinian era, though the rest of the mosaic came much later in the Holy Year of 1300. In it, a gem-studded, glorified cross is centered on a solid gold background, with the four rivers of Paradise flowing from it, quenching the thirst of the deer which represent our souls thirsting for the Lord. The cross is surrounded by the Blessed Virgin, St. John the Baptist, Sts. Peter and Paul, and Sts. John the Evangelist and Andrew.

Because both the pope (Nicholas IV) and the artist who created it (Jacopo Torriti) were Franciscans, they also included the two greatest saints of their order, St. Francis of Assisi and St. Anthony of Padua.

Inside the papal altar, part of a wooden table is enshrined which is believed to have been used by St. Peter to celebrate the holy Eucharist while he was a guest in the home of a Roman senator on the Esquiline hill.

The table was brought here and enclosed in the papal altar, so that the successors of Peter could celebrate the Mass on the same altar table used by the apostle himself.

Over this altar, the two reliquary busts of Peter and Paul were long believed to hold the heads of the two apostles, though they actually carry relics touched to their holy remains.

The Confessio in front of the altar contains the tomb of Pope Martin V, who renovated St. John Lateran, and whose papacy ended the Great Western Schism which had divided the Church for 39 years. He brought about moral healing to a wounded body. This is a good place to pause for thought about the feat of unifying a divided church.

Another table, and sacred relic, enshrined here is believed to be part of the table used at the Last Supper. St. Helen, the mother of Constantine, recovered a portion of the table and brought it here from Jerusalem. It rests above the Blessed Sacrament altar, behind a bronze relief of the Last Supper.

The Baptistry

The Baptistry here, built by Constantine, was the first in the Western world. Popular belief was held for a long time that Constantine himself was baptized in this immersion font, but in fact he took the extreme risk of waiting until he was on his deathbed, so that he could sin no more after receiving this sacrament.

When the popes were in residence at the Lateran, they maintained a private chapel across the piazza which has come to be known as Sancta Sanctorum, the Most Holy Chapel, because of the sacred relics contained there.

Over the altar is an ancient image of Christ believed to be an acheropita, an image not painted by human hands, but possibly by angels. The inscription above it reads: “There is no holier place in the world than this.”

The ascent to this chapel is by the Scala Sancta, the Holy Stairs believed to have been the very same ones which Jesus climbed in the court of Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem to begin his Passion. Also brought by St. Helen, the stairs were covered with wood for protection. Pilgrims can always be found ascending on their knees here, reverencing each step in prayer.

“Pilate entered the praetorium again and called Jesus, and said to him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ … Jesus answered, ‘My kingship is not from this world … For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice'”.

– John 18:33,36-3.

continue to Part IV

Sheila Gribben Liaugminas