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Where Is The Burial Tomb of St Peter ?

St Peter's tomb

In 1939, on the orders of Pope Pius XII, extraordinary excavations began in the Vatican. Archaeologists are looking for the tomb of the one who was the first companion of Jesus, the apostle Peter, who was tortured, according to tradition, in the circus of Nero in 67.

On this stone I will build my Church

The exploration of the Vatican Basilica is of great importance. Indeed, the Bishop of Rome is considered the heir of Peter, himself designated by Jesus to be the “foundation of the Church of Christ”. Now, if the basilica is indeed built on the site of the apostle's tomb - “and I tell you that you are Peter and that on this stone I will build my Church” -, the primacy of Rome at the head of Christianity is strengthened by it.

The sacrifice of the founder of the Christian Church

The tradition that Peter was sacrificed in Rome, during the reign of Nero, is late. It is developed from the third century only and taken up by later hagiographical texts. It is said that Peter lived in Rome for 25 years. Arrested, he is condemned to be sacrificed at the same time as Paul. The latter, a Roman citizen, has his head cut off; Peter, like his master, is dedicated to the crucifixion. Executed upside down, because he does not feel worthy of being martyred in the same position as Christ, the apostle would therefore have died in the circus of Nero which would be on the current site of St Peter's Basilica.

Rome overwhelmed by history

It is possible, however, that the place serving since the 1st century as a center of worship and pilgrimage in honor of St Peter is not really the place of burial but only a place consecrated later to the saint and his martyrdom.

The tumultuous history of the city supports this hypothesis: Rome is devastated by waves of barbarian invasions in the 5th century, then, at the end of the 10th century, a huge fire damaged the basilica.

Finally, in 1527, the city was again ravaged, this time by the Germans. The remains could therefore be moved by the faithful to be protected or it could have disappeared, during successive disturbances or in the turmoil of the first Christian persecutions.

Archaeologists to the aid of the Holy See

The work ordered by Pius XII aims to excavate the basements of the basilica, at the place called the “confession” of Saint Peter, that is to say a place fitted out during the Renaissance so that the faithful can celebrate the apostle. Research by archaeologists must provide proof that, in the 4th century, the Emperor Constantine chose to build the first basilica above the place of martyrdom and the apostle's burial tomb.

But the results of the excavations reveal much more. There is indeed under the foundations of the basilica an immense necropolis and not the remains of a circus: dozens of tombs, mostly pagan, have been discovered in this place. It is more than possible that Saint Peter was buried in this cemetery: archaeologists in fact discovered an empty zone there, on which the other tombs do not encroach and, extraordinary fact, this space is exactly under the “confession”. In addition, the excavations reveal that in the 1st century a wall whitewashed with red was raised to delimit the zone; in the following century, the wall was increased and reinforced. The proof is made that there was a sacred space that we wanted to delimit by a protective partition.

The choice of the site of the construction of the basilica by Constantine could therefore be easily explained: above the tomb of St Peter, the founder of the Roman Church.

Is the mystery solved?

The report which closes the case, 10 years after the start of the excavations, concludes to the presence of the tomb of the apostle St Peter under the basilica. But what about the body itself? Bones were indeed discovered in secret niches dug in this red wall. Why would we have hidden human remains if they were not those of an important person whose relics we absolutely wanted to preserve, in a time of unrest like that of the barbarian invasions? Thanks to a bundle of presumptions, archeology would therefore come to support the tradition and the mystery on which the primacy of Rome over Christendom depends thus seems resolved ...

St. Peter's Basilica

Built in 324 during the reign of Constantine, the first basilica is a huge building with 5 naves. From the beginning of the 16th century, under the auspices of Pope Julius II, it was totally transformed. A grandiose project, based on an immense dome carried by a “Greek cross” (the 4 branches of the nave were of equal length), is proposed by Bramante.

The architect died before having completed his work, but the work was continued by Giuliano da Sangallo, then by Raphael (until 1520) and finally by Michelangelo. When Michelangelo died in 1564, the two arms of the transept, the apse and the part which supported the dome (drum) were completed and it was Giacomo della Porta who continued this immense project.

At the beginning of the 17th century, at the time of the Counter-Reformation, Pope Paul V ordered that the Greek cross be transformed into a Latin cross. The nave was then extended by Carlo Maderno. The splendor of the building is complete when Bernini raises the baldachin inside, a masterpiece of Baroque art (1623-1633).

Outside, St. Peter's Square itself is a hymn to Rome's power. It is presented as a closed stage, surrounded by a quadruple colonnade (built by Bernini in 1657-1667) at the top of which are 140 statues of saints. In the center rises an obelisk from Heliopolis, on the very spot where the Circus of Nero once stood, the place of torture of the first Christians.