|01-12-2013 - Traces, n. 11
“Peter Is Here”
An Adventure in the Vatican Grottoes
For the first time, the Pope showed the relics of St. Peter to the world. Where do they come from? We present here a brief history of a discovery that shook the Church.
by Pina Baglioni
It finally happened: on November 24th, at the conclusion of the Year of Faith, and for the first time in the history of the Church, the relics of the Prince of the Apostles were exposed for veneration by the faithful, thanks to another extraordinary gesture by Pope Francis.
They were not the sacred remains kept below the Altar of the Confession in St. Peter’s Basilica, but some fragments gathered in a reliquary that Pope Paul VI had wanted in his private chapel in 1968, three years after the identification of St. Peter’s relics, which occurred in 1965 through the research of Margherita Guarducci, internationally renowned archaeologist and epigraphist.
Considering the occasionally incomprehensible events that accompanied the Apostle’s relics for a long time, the exhibition on November 24th arouses both emotion and gratitude. It also arouses a thought for Margherita Guarducci, who died on September 2, 1999—and who, immediately following the death of her dear friend Paul VI, was impeded, permanently, from going to visit the tomb of Peter to honor those sacred remains that she herself had identified.
It is interesting to consider that, until very recently, the guides didn’t mention the relics of the Apostle during tours of the necropolis. If questioned on the subject, some would respond offhandedly that it was only one archaeological hypothesis among many—a full-fledged damnatio memoriae, condemnation of memory.
From Constantine to Michelangelo
Pius XII, Paul VI, and Margherita Guarducci: the story of the identification of the sacred remains of St. Peter revolves around these three. It all started thanks to Pius XII, who in 1939 made a momentous decision, unique in all of the Church’s history, to begin an archaeological investigation beneath the papal Altar of the Confession in St. Peter’s Basilica, with the goal of locating the Apostle’s tomb.
There was no doubt that the tomb was there: the superimposition of numerous monuments in the same place demonstrated the continuity of a cult that, beginning in 64 AD—the year of Peter’s martyrdom—had been passed down through time—not to mention the numerous literary sources. In the first decade of the 4th century, Constantine the Great wanted to protect Peter’s resting place within a stone monument, in order to then raise above it, in 320, a marvelous basilica in honor of the Apostle. From that moment on, Peter’s tomb would be the exact center of all that would develop above and around it over the course of centuries. At the beginning of the 7th century, Gregory the Great raised an altar on the Constantinian monument. In 1123, it was Callistus II’s turn to top Gregory’s altar with his own. And then came the Altar of the Confession, commissioned by Clement VIII in 1594. But that’s not all: the construction of the new St. Peter’s Basilica, which began in 1506, had rigorously respected the centrality of the tomb. And finally, the peak of Michelangelo’s cupola was perfectly perpendicular to the tomb of the Apostle.
Returning to the excavations ordered by the Pope, they lasted from 1939 to 1949, partly due to the many interruptions caused by the war. The work was guided by four scholars of archaeology, architecture, and art history: Bruno Apollonj Ghetti, Fr. Antonio Ferrua S.J., Enrico Josi, and Fr. Engelbert Kirschbaum S.J., under the direction of Monsignor Ludwig Kaas, secretary of the Reverenda Fabbrica di San Pietro. The archaeologists initially found Constantine’s monument, encased in marble and porphyry. The front side showed an opening that corresponded to the present Nicchia dei Palli, in the Vatican Grottoes; the back is visible today behind the altar of the Clementine Chapel.
And, by excavating beside and below Constantine’s monument, the archaeologists found a small niche formed by a table supported by two small marble columns: the “trophy” mentioned in the sources from the first centuries. The niche was against a wall painted red (the so-called “red wall”). And below the niche, a tomb appeared in the bare earth. It was the tomb of the Prince of the Apostles—but it was empty.
The final report on the excavations, published in 1951, affirmed that the inscriptions scattered on the surface of the wall to the right of the niche, called the “g wall” (perpendicular to the “red wall”), had been judged indecipherable.
At the conclusion of the Jubilee of 1950, Pius XII wanted to announce the discovery of Peter’s tomb. Two months after the publication of the final report, a curious episode occurred: Fr. Antonio Ferrua, one of the four scholars who had participated in the excavations, published an article with a drawing that he had made of the “Trophy of Gaius,” on which appeared a Greek inscription—“Petros eni” (Peter is here).
Something clearly did not add up with respect to the final report on the excavations. The article, and Fr. Ferrua’s drawing of the inscription, aroused the curiosity of Margherita Guarducci, Professor of Epigraphy and Ancient Greece at Rome’s La Sapienza University and Lincean Academy. In May 1952, the scholar descended into the subterranean passages for the first time, in order to see that phrase written in Greek—but she found no such inscription. Rather, she realized that a piece of plaster had been removed precisely at the point indicated by Fr. Ferrua’s drawing.
In compensation, the scholar saw something else: Peter’s name appeared quite clearly in another place in the necropolis, near the tomb. This attracted Pius XII’s attention, and at that point, he allowed Margherita Guarducci to continue to study the inscriptions. Meanwhile, what had happened to that piece of plaster bearing the Greek phrase, “Peter is here”? It was discovered that Fr. Ferrua had removed it and taken it home. When this fact became known, Pius XII ordered that the inscription be brought back to the Fabbrica di San Pietro.
A robust man
In the meantime, buoyed by the esteem and support of the Pontiff, Margherita Guarducci began to decipher the other inscriptions. And, day after day, the name of Peter emerged repeatedly, often combined with the names of Christ and Mary, as well as the letters “PE” in the form of a key.
One day, while she was working, the scholar gained the confidence of a worker from the Fabbrica di San Pietro, Giovanni Segoni, who told her that, during the excavations, some bones had been discovered inside a burial recess extracted from a wall to the right of the Trophy of Gaius. Those bones had been placed in a small wooden box and then preserved in a room in the Vatican Grottoes.
And it was precisely there that the scholar found them. The year was 1953. The bones were analyzed, but the results of the analyses did not arrive until 1965: the relics from the burial recess in the “g wall” proved to belong to one man, of a robust build, who had died at an advanced age. They were encrusted with earth and shown to have been wrapped in a wool cloth dyed purple and woven with gold; they included fragments of all of the bones of the body with the exception of the feet. This particularity could not help but recall the circumstances of Peter’s crucifixion in verso capite (upside down), according to an ancient tradition—a death which might have necessitated the cutting off of the feet in order to take him down.
In short, after complex and articulate research conducted with absolute scientific rigor, Margherita Guarducci had succeeded in identifying the relics as belonging to Peter. The relics had, at the time of Constantine, been removed from the primitive earthen tomb, wrapped in a purple cloth, and deposed in the burial recess in the “g wall.”
On June 26, 1968, Pope Paul VI confirmed the recognition of Peter’s relics by making an announcement about it during the public audience in the Vatican Basilica. The next day, the relics were replaced in the recess in the “g wall.” It is only in recent years that they have been made visible again to the faithful.