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The Tomb of Saint Peter

Written and read by Pietro Zander

The tomb of Saint Peter is located beneath the main altar of the Vatican Basilica.

A grave was dug on the southern slopes of the Vatican hill, right in front of the circus that was the scene of persecutions against Christians at the time of Emperor Nero (54-68). On this modest burial site, a century after the Apostle's martyrdom, a small funerary aedicule was built, recorded by the priest Gaius at the end of the second century, as the historian Eusebius of Caesarea relates: “I can show you the trophies of the apostles. For if you want to go out to the Vatican or on your way to Ostia, you will find there the trophies of those who founded this Church” (Storia Ecclesiastica, 2, 25, 6-7).

That aedicule, generally called the “Trophy of Gaius”, indicated to the early Christians the tomb of Peter, which already before Constantine was the destination of devout pilgrimages, testified to by numerous Latin graffiti, with the name of Christ and Peter, carved into a plaster wall (“wall G”), near the Petrine aedicule.

In particular, on a small fragment of plaster (3.2 x 5.8 cm), originating from the so-called “red wall”, on which the aedicule was built, the following Greek letters were engraved: PETR[...] ENI[...]. The graffito has been interpreted with the phrase 'Pétr[os] enì' (= Peter is here), or, again in the perspective of Peter's presence, with an invocation addressed to him: 'Pétr[os] en i[réne]' (= Peter in peace).

The presence of this burial site, unearthed during the famous archaeological explorations of the twentieth century (1939-1949), determined the birth of the first great Basilica of Saint Peter, built on the tomb of Peter in the fourth century by Pope Sylvester and the emperor Constantine and, subsequently, the construction of the new Renaissance Basilica which took the place of the preceding one.

The “Trophy of Gaius”, which survives in the “Niche of the Pallia” in the Vatican Confessio, was enclosed by the emperor Constantine in a marble casket recalled by Eusebius of Caesarea as “a splendid tomb before the city, a tomb to which innumerable hordes flock from every part of the Roman empire, as a great Shrine and temple of God” (Theophany, 47).

The altar of Gregory the Great (590-604), the altar of Callistus II (1123) and the altar of Clement VIII (1594), later covered by Bernini’s canopy under Michelangelo’s dome, were built above Constantine’s monumental tomb with notable continuity.

© Fabric of Saint Peter