Angie here: Pamela Ewen’s last blog post in the series. I don’t know about you all, but I’ve really enjoyed learning from the research trip with her. Take it away, Pamela!
Hello ACFW Friends!
We’re in Rome and off to take the tour of archeological digs underneath the Vatican. We entered the site area through the Holy Gate protected by Swiss Guards, behind the colonnade to the left of the Basilica. If you want to take it, this tour–called the SCAVI (meaning ‘digs’)– is one that you’ll need to reserve about 8 months in advance.
I was surprised to learn that the area we entered is where the original Circus Maximus was located during the time of Christ. (There are pictures on my site – www.pamelaewen.com) When Rome burned in 64 AD, Nero used Christians as scapegoats for the destruction. He persecuted them in this area by covering them with animal skins then letting the dogs and tigers at them, and by using them as human candles. This excess outraged even the Roman citizens. Not long after that the Circus was moved to the location we know today, near the Forum ruins.
There were seven others on the tour, plus the guide, and it’s a good thing the group was small because the excavated passageways underground were dank and narrow, with low brick walls. In the first century this buried necropolis was located outside the city walls. We wound our way through these passages for about an half hour, first through burial rooms with rows of beautifully carved sarcophagus of Popes back to the third century, and then past a series of ornate mausoleums, some pagan. Some Christian. Christian tombs were not marked with a cross in the first century as that would invite persecution. Instead they were marked with other symbols, such as a palm leaf.
As we walked toward the location where Peter’s grave was found we saw narrow, older bricks from first century foundations giving way to thicker bricks of later centuries. The pauper’s grave of Peter was marked with reverence from his death. In the second century a simple, unmarked marble monument was built over it, and a Roman scholar named Gaius wrote that this monument marked the grave of Peter. A red plaster wall stood near the grave and it was covered with graffitti mentioning Peter. We saw a portion of the red wall that had scratched upon it the words: “Here is Peter”.
In the third century, the Emperor Constantine had Peter’s bones removed from the grave (marked by the monument) to preserve them. Constantine, the first Christian emperor, showed great reverence for Peter. His bones were wrapped in a beautiful purple cloth interwoven with gold thread and placed in a niche in the red wall. Archeologists have been able to date the wall with certainty to the middle of the second century by the tile stamps.
Constantine erected the first church over the crypt, red wall, and the monument in the third century. Peter’s grave was directly beneath that first altar. In the fifteenth century the Basilica we know today as St. Peter’s was erected on top of Contantine’s church, with Peter’s grave still directly under what today is called the High Altar.
Above the High Altar is Michelangelo’s beautiful dome. But here’s the surprise – the grave was only recently discovered in the 1940’s, and the bones were found later. It wasn’t until the 1960’s that the Vatican was certain that the grave beneath the altar was that of Peter, and that the bones were his. When the bones were found in the red wall and unwrapped, all bones were accounted for,,,except foot bones. This was consistent with the legend that when Peter was crucified upside down, his feet were cut off to remove him from the cross.
To see the crypt and bones you enter a grotto–the Clementine Chapel, commissioned in the fifteenth century. The small arched chapel is golden; it’s simply a work of art beautiful as any any seen above ground in the Vatican Museum. It’s laid out in the shape of an upside down cross.
Through a bronze door on the side of the chapel, we came to the room containing the crypt and bones. Through a small opening, behind glass, we could see the grave. And here also was the red wall–the graffitti wall. Pieces of some of the bones of the Apostle were set gently on small cushions behind the glass. They were well lit, each several inches long. They looked like ivory in the earie underground light.
Standing in that somber place brings you to your knees when the fact sinks in. This was emotional for everyone on the tour; difficult to comprehend. Imagine–Peter’s grave and actual bones have been buried here for almost two thousand years, and yet they were only found a few years ago, relatively speaking.
No one said a word. In the silence, we closed our eyes and prayed. Faith does not depend on precious relics like these bones or the Shroud. But these are gifts from our Father in heaven and are sacred in my opinion for that reason. I thought of the words of Jesus in the Gospels: “And I say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the forces of Hades will not over power it.”
Whew! What an amazing trip.
Before leaving Rome, Jimmy and I had dinner at Alfredo’s, home of the original dish–Fettucini Alfredo! This fettucini laced with everything good, just melts in your mouth. There’s music and laughter and singing–a choir from Kansas was there that night, in town to sing at the Catacombs. If you go to Alfredo’s, be aware that there are two restaurants by that name. The one you want is beside the tomb of the Emperor Augustus.
So we’ve come to the end of this trip. I’m looking forward to seeing you all at the ACFW convention in Indianapolis this September. Can’t wait. Secret of the Shroud comes out that month too, so I’m hoping that June, July, and August will just fly by!
Until then – Arrivederci!