Notes on the Archeology, Relics and Early Roman Christian Devotion to Ss. Peter and Paul

Saints Peter and Paul flanking the triumphal throne as seen on the arch mosaics of Santa Maria Maggiore

It is well enough known that excavations undertaken under St. Peter's Basilica in the mid 20th century revealed the tomb and relics of St. Peter himself, just where tradition proclaimed them to be. It may be less known that a similar process was undertaken in relation to further investigations around the tomb of St. Paul -- located within the basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome -- shortly after the year 2000. 

With it being the feast of Ss. Peter and Paul, today seemed like a perfect occasion to step back into the mists of time and take a look at the final resting place of their mortal remains, so long attested to by the tradition of the Church and so long venerated by myriads of the faithful, Roman and otherwise, over the millenia. 

Two of the earliest known portraits to date of the Apostles Peter and Paul, dated to the 4th century, discovered in the Catacomb of St. Thecla in Rome

The investigations of the tomb of St. Paul were done in such a way as to open up a more public view of a part of the fourth century marble sarcophagus which was found to sit exactly where it ought to: beneath the high altar of the basilica. 

For those not familiar, visible through a grate on the main altar of St. Paul's in an ancient Christian epigraph with the words "PAVLO APOSTOLO MART." -- Apostle Paul, Martyr. A replica:

Holes are found on this portion of the sarcophagus so that the faithful, historically, could let down cloths to touch the bones of the apostle, thus making the cloths second class relics. Scientific research into the contents of the sarcophagus confirmed human remains found therein come from the time of St. Paul, and of possible additional interest to our readers, also found within were red incense grains and of a rich purple cloth laminated in gold -- perhaps to contain the relics. (Similar precious fabrics were found within St. Peter's tomb.)

A better view of the whole arrangement of the Pauline tomb in relation to the altar can be seen in this illustration taken from a view from the side of the altar:

For visual context here's a historical image of the same altar where you can stll see the altar down within the confessio which sits directly adjacent from the tomb:

While we are on this subject, I would be remiss to not mention that the basilica also houses the chains believed to have bound St. Paul in his Roman captivity.

Next we turn to the tomb of St. Peter which, likewise, was discovered deep beneath multiple layers of Roman and Roman-Christian history beneath the high altar of St. Peter's. (You can read a more detailed explanation of this in our previous article, What Sits Underneath St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.)

That small hole in the wall are where the relics of St. Peter can be found. Nearby on the "red wall" that forms a part of the early shrine is found a graffiti inscription (Romans love their graffiti, even to this day) which reads in Greek, Πέτρος ενι (Petros eni) or "Peter is here."

As in the case of the relics of St. Paul, the relics of St. Peter's bones were discovered wrapped in a precious purple and gold cloth.  The Emperor Constantine had the original Roman necropolis filled in with dirt and the basilica of St. Peter's built over top St. Peter's tomb.

Moving from the tomb of St. Peter's to the minor Roman basilica of San Pietro in Vincoli (St. Peter in Chains or S. Petri ad vincula), just as in the case of St. Paul, you can likewise venerate the chains believed to have bound the captive St. Peter.

Evidence of the early devotion of the Roman Christians to Ss. Peter in Paul is most certainly in evidence throughout Rome. Aside from the more obvious sites, this includes the basilica of San Sebsstiano fuori le mura which is built on the third mile of the Via Appia (Appian Way) and which was formerly called the Basilica Apostolorum having been dedicated to Ss. Peter and Paul. Indeed, some held that the two saints earthly remains were temporarily housed in the Catacombs of St. Sebastian before ending up in their present locations and perhaps nowhere is the popular Roman devotion to Ss. Peter and Paul better shown (aside from the early portraits of these saints shown at the beginning of this article) than in this inscription from the third century found within the same catacombs which reads: "Pauli ed Petre, petite pro Victore" (Peter and Paul, ask [pray/intercede] for Victor."

Other similar graffiti exists: "Peter and Paul, remember Antonius Bassus" and "Near Peter and Paul I made a refigerium [intercession]."

Of course, I have shared before the poem of the Roman Christian poet, Aurelius Prudentius Clemens (A.D. 348-413) who likewise testifies to this popular devotion in the Passio Apostolorum Petri et Pauli in the Liber Peristephanon (Book of the Martyrs Crowns), wherein he rhetorically asks, "More than their wont do the people flock hither today; my friend pray tell me why do they hurry throughout Rome rejoicing?" The answer? 

"Mark how the people of Romulus surge through the streets in both directions, for two feasts on this day are celebrated. Now with glad steps let us hasten to visit these holy sanctuaries, and there let us unite in hymns of joy. First we shall go by the road that leads over the mighty bridge of Hadrian, and later we will seek the stream's left margin. After the vigil the Pontiff officiates first across the Tiber, then hither hastens to renew the offering."

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