The Clementine Chapel of the Vatican Basilica (La Clementina)

One of my favorite places to visit in the Christian world is the Clementine Chapel of the Vatican Basilica. Here visitors are immersed in the gilded Baroque splendor of the basement crypt of St. Peter's Basilica, where the Blessed Apostle Peter is buried. This chapel is the holiest site in the Basilica and also the smallest. The walls are adorned with precious marbles and the ceilings are made of gilt stucco. Peter's tomb - the Memoria Petri - is visible behind the golden Venetian style screen above the altar, fostering a surreal view for any who have the privilege to visit. 

Private Masses are celebrated here every morning by priests who work in the Vatican as well as visiting priests from afar. Also, visitors on the "Scavi" tour visit throughout the day. 

The altar has two privileges attached to it (on either side of the altar) by the Roman Pontiffs, alluded to with separate inscriptions on the walls. The one to the left commemorates the brief of Benedict XIII (March 21, 1727), which concedes to the priests celebrating Mass here the possibility to obtain a plenary indulgence for a deceased member of the Christian faithful. The other commemorates the concession given by Pope Gregory XVI (June 17, 1836), to celebrate Mass at this altar in honor of St. Peter on any day of the year, except on solemn feasts. 

The tomb, seen through the framed window above the altar, is fashioned from two visible slabs of pavonazzo marble sourced from Turkey. They are clearly separated by bits of porphyry in the middle, a particular stone originally brough to Rome by the emperors from Egypt. This part of the tomb dates from the time of the Emperor Constantine, who built the first St. Peter's Basilica in the fourth century. Atop this are the remnants of the main papal altar that was built by Pope Calixtus II in 1123. 

This chapel is exactly opposite the confessio that is positioned in front of the papal high altar of the Basilica. The crypt/basement room dates to the old St. Peter's Basilica built in the fourth century, that was gradually torn down and replaced when the present Basilica was built in the sixteenth century.

Although the chapel was named after Pope Clement VIII, it was designed with an altar by Pope St. Gregory the Great in about the year 600. This was because the original tomb of St. Peter, constructed by order of the Emperor Constantine, was missing an altar. Thus a proper chapel with a liturgical space was fashioned according to Pope Gregory's wishes around and above the Constantinian monument. One can only imagine the lavish liturgies that have taken place here over the centuries. The below image is what that original altar looked like, revealed here during work done in the late 1940s.

Clement VIII decorated the chapel beginning in 1592 and chose to be buried here when he died in 1605. In 1646 his remains were removed and reinterred in the Borghese Chapel of Rome's Patriarchal Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. After Clement modified and embellished the chapel, it took the name "Clementina" in his memory. During his pontificate, he raised the altar and enlarged the space, fashioned the new barrel vault ceiling, and designed a new floor plan in the shape of upside down cross, reminiscent of the crucifixion of St. Peter. He also decorated the walls and ceiling.  

The present altar frontal design is new and was consecrated by Pius XII on June 5th in the Holy Year 1950. This was part of the inauguration of the new layout of the chapel and grottoes, with its lowered floor, after the tomb of Peter was excavated and his remains were re-discovered during the II World War excavations that were initiated by Pius XII and carried on through much of his pontificate. Those archeological excavations brought to light not only the tomb of the Apostle, but also the pagan necropolis from the first century located under the Basilica.

This beautiful altar is located on a raised platform with 3 marble steps. The altar itself has a green malachite front, imported from Siberia. It has two porphyry columns from Egypt. The front has four bronze studs with blue lapis lazuli from Persia. Inside the facing, visible through a little window opening in the front, can be seen the original brick structure of the altar built by Pope Gregory the Great.

I have always felt a special affinity for this place since the day when my childhood confessor, Fr. Richard T. O'Connor, shared with me that he celebrated his first Mass here on March 20, 1937. I had the pleasure of visiting here the first time in March 1998 when at the age of 19 I descended for the first time to the Vatican Grottoes and walked the peribolos tunnel that led me to this chapel. It changed my life forever. That same week had the privilege of participating in the Scavi tour, which ends here when pilgrims pray before the remains of St. Peter, the Prince of the Apostles. Knowing the high altar of St. Peter's is located directly above the chapel makes it all the more special. 

The chapel is today very well lit and was last renovated during the pontificate of Pius XII. It was cleaned in preparation for the Holy Year 2000 and has historically been open to the public in the morning hours from 7 am. The two side altars can be seen below.


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