Saints Peter and Paul. One was a poor fisherman of Galilee; the other a Pharisee weaver of curtains of the Roman Empire. Two characters that are profoundly different, as different were their ways of encounter and relate with Jesus, that today the Church celebrates together as the fundamental pillars of the Christian faith. The one of today is a very ancient solemnity, inserted in the Roman Martyrologue long before Christmas. Three Holy Masses were celebrated since the IV century in Rome: one in the church of Saint Peter in the Vatican, the other in Saint Paul Outside the walls, the third one at the Catacombs of San Sebastiano, where probably the bodies of the two Apostles were hidden for a certain time, at the time of the barbarian invasions. Since the day of their martyrdom, which took place between 64 and 67 A.D., during the persecutions of Nero, Christians felt the need to go to Rome to “confess” their faith at the tombs of the Apostles. Their cult spread rapidly throughout the Empire. Over the centuries the city of Rome has seen the rise of churches and chapels in honour of its patrons, from the Mamertino Jail, the oldest in the world, to the chapel of the Quo Vadis located where the Appia Antica crosses via Ardeatina, up to the imposing and majestic Papal Basilicas.
“Quo vadis, Domine?”
Some apocryphal texts, in fact, narrate what is probably the most known story more linked to the figure of St Peter. Nero’s persecutions against Christians were raging Rome. The first Pope, convinced by his faithful, decided to flee the Capital. In the night, while leaving the city, had a vision: Jesus was coming to meet him, toward the Urbe. Peter asked him, “Quo Vadis, Domine?“, Which means: “Lord, where are you going?”. Christ replied: “I’m returning to Rome to be crucified again”. At that moment, the Apostle realized that he would have to go back, going to meet his martyrdom. The tradition has led to this legend, survived in time, thanks to the writings of some of the Church Fathers, such as Saint Ambrose, that in the “Letter against Auxentius” mentioned the apparition. Today, a chapel recalls the episode. There is no evidence of its existence before the XI century. The first mention is located in a Bull of Gregory VII in 1074, wherein reference is made to the goods donated to the basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls. The church of Sancta Maria quae cognominatur Domine-quo-vadis” is also listed among these. Other subsequent documents recall it as the church of Sancta Maria ubi Dominus apparuit”. It was built in the IX century and rebuilt in 1637 at the behest of Cardinal Francesco Barberini, following a violent storm that devastated it almost ten years before. The church preserves a copy of the stone on which it is believed are impressed the feet of Jesus. In fact, according to scholars, it would be an ex voto coming from a pagan shrine.
Even if the tradition sustains the presence of the two Apostles in the same years in Rome, we have no evidence of their meetings, in everyday life, in the streets or in places where they celebrated the first Masses. The only common feature of these great characters is their martyrdom. Paul was killed “with the sword”, because he enjoyed the status of a Roman citizen. His execution took place in the locality called “Acque Salvie “. Its name changed to “Three Fountains” after the head of the Apostle, rolled for three times on the ground. Each time the head touched the ground, a source of water flowed out. Peter, instead, was brought to the Vatican Hill, considered sacred because that was the place where the “vaticini”, i.e. oracles were consulted. Being a Christian, he was condemned to crucifixion. But feeling unworthy to die like his teacher, the Prince of the Apostles asked to place the cross upside down. Unlike the body of Saint Paul, who was buried in another place, distant from the place of his martyrdom, the body of Peter was buried at few steps from the place of his martyrdom. On both tombs, within a very short time, two niches were built.
The chapel of the Three Fountains
In the area in which St Paul was executed, today stands the complex of the Abbey of the Three Fountains. Here rises a church dedicated to Saul dating back to 1599, by Giacomo della Porta, commissioned by Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini. The two statues overhanging the Facade and Tympanum represent St Peter and St Paul and were made by “Franciosino”. From the vestibule, there is the access to the nave, transverse with respect to the entrance, with two chapels on the sides and the apse at the centre. On the floor was placed a roman mosaic found in Ostia Antica near the Mithraeum of the Imperial Palace, dating back to the II century A.D. In one of the side chapels is preserved the blunt column where according to tradition the apostle would have been tied up during the martyrdom. The “Tre Fontane” are aligned along the wall of the nave, at an equal distance from one another but at different levels from the floor, arranged in niches. The sources, closed from 1950, are surmounted by tabernacles, each one of which was embellished with a bas-relief of Nicolas Cordier, representing the head of Saul. Today it is no longer possible to admire them because have been stolen. The martyrdom of Saint Paul is portrayed behind the niche of the central source, on the wall of the apse.
The Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls
The body of Saint Paul has been deposed two miles from the place of his martyrdom, in the sepulchral area that Christian Lucina owned on the Ostian Way. It was possible to bury him in a Roman necropolis, even if Christian, precisely because he was a Roman citizen. His tomb immediately became object of veneration; a “Cella Memoriae”, where, during the centuries of the persecution, the faithful went to pray, was built on top of it. At about 1.37 meters under the current Papal Altar, a slab of marble, composed of various parts. It carries the Latin name of “Paulo”, and has three holes, one round and two squares. Above it there is a sarcophagus on which subsequently were constructed the “altars of confession”. With the end of the persecution and the promulgation of the edicts of tolerance toward Christianity, at the beginning of the IV century, Emperor Constantine built a Basilica which was consecrated by Pope Sylvester in 324. Renovated and enlarged between the year 384 and 395, the Church will continuously be, along the centuries, object of the embellishments and additions from part of the Popes. In the night of 15 July 1823, a fire destroyed this temple rich of Paleo-Christian, Byzantine, Renaissance and Baroque testimonies. In 1840 it was identically reconstructed, reusing the items saved from the fire, and was consecrated by Pope Gregory XVI.
San Pietro in Vatican
In the place where Saint Peter was buried, just a few steps away from the place of his martyrdom in the II century A.D. a niche was built to protect the burial of the Apostle. Constantine started, the construction of the basilica. in the year 324 and it was Consecrated in 329, the great Church was presented as a building with a longitudinal plan with five naves and transept. Outside there is a staircase leading to the portico in front of the Basilica, also known as Paradise, at the centre of which there was a fountain for ablutions of catechumens identified with the big bronze pine corn, also recalled by Dante in The Divine Comedy, and nowadays placed in the homonymous courtyard of the Vatican Museums. Toward the end of 1300 the structure bore the signs of the time and wear. It was restructured on horseback between the Renaissance and the Baroque. In the heart of the Church, the Papal Altar is dominated by the famous bronze baldachin, youth work of Bernini, executed between 1624 and 1632. High 29 meters, was commissioned by Pope Urban VIII Barberini to fill the “empty space” below the dome, thus creating an upward motion upwards. The bronze forms that adorned the ceiling of the pronaos of the Pantheon was used for its fusion, from here the famous said “quod non fecerunt barbarians fecerunt Barberini” (“What the barbarians did not do, the Barberini did”). The canopy is composed of four twisted columns adorned with grooves to spirals, olive branches and laurel, and composite capitals; the coverage, with swirls and angular statues of extraordinary elegance, culminates with a ball of gilded bronze. It should be noted the tassels with apis that seem almost to simulate the effect of the breath of the Holy Spirit. At the level below you will find the “tomb of St Peter”, in which, according to tradition, the remains of the Apostle are preserved. The sepulchre is not visible from the level of the current basilica. The urn which can be glimpsed under the image of Christ Pantocreatore preserves the “pallium”, the strip of wool which the Pope returns to the Bishops as a symbol of the shepherd who carries on his shoulders their sheep. Above the Canopy stands the majestic dome: 18 tonnes of a material which is very similar to the cement supported by 16 ribs, extraordinary engineering work designed by Michelangelo Buonarroti, that never saw his work completed.
The columns of the Church
Peter and Paul are two names which in the course of history have personified the Church. To them we also “confess” our sins, as we recite the “Confiteor”, precisely because we recognize in them the historic church. Also for the Orientals, these two “brothers in faith“, are synonymous with all the College of the Apostles, as fundamental stones of Christian life. This concept was reiterated by Pope Benedict XVI in 2008. He defined this solemnity as a “sign of Pentecost” that became reality. “Our liturgical assembly, in which are gathered Bishops from all parts of the world – Added Ratzinger -, people of many cultures and nations, is an image of the family of the Church distributed throughout the earth. Foreigners have become friends; beyond all boundaries, we recognize ourselves as brothers”. A few years later, Pope Francis, in the homily during the Mass for the delivery of the “Pallium” to the bishops, brought attention to the figure of the keys and their dual function of opening and closing. Highlighting one of the temptations that the Church has always had to close in upon itself, Bergoglio suggested the solution for overcoming this: prayer, the same that freed Saint Peter from prison and helped Saint Paul in his evangelizing mission. He concludes saying that “It allows the grace to open a way out: from closing to opening, from division to unity”, making the one of today a “feast of communion for the entire Church“.