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Italy, Rome, St. Peter's Basilica | Function & Liturgy
Professor Dale Kinney

St. Peter's was built as a funerary church, to house the tomb of St. Peter and the tombs of Christians who wished to be buried near him, and to accommodate commemorative rituals, including funeral banquets in memory of those buried there. The focal point of the building was not the 350-pound gilt altar (the location of which is uncertain), but an elaborate architectural structure marking the site of Peter's tomb. This structure—the shrine—is illustrated on the front of the "Pola casket", an ivory-covered box preserved in the Archaeological Museum in Venice.

Restoration of the fourth-century shrine of St. Peter, based on the Pola Casket (J. Toynbee and J. Ward-Perkins)

Italy, Rome, Casket from Pola, showing the Ciborium of St. Peter's (?), ivory, Museo Arcgaeologico, Venice
The box was made around 400 CE, probably to carry relics back from Rome. It shows four people in prayer outside the shrine and a man and a woman inside it; the two inside turn toward a facade with closed doors under an arch or tympanum. This façade—evidently a 3-dimensional aedicula - stands under an open canopy (baldacchino) supported by 4 columns with twisted shafts; two more twisted columns stand at the far left and right. Reconstructed in three dimensions, the four rear columns form a line across the apse, which was completely shut off from view by curtains hung between the outer columns and by the aedicula in the center. The aedicula was enclosed by knee- or waist-high parapets and lighted by a round lamp suspended from the ribs of the baldacchino. The lamp is probably the 35-pound gold chandelier with 50 dolphins listed among Constantine's gifts in the Liber pontificalis, which also records the twisted columns ("vine-scroll columns... brought from Greece") and the cross. The description of a visit to the shrine by a deacon from Gaul (modern France) 200 years after the Pola casket was made, just before 590 CE, indicates that nothing had changed: [Gregory of Tours: Glory of the Martyrs] the parapets ("railings") were opened for the pilgrim, and he was allowed inside to pray, even to put his head inside the doors in the facade of the aedicula. The same text records that it was possible to absorb the sanctity of the tomb by lowering pieces of cloth through the doors until they touched it; these cloths became secondary relics, possessing the power of St. Peter, as did the gold keys which people made for the same purpose.

For similar reasons - the possible transfer of sanctity - people sought to be buried as close as possible to the shrine. The sumptuous sarcophagus of Junius Bassus, prefect of Rome, who died in August 359 CE, seems to have been buried under the floor quite near St. Peter's tomb, where it was found around 1595.

Italy, Rome, Vatican Museums, Sarcophagus of City Prefect Junius Bassus (d. 359 CE) with scenes of the Passion
Around 400, the Emperor Honorius built a round mausoleum attached to the south end of the transept, with eight niches for sarcophagi; his wife Maria (d. 407) was the first to be buried there. Those who lacked the connections to be buried in the apse or transept were buried in the nave, where the floor was covered with tomb slabs.

In the fourth century, the liturgical use of St. Peter's was infrequent. Most functions were commemorative rites for those who were buried there, ranging from private family meals to huge gatherings; in 396, the wealthy senator Pammachius filled the entire nave and atrium with poor and homeless people to whom he gave a banquet in memory of his wife Paula. Masses were said for all Christians in the city on St. Peter's holy days, notably June 29 (the feast of St. Peter and St. Paul). Prudentius describes this festive day, with people streaming out of Rome in two directions, and the pope ("the sleepless bishop") saying Mass first in St. Peter's, then across the Tiber at St. Paul's as recorded by Prudentius. Perhaps baptism was performed at St. Peter's on this day as well, as Prudentius' poem dwells on a chapel where a pool of water reflected the gold and purple painting (mosaic?) on the ceiling. This would be the baptistery installed at the end of the north transept by Pope Damasus (366-385).

These commemorative celebrations, which often extended through the night, could get rowdy. A famous letter by Bishop Paulinus of Nola (near Naples), written around 400, explains to another bishop that Paulinus decided to paint scenes from the Bible on the walls of the church of his local saint to give raucous pilgrims something to do besides eat and drink wine During the fifth centurywhen such paintings were also added in St. Peter'spublic funerary banquets disappeared everywhere in Italy. At St. Peter's the emphasis gradually shifted to papal Masses. The original arrangement of the shrine was not well suited to that function, so around 600 Pope Gregory I, according to the Liber pontificalis, "brought it about that mass could be celebrated above St. Peter's body." Excavations have shown that this change entailed raising the floor around the shrine and in the apse, so that the fourth-century aedicula was buried and an altar could be placed on top of it.

Italy, Rome, Old St. Peter's
, Restoration of the fourth-century shrine of St. Peter, based on the Pola Casket (J. Toynbee and J. Ward-Perkins)

Italy, Rome, Corpus Basilcarum, Restoration of the shrine of St. Peter after the raising of the presbytery by Gregory the Great, c. 600 CE (Krautheimer, Corpus Basilicarum)
The shrine remained accessible from two directions: through a window from the old pavement level in the transept, and via a semi-circular corridor under the new floor. This distinctive "annular" form of crypt is another invention at St. Peter's, and its appearance elsewhere is generally a sign of the intention to emulate or "copy" the Roman church.

The twisted columns—originally six, with six more added by gift of Pope Gregory III in the eighth century—are exceptionally precious Roman spolia. Decorated with grape vines and in some cases naked cupids, they have unmistakable Dionysiac connotations and were probably made for palatial or unusually luxurious public buildings between the first and third centuries CE.

In the twelfth century, pilgrims or the canons of St. Peter's invented a story that they came from the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. Despite its obvious implausibility, serious students of antiquity took this story seriously, and Raphael drew a famous image of the Portico of Solomon with these columns as its supports.

Italy, Rome, St. Peters, View of the crossing from the south transept towards Bernini's Baldacchino

Raphael, Cartoon for the Tapestry of the Healing of the Lame Man, c. 1515-16, goache on paper, 342 x 536 cm., Victoria and Albert Museum, London (on loan from Her Majesty the Queen)
The columns were reused in every remodelling of the shrine of St. Peter until this part of the basilica was destroyed in the 16th century. In the 17th century Bernini rescued 8 of them to decorate the relic niches in the four great piers under Michelangelo's dome, where they can still be seen. His colossal bronze baldacchino perpetuates the memory of the original Constantinian canopy, transposed to a very different scale.

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