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Monday, July 28, 2008

The Grave of St Paul

The Bible of San Paolo fuori le Mura (9th century)


The Gifford Lectures were established by Adam Lord Gifford (1820–1887), a senator of the College of Justice in Scotland.

The purpose of Lord Gifford's bequest to the universities of Edinburgh, Glasgow, St. Andrews and Aberdeen was to sponsor lectures to “promote and diffuse the study of Natural Theology in the widest sense of the term—in other words, the knowledge of God”.

In 1899-1901 the Lectures were delivered by Rodolfo Amadeo Lanciani

His lectures were entitled New Tales of Old Rome 1899–1901

Lanciani was Professor of Ancient Topography, University of Rome

Lanciani was a pioneer, one of the four founders of a rational, modern approach to Roman cartography and archaeology

In his fourth lecture, he considered the truth about the grave of St. Paul. It is perhaps topical in this Year of St Paul.

It is entitled The Truth About the Grave of St. Paul—The Basilica Paulli in the Forum, and the Basilica Pauli Apostoli on the Road to Ostia.

"To come back to the grave of St. Paul: tradition says that his body was claimed from the executioner by the inevitable matron Lucina1 and laid to rest in certain catacombs which the pious lady owned on the left or east side of the Via Ostiensis, back of the apse of the present church, where the sandstone cliffs of the Vigna Salviucci rise to the height of forty-two metres above the valley of the Tiber.

Here the sacred remains rested in peace until the persecution of Valerian (253–260), when Christian cemeteries were confiscated for the first time. After a temporary removal to the so-called Platonia near the present church of St. Sebastian, they were once more deposited in the original grave, in the rock-cut catacombs of Lucina.

I have already explained that, when memorial churches were raised over and around the tombs of martyrs, after the peace of the church, the tombs themselves were never touched, altered, removed, raised, or sunk. If the rock in the heart of which the catacombs were excavated stood in the way, and made it impossible to give the memorial building the required form in length, in breadth, and in height, the rock was cut away.

This was done in accordance with two rules: first, that the tomb of the hero should occupy the place of honor in the centre of the apse; secondly, that the body of the church should extend east of the tomb.

Applying these principles to the case of St. Paul, it was generally admitted that Constantine the Great had cut away the spur of rock containing the catacombs of Lucina, leaving only the grave of the Apostle in situ. The Liber Pontificalis adds that the grave was encased by the same emperor in a strong room or cella, made of solid sheets of bronze, five feet long, five broad, five high. The belief in this state of things, viz., that St. Paul was actually buried in a rock-cut catacomb, was so firmly rooted among Christian archæologists that in 1867 Monsignor Francis Xavier de Merode, the pugnacious minister of war of Pius IX., and a great lover of Christian antiquities, purchased the Vigna Salviucci—where the rock stands—with the view of making clear the connection between the catacombs and the present grave.

Several Christian crypts were, to be sure, discovered in the Vigna Salviucci and in its neighborhood, which de Rossi identified with those of Timotheus, Felix and Adauctus, and Commodilla, mentioned in the earliest pilgrim-books, but no trace of the alleged catacombs of Lucina was found, or has been found since. The solution of the problem has been obtained within the last few months in the following way.

The scheme for the sanitation and drainage of Rome, which has been carried into execution at a great cost since 1870, involves the construction of two main sewers about ten miles long, one on the right bank of the Tiber running parallel with the Via Campana and emptying into the river at la Magliana, one on the left bank running parallel with the Via Ostiensis and joining the Tiber at Torre di Valle.

This last leaves the City at the western end of the Protestant cemetery by the pyramid of Caius Cestius, crosses the road to Ostia a thousand yards outside the gate, and runs between the apse of St. Paul's and the rock where the apocryphal catacombs of Lucina were said to be, cutting the disputed ground at the depth of thirty-four feet. Such a deep excavation, so near the grave of the Apostle, was expected to give us the solution of the many problems connected, with it. However, before giving the account of what has been found and of the results obtained, I must bring back to the memory of the reader the discoveries made before the present day.

The marble casing of the grave of the Apostle was seen for the first time on July 28, 1838, when the altar above it, injured by the fire of July 15, 1823, was demolished to make room for the present one. A marble floor was discovered composed of four slabs, on which the dedication
PAVLO APOSTOLO MART(yri)is engraved in large letters of the time of Constantine. The slabs and their precious inscription were left visible under the new canopy, and I have myself had the privilege of studying them at leisure (on December 1, 1891), by lowering myself on hands and knees through the “fenestella confessionis.”

Two things we must bear in mind: first, that the slabs inscribed with the name of Paul are not in their original position, but appear to have been replaced over the grave most negligently, in a slanting direction; secondly, that the inscription is mutilated at the right end, the last three letters of the word MART(yri) being missing.

Other discoveries took place in 1850, when Pius IX. was laying the foundations of the new canopy; they are of paramount interest for the question we are investigating.

It was then ascertained that Paul's grave stands on the margin of an old road, paved with blocks of lava, amidst other tombs of purely pagan type. According to the evidence of an eye-witness, Father Paul Zelly, who was then abbot of St. Paul's, the old road runs at a distance of fifteen feet west of the grave, and at an angle of about 14° with the Via Ostiensis, into which it runs lower down. Besides the Apostle's grave there were the remains of a columbaria or square sepulchral chamber with pigeonholes for cinerary urns.

This tomb was found almost intact, but it seems that no attention was paid to it, no drawings taken, and no copies made of the inscriptions which probably accompanied each pigeonhole. I have lately come into possession of some notes, taken at the time of these finds by Vespignani the elder, who acted as assistant to Luigi Poletti, the rebuilder of St. Paul's, but they are of no special importance. The objects put aside “nel cavo della seconda confessione in settembre 1850”were the tombstones of a C. Julius Berullus and of a Priscilla, both preceded by the invocation Diis Manibus; two Christian ones, several brick stamps from the kilns of Faustina the elder, and one from the Officina Fauriana.

They do not throw much light on the question; and yet we are sure that if proper attention had been paid to these excavations, and a more careful search made among lined that bit of road, we should now know the name of the personage who had given the first disciples of Christ in Rome the permission to bury St. Paul in his own family burial-plot.

The cutting for the main sewer has revealed the following facts.

First, there is no connection whatever between the grave of St. Paul and the many Christian catacombs with which the rock of the Vigna Salviucci is honeycombed.

Secondly, these catacombs belong at all events to a much later period than the apostolic age. Boldetti claims to have read in one of them the date of the year 107, marked with the consulship of Sura and Senecio, and that of the year 111, marked with the consulship of Piso and Bolanus. These are certainly the oldest dates ever discovered in Roman catacombs; but even granted that Boldetti has made no mistake, they are at all events forty years more recent than the execution of St. Paul.

Thirdly, the whole neighbourhood, from the foot of the rock to the middle of the fields in which the basilica stands, is thickly covered with pagan tombs of the first and second centuries. In the space of a few weeks not less than 183 of them have been discovered in the cutting of the drain alone.

Fourthly, these tombs are placed and oriented on the lines of two Roman roads; namely, the Via Ostiensis—which fits exactly into the modern one—and a branch road which connects the towpath on the left bank of the Tiber with the same Via Ostiensis. To this branch road belongs the pavement discovered in 1850 in the foundations of the canopy.

In the fifth place, the person who claimed the body of the Apostle after the execution, be it the matron Lucina or not, owned not a catacomb, but a burial-plot in the open— “sub diu”—in the angle formed by the junction of the two roads. Here, nearer to the side lane than to the main road, a tomb was raised to St. Paul. We do not know of what nature, size, shape, the tomb was; whether it bore an inscription or not. If we are to believe the Liber Pontificalis, the authority of which after the recent edition of Duchesne is above suspicion, the grave itself must have been small. “Eodem tempore fecit Constantinus basilicam beato Paulo Apostolo? cuius corpus ita recondit in ære, et conclusit sicut Beati Petri.” Now the case of solid metal, inside of which Constantine sealed the body of St. Peter, was five feet long, five wide, five high. Five Roman feet equal 1.478 metres. The mean height of the human body being 1.58, the case appears too small. It is impossible to think that the body of Paul was incinerated, and the ashes preserved in a cinerary urn; and even granted that he was of a stature below the average, the coffin in which he was laid to rest would certainly have exceeded the measure of five feet. I agree with Stevenson that the figures have been altered by the carelessness of early copyists of the Liber Pontificalis.

Another explanation offered for the short measure of the case is that the Apostle having been beheaded, the head may not necessarily have been placed in its right position. If I remember rightly, twice tombs of beheaded men have been discovered since the revival of classic studies: one at Cuma, one in the Vatican district, when Pope Paul III. was digging for the foundations of the Bastione di Belvedere. This bastion occupies part of the site of the ancient cemetery of the Via Triumphalis. Among the many tombs and columbaria discovered on that occasion, one belonged to a decapitated person. Ligorio describes the find in the following words (“Bodleian,” p. 139):
“There was also a sepulchral chamber decorated with stucco reliefs and paintings, in which a walnut cut out of an agate was discovered;…it was lying near a skeleton which had the skull not in its proper place, but across the legs; and where the skull should have been, there lay a perfect and beautiful plaster mould of the head of the buried man. This plaster mould was removed to the private collection of the Pope.”

In the sixth place, it has been ascertained that the mean level of the tombs which line the two roads is eleven feet lower than the level of the modern road, and about nine feet below that of the nave and aisles of the church.

Comparing these data with the finds of 1850, Stevenson comes to the conclusion that the grave itself must lie about twelve feet and six inches below the floor of the transept, and only eleven feet above the mean level of the Tiber, which runs close by. Now it is a known fact that the Tiber reaches that height fifteen times a year at least, not to speak of extraordinary inundations, like the one of 1870, in the course of which the waters rose twenty-six feet above the level of the grave. We may safely conclude, therefore, that the Apostle was buried in a low, damp, almost swampy field, permanently exposed to the overflow of the river, unless precautions had been taken to keep the waters off by means of levees and embankments and sluices, of which we know absolutely nothing. The metal case of Constantine may have saved the grave from the inflow of water after the erection of the church.

Has the venerable grave come down to us intact since the time of Constantine?

The question is more easily put than answered. The church, to be sure, went safely through the barbaric invasions, being considered an inviolable asylum even by the Goths and the Vandals. Of this fact we have the evidence in Epistles 54 and 127 of St. Jerome, where he describes the fate of Marcella, the founder of monastic life in Rome.
“This noble matron was left a widow after seven months of marriage, and being pressed by the Consul Cerealis to marry again, determined to sever all connection with the world for the rest of her life. Following the rule of St. Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, she dressed herself in simple garb, gave up the use of wine and meat, and divided her time between the study of the Scriptures, prayers, and pilgrimages to the tombs of apostles and martyrs. St. Jerome became Marcella's spiritual adviser; such was the serenity and beauty of her character that in one of her letters she is addressed as ‘the pride of Roman matrons.’ However, when Rome became the prey of the Goths, the barbarians broke into her peaceful retreat and tortured her in an attempt to discover the secret hiding-place of her treasures,—treasures that she had long before given up to the needy. Fearing more for the safety of Principia, whom she had adopted as a spiritual daughter, than for her own life, she threw herself at the feet of the Gothic chieftain and begged to be conducted to the church of St. Paul outside the walls, which, like St. Peter's, had been set apart by Alaric as a refuge for women and children”

The Saracenic invasion of 846 makes, however, an exception to the rule. It would be impossible to discuss within the limits of the present chapter all the arguments brought forward to prove or disprove the profanation of the tombs of Peter and Paul in 846. Leaving aside the question of Peter, of which I have spoken at length in “Pagan and Christian Rome,” p. 148, and in “The Destruction of Ancient Rome,” p. 131, there is unfortunately no doubt that the infidels plundered at their leisure the Basilica of St. Paul, and laid their hands on the venerable tomb. We find the evidence of this fact in chapter xxii. of the Life of Benedict III., in Duchesne's edition of the Liber Pontificalis, vol. ii. p. 145: SEPULCHRUM [Pauli Apostoli] QUOD A SARRACENIS DESTRUCTUM FUERAT PERORNAVIT!
The question is, what did the Saracens actually destroy,—the altar erected high above the grave, the canopy or ciborium which covered the altar, or the grave itself? I believe that the expression of the Liber Pontificalis is not to be taken in too literal a sense; for why should Benedict III. have restored and redecorated the group formed by the grave, the altar, and the canopy, if the grave itself had been profaned and its contents scattered to the four winds? And besides, we know that the word DESTRUCTUM, “destroyed,” is an exaggeration; because the marble slab with the epitaph PAVLO APOSTOLO MART(yri) is still in existence, and it is the original of Constantine's time, not a copy made by Benedict III.

The tomb incurred another risk in the sack of 1527, when the scum of the soldiery from Spain, Germany, and northern Italy pillaged the City and its sacred edifices for the space of several weeks. L. Mayerhofer, in the “Historisches Jahrbuch,” 1891, p. 721, has published a letter written by an eye-witness, a clerk from Speyer named Theodoric Vafer—alias Gescheid, and dated June 17 of that eventful year, in which he expressly says:
“We have (or they have) profaned all the churches of Rome; men and women have been slain over the altar of St. Peter's; the tomb or coffin inside which the remains of Peter and Paul had been laid to rest has been broken open, and the relics dispersed” (Urnam sive tumbarn, in qua requiescebant ossa S. Petri et Pauli effregerunt et ipsas reliquias profanarunt).

One thing is certain, however: none of the many hundred published or unpublished accounts of the sack of 1527, consulted by Gregorovius, Grisar, Orano, and other specialists, mention this incident, which, considering the extraordinary devotion of the Romans to the founders of the church, would have caused them greater grief than all the horrors, massacres, tortures they endured in those days.

Briefly my opinion is this: The grave of St. Paul has come down to us, most likely, as it was left by Constantine the Great, enclosed in a metal case. The Saracens of 846 damaged the outside marble casing and the marble epitaph, but did not reach the grave. As to the nature of the grave itself, its shape, its aspect, its contents, I am afraid our curiosity will never be satisfied.

This most fascinating of Roman churches is closely connected with England and especially dear to the Anglo-Saxon race. As the emperor of Austria was the protector of St. Peter's, the king of France of St. John Lateran, the king of Spain of S. Maria Maggiore, so the kings of England were the defenders of St. Paul outside the walls. In the shield of the abbot, above the gate of the adjoining cloisters, we still behold the arm grasping the sword, and the ribbon of the Garter with the motto: “Honi soit qui mal y pense!” "