Peter and Paul are attracting new interest in Rome. A multimedia museum, based on a decade of research, restoration work and recent archaeological findings, has been opened in what was once their prison. It stands in the Roman Forum near the end of the route ancient armies took to celebrate victories. Captured enemies were displayed during the march and then dropped off at the prison now called the Mamertine. It was a few steps from the Roman Curia building, seat of the Senate, and the Tribunal, where the prisoners would be tried. Imprisonment ceased with the trial. After that, prisoners would be put to death, sold as slaves or released.
The museum displays archaeological findings such as stone structures, skeletons, pottery and mineralised seeds of lemons, figs, vines and olives from votive offerings made before the Christian era. The first building, dating from about the 7th century BC, was around a well which was probably a sacred site. Above it, in the next century, a prison was built to hold political prisoners, either locals or foreigners, considered enemies of Rome.
In the Middle Ages the prison was transformed into a church. In the 16th century the Carpenters’ Confraternity was allowed to build a still extant church, St Joseph of the Carpenters, above the prison. After the recent restoration, some frescoes of the 9th- to 13th-century church can still be deciphered, though they are faded and fragmentary. The most striking is that of Christ with his arm around the shoulders of Peter, who is smiling at him. I have never seen another image of Christ and Peter in which they are so fraternal. Peter has white hair, a moustache and a beard, as in the earliest image of him held in the Vatican Museum.
There are also fragments of Madonna of Mercy frescoes in which lay people are sheltered within the cape which she holds wide. These frescoes date from the 11th century, which makes them the world’s oldest such images.
Plaques in the museum list many other prisoners who were allegedly held there, including leaders of various resistance movements against the all-conquering Romans such as Vercingetorix, leader of the Gauls. According to a plaque, Christian martyrs other than Peter and Paul were held there, including St Lawrence, who was burnt to death because he would not disclose the whereabouts of the wealth the Church used for the poor.
St Peter is said to have baptised his guardians, Processo and Martiniano, who, as a result, were beheaded and are considered martyrs. There is a tradition that the chains which bound Peter are preserved under the main altar of the Church of St Peter in Chains, which is not far from the Forum.
The claim is undocumented but the chains are of the right period. Tradition links several Roman sites to Paul’s period in the city. Information in English for visitors posted outside churches in Rome use the word “legend” for what is tradizione in the Italian original. Many take “legend” to mean a tall tale, but tradizione really means what is handed down – which may be either pious wishful thinking or convey a truth. Much of what is said about Peter and Paul in Rome is based on tradition.
Paul’s presence in the prison was first attested to by medieval frescoes. He had been arrested in Jerusalem but, being a Roman citizen, successfully asked to be judged by the Emperor. He arrived in Rome in 60 AD and spent two years in a rented lodging (see Acts 28:30-31).
Several early Christian writers affirmed the joint presence of Peter and Paul in the city. About the beginning of the 3rd century the Roman cleric Gaius, in a polemic with a certain Proclus, wrote: “If you come to the Vatican or on the road to Ostia, I will show you the victory monuments of those who founded this church.” For Gaius, the tombs of Peter and Paul were signs of their triumph.
Some deny that the Apostles ever came to Rome, but this is less sustainable after the search for St Peter’s tomb under St Peter’s Basilica and a probe into St Paul’s tomb under the Basilica of St Paul Outside the Walls.
In 1976 Paul VI announced that the excavations under St Peter’s Basilica had discovered his bones. St Paul Outside the Walls was built above a tomb which in ancient times was inscribed as that of St Paul. In 2005 Vatican archaeologists confirmed that the tomb lay beneath the main altar. They made a probe through its side which showed that it dated from Paul’s era but the tomb was not opened.
Just as St Peter’s and St Paul Outside the Walls enshrine the deaths of Peter and Paul, the Mamertine museum enables an insight into the last days of their lives. On June 29 each year, their joint feast day, fishnets are draped on the façade of St Peter’s as a reminder of Peter’s trade before one day he was given a chance to become a fisher of men – a decision that changed everything.
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