The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Friday, August 6, 2010

St. Peter and the Mamertine Prison

As anyone who occasionally reads this blog knows, I have an interest in both archaeology and art history, particularly as they relate to scripture and tradition. In recent years an increasing number of discoveries are validating the accuracy of the history of the Jewish people as described in the Old Testament. But the same kind of discoveries are also confirming many of our early Christian traditions that historians often belittled as myths or pious legends. Two prominent examples come to mind: the discovery in the 1940s of the bones of St. Peter far beneath the altar of St. Peter's Basilica and the similar but more recent discovery of St. Paul's remains beneath the altar of the Roman basilica that bears his name, St. Paul Outside the Walls.
[Note: If you ever get to Rome, be sure to get tickets for the tour of the Vatican necropolis beneath St. Peter's Basilica during which you will view the excavations of the ancient cemetery where Peter was buried and the grave upon which Constantine built the first basilica dedicated to the apostle in the fourth century. Make your reservations well ahead of time since the tours are limited to small groups. All the information you need to reserve a place and purchase tickets is available on the Vatican's website: Vatican Necropolis Tours. And be sure to visit the necropolis website where you can take a wonderful online virtual tour of the excavations.]
Another example of a Roman tradition being supported, if not completely confirmed, by archaeology was made public recently. Since the earliest days of Christianity tradition has held that St. Peter, before his execution, was imprisoned in the Mamertine prison adjacent to the Roman Forum. Archaeologists who have been excavating the prison have now uncovered proof that the site has been venerated by Christian pilgrims since before the seventh century. Dr Patrizia Fortini, the archaeologist working on the excavation, stated: “Our findings do not prove that Peter was held in the Mamertine prison. However, they support historical sources that refer to the presence at this site of the early church of San Pietro in Carcere [St. Peter in Prison].” This ancient church was built in 314 AD by Pope Silvester I. The photo below is of one of the frescoes uncovered during the excavation. It depicts Jesus standing alongside St. Peter with his arm over the saint's shoulder.
In the late 16th century the church of St. Joseph of the Carpenters [San Giuseppe dei Falegnami] was built over the site of the prison. The below photo shows the church and the forum as they appear today. (Photo by Romanus. Click here to view a larger version of the photo.)
According to the Catholic News Service story, the prison, reopened to the public in June, has been incorporated into an Opera Romana tour called "Roma Cristiana Experience." A minibus leaves St. Peter's Square every 20 minutes for a Roman scenic tour that includes a tour of the Mamertine Prison. Sounds like another must-do activity.

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