Monday, February 21, 2011

How the Vatican became the the hub of the Catholic World

Well, we have gotten pretty involved this last month in history of the Catholic Church in the United States—and from the number of people checking the blog—especially the American Civil War episodes—that seems to be a pretty popular topic, but I do want to go back and talk more on Rome and the development of what we know today as the Vatican.  January 17th and 18th I did entries on the Tomb of Peter and briefly mentioned the Constantinian Basilica that was erected over the Tomb of Peter c. 325 AD.  (For this blog, since it is a History of the Church blog, I am going to use the conventional AD rather than the modern secular CE (Common Era) which I do prefer for secular history but not ecclesiastical.  After all, for those of us who are Christians, we see the mystery of salvation revealing itself through all history, secular as well as ecclesiastical and every year is Anno Domini. )  Attached to the January 18th blog you can see a graphic of the relationship of the circus of Nero in relationship to the Constantinian Basilica.  Today we will present a graphic with the circus of Nero (where Peter died) the ancient necropolis (where he was buried), The Basilica of Constantine (built over the tomb) and the current Basilica (built over Constantine’s foundations.)
The Emperor Constantine to pay tribute to the Apostles and to consolidate the loyalty of the Christian population of Rome—a fast growing (by this point) majority—decided to build a basilica over the tomb of the Apostle.  We need to remember that this was not the principal Church of the Pope--nor is it his Cathedral today.  Constantine had also built a basilica for Christian worship adjoining the Lateran Palace, his wife's family home, which Consantine had given to the Pope as his residence and it is this Church--the Basilica of Our Savior (more commonly known today as the Basilica of Saint John Lateran) that has served as the Papal Cathedral.  Saint Peter's--and its match on the Via Appia, St. Paul's) were built as funeray churches over the tombs of the respective apostles to be centers for pilgrimages and used for certain feast days while the Pope would normally live and celebrate the Eucharst at the Lateran Basilica.  History never works out the way we plan.
Before we go further, we need to understand the idea of a basilica.  We think of a basilica as a church, but originally it was the design used for a Royal audience hall where the emperor or his delegate received official visitors and delegations as well as sat in judgment on legal cases.  Basilicae were voluminous halls, rectangular in design but of considerable width with an apse or rounded wall on the distant end.  In this semicircular apse created by the curved wall sat the Emperor or presiding official.  Adapted to Christian worship the hall became the place where the faithful gathered, the Imperial throne at the far end became the Bishop’s throne, the curved bench running along the curved apse wall became the bench for the presbyters (priests) and deacons assisting the bishop even as it had held the higher officials of the court when the basilica had been used as a audience hall or judgment chamber.  In front of the Imperial throne (now a bishop’s throne) would be set a wooden table, usually square or even cubic in design, to hold the bread and wine for the Eucharistic Celebration.   This was the common design for Christian worship spaces from the time of Constantine’s legitimizing Christianity (and turning over many of the Imperial basilicae for Christian usage).  Over history the design would change as the rectangular design morphed in the Middle Ages into a cross-shaped design by the addition of transepts between the apse and the rectangular hall (now called a nave).  During the renaissance and baroque period, churches often returned to the rectangular hall model.  And in the modern era, with advances in engineering and building materials new shapes were tried—notably the sort of fan shape popular in the years right after Vatican II.  Some modern churches are also built in circular shapes and it surprises many people to find out this is nothing new.  I can think of three round churches in Rome, all dating from the late classical and early medieval period: Santa Costanza, San Stefano Rotondo, and San Teodoro.  Typical in these churches is an altar in the dead center of the circle which goes to show there is nothing new under the sun.  Similarly, after Vatican II, most Catholic churches restored the altar to the original position which was between the Bishop or presiding presbyter and the people so that the celebrant faced the congregation over the altar.  There is a lot of debate on this point, but the archeology is very clear that this was the normative position in the first six centuries.  We will do a blog or too on the Ad Orientem issue—that is the Eastwards position of the priest at mass—sometime in the future.  Right now I want to get back to Constantine’s basilica.
Constantine planned his construction over the tomb of Peter but this faced numerous difficulties both for the topography and for Roman Law which forbad the tapering with cemeteries.  The necropolis in which Peter was buried (a necropolis—literally “a city for the dead” is a non-Christian burial ground whereas a cemetery refers specifically to a Christian burying ground) held tombs and graves of Christians and non-Christians alike.  It was forbidden by Roman law, indeed it was taboo, to tamper with the graves or tombs of the dead.  Constantine had to be very careful in how he proceeded with his plan to build a basilica.  He could not demolish the necropolis nor even have the remains moved somewhere else.  What he could do—and did do—was he informed the citizenry of his intentions of erecting a basilica for Christian worship on the site.  Those non-Christians who wished to remove the remains of their family members to alternative sites were permitted to do so.  As most (though not all) non-Christian were cremated this was not an inordinate difficulty.  At the same time, many Christians were anxious to purchase the abandoned tombs or gravesites and move the remains of their relatives there.  As it was not unusual (though it sounds strange to us) for the remains of those who had been buried or entombed to later be disinterred—after the flesh had decayed and only the bones remained—and be put into ossuaries—stone boxes that held the bones of the dead—that was not much of a cultural problem for the ancient Romans.

The second problem was that the necropolis was located on a sloping hillside—the Vatican Hill—presenting a challenge to the building of a large basilica that needed a level foundation.  Constantine built a retaining wall around the necropolis and then had the hillside above the necropolis leveled.  The earth that was removed from the hilltop was deposited within the retaining wall burying the necropolis and creating the level ground needed as a foundation for the new basilica.  The buried necropolis thus provided the foundation for the new church.   Constantine slightly altered the shape of this basilica from the traditional aula by adding a transverse crossing at the western end making the basilica not a Latin Cross as some say, but a T shape with the apse crowing the eastern end beyond the transverse.  This same design, though on a much larger sale, can be seen in the basilica of Saint Paul fuori le mura today. (We will do a blog on this basilica in the near future.)   the Transverse was approximately 60 feet across (East to West) and 290 feet long. (North to South) and served as the sanctuary and presbyterium of the Basilica.   The faithful stood in the nave or the aula, leading up to the western transverse.  This aula was a five aisled hall, approximately 300 feet long East to West), two hundred feet wide, (North to South) and one hundred feet high at the center aisle with the two flanking aisles on each side of gradually diminishing height beneath the sloping roof.  At its western end, separating it from the transverse (which was an open space, undivided by aisles) was a “triumphal arch” modeled on the sort of arches the emperors built to celebrate their victories except that this arch was within the building of which it provided an essential element of engineering tying the nave to the transverse.  It was covered with mosaic, most likely with a roundel of Christ in the center and attendant figures flanking.  One sees this arrangement in practically ever ancient church in Rome though the particulars differ.  Christ—either depicted in his humanity or as a Lamb is in the center.  Most often the Apostles are flanking—again either as human figures or as twelve lambs.  Santa Praessede, a church noted for exceptional mosaics from the eighth through the twelfth centuries, has the elders casting down their crowns in homage.    
At the western end, in the apse on the west side of the transverse,  where normally the altar would be located stood the monument that had been built over the tomb of Peter in the middle of the second century, the so called trophy of Gaius.  (See the blog of January 17 2011.)  Constantine enclosed this monument inside a marble and porphyry casing    This monument was surrounded by four spiraled columns that supported crowning arches that created a baldachino or canopy over the altar and from the center of these arches was suspended a chandelier of oil lamps kept perpetually burning over the apostles tomb.  Two other columns of the same design stood in line with the rear two columns of the this canopy connected by architraves or lintels that created a screen marking off this apse from the transverse.  These columns would later be used in the current basilica as decoration and also be the model for Bernini’s baldachino over the altar in the current basilica—but more about that in a future blog. 

The focus on the basilica was not an altar but the marble and porphyry enclosed monument over the tomb of Peter.  It is uncertain what provision was made for an altar.  The traditional basilica arangement with the bishop's chair in the apse and the altar in the center of the apse would not work here because the monument dominated the apse, takingn the place of the altar and blocking any view that the bishop's chair would enjoy behind it. In the fourth century altars often still had the form of a wooden table and it is possible one was brought in and placed before the monument for the Eucharistic celebration.  Gregory the Great would rearrange the sanctuary in the final decade of hte sixth century making an altar its focus, but the emphasis of the Constantinian basilica being the monument over Peter's tomb highlights the fact that this basilica was primarily a pilgrimage church rather than a place for the liturgy.  By the time of Gregory the practice of the Church would have been to integrate the Eucharistic Celebration with the pilgrims's tribute to the Apostle whose grave this basilica marked.    The monument and its canopy of arches rising from the four spiraled columns stood within the semi-circular apse at the western end of the basilica.  Its half-dome too was covered in mosaic depicting Constantine and Saint Peter offering the basilica to the central figure of Christ in Glory.  In our next installment, hopefully tomorrow, we will at photos of a number of the ancient Roman churches and examine some of the elements that they shared with the Constantinian basilica to give you a better idea of the arrangement of Constantine’s church. 
Today's three graphics are (from top to bottom): 1. a graphic depicting the relatinship between the Circus of Nero where Peter died (red); the necropolis where Peter was buried (blue); the Constantinian basilica (yellow) and the current basilica (green); 2. a cross-section of the nave of the Constantinian Basilica with the tranverse and apse beyond; and 3. the arrangement of the altar and apse in the Consantinian basilica a tthe time of Consantine's construction.  It will undergo a serious re-ordering at the time of Gregory I--but that is for the next installment. 

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