The 1st St. Peter's; Displaying the True Cross

Treasury Museum Reveals Traces of Ancient Church

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, DEC. 10, 2009 ( Five hundred years ago, St. Peter’s Basilica was leveled after a millennium of glorious presence on the Roman cityscape. Horrified denizens of the Eternal City, the town where permanence was everything, rued the destruction of one of the most venerable churches in Christendom.

The zealous instigators of this architectural carnage were Pope Julius II and his chief architect Bramante, both of whom would reap only blame for their efforts. Erasmus would scathingly satire Julius’ maltreatment of St. Peter’s resting place and Bramante would be dubbed «Bramante, Maestro Ruinante.»

Although we all know this story has a happy ending — after all, who does not revel in our magnificent «new» St. Peter’s — mystery clouds what the old church, the one that witnessed the coronation of Charlemagne as first Holy Roman Emperor and bore 1,000 years of the finest artistic decoration, must have looked like.

A few traces of the glory that was St. Peter’s still sparkle in the basilica. They are lovingly kept in the Treasury Museum of the Basilica. In these few small rooms, the memory of the ancient church remains alive.

The Treasury Museum has been painstakingly reconstructed and reorganized, and last Dec. 1, the most ambitious restoration thus far was completed. The Tomb of Pope Sixtus IV, once the most spectacular funerary monument of St. Peter’s, has been returned to its original splendor. Together with the newly restored Vexillum Crucis from the sixth century, the tomb comprises the Alfa and Omega of the glorious history of the Constantinian basilica.

Pope Sixtus IV della Rovere reigned from 1471 to 1484. During that time, he transformed Rome from the neglected ramshackle town still scarred by the papal abandonment to Avignon in the 14th century, into a dignified urban center. Not only did he repair aqueducts, build bridges and famously construct the Sistine Chapel, he was also concerned about his spiritual legacy, bequeathing the universal Feast of the Immaculate Conception to posterity, though the dogma wouldn’t be proclaimed until centuries later.
He raised many nephews to high posts in Rome’s civic and ecclesiastical life, most of them ne’er do wells, except one, Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere, who would one day become Pope Julius II and complete his uncle’s transformation of the city.

In his will, Pope Sixtus, a Franciscan, had asked to be buried simply in the earth, but Cardinal Giuliano had other plans. To celebrate the momentous achievement of Sixtus’ papacy and to demonstrate his devotion to his uncle, Giuliano commissioned a monument by the most famous sculptors of the age, the Florentine brothers Antonio and Pietro Pollaiuolo. In his dedicatory inscription, Cardinal Giuliano claims that he put «more devotion than expense» into the tomb.

This tomb, made entirely of bronze (10 times more costly than marble) was an unprecedented object in the history of St. Peter’s Basilica. Seemingly a floor tomb, it was raised up from the ground on two levels to a height of over two feet. Completed in 1493, the tomb was originally placed in the chapel of the Immaculate Conception in St. Peter’s Basilica, consecrated by Pope Sixtus as part of his Marian program for the city. It faced an altar surmounted by an image of the Madonna and Child and would have relegated visitors to the sides of the chapel.

The Pollaiuolo brothers relished the challenge of this innovative monument and produced a masterpiece. Pope Sixtus, cast in a single piece, lies atop the monument, his tiara and dalmatic splendidly etched, chased and modeled with the family coat-of-arms of the acorn and oak leaves.

Surrounding the effigy of the Pontiff are a series of bronze relief panels representing the seven theological and cardinal virtues. Charity reclines above the Pope’s head while Fortitude and Justice flank his feet.

The great innovation of this work lies in the inclusion of relief panels of the liberal arts supporting the dais where the Pope rests. Female figures, reminiscent of the lithe maidens of Botticelli, represent theology, philosophy, astronomy etc., as well as perspective, a new entry on the liberal arts line-up, indicating the rise in status of the visual arts over the years. This was a particularly fitting tribute for a Pope who was such a grand patron of the arts.

Papal historian Ludwig Pastor was scandalized by these images when he saw them in the 19th century. His sweeping condemnation of the monument started with the observation that there was «no crucifix, no Madonna and Child or Biblical scene,» and then moved on to deem inappropriate the young girls frolicking around the tomb as liberal arts. But for a Pope whose meteoric rise was due to his education and eloquence, the liberal arts were what assisted him to shine as a theologian. Similar to Nicola Pisano’s famous 13th century pulpit in Siena perched upon figures representing the liberal arts, so Sixtus’ tomb alluded to the arts as the pillars of a good teaching ministry.

With the construction of the new basilica, Sixtus’ tomb was moved from place to place, from the grottos to the Blessed Sacrament chapel. Finally, in 1971, it found a home in the Treasury Museum. But the wear and tear of the years had begun to damage the monument, dimming its Renaissance splendor.

A two-year restoration came to a close last week, returning the tomb both to its original grandeur as well as to its rightful place among great papal monuments. Six restorers, 300,000 cotton swabs and 1,400 scalpel blades removed the patina of dirt, varnishes and corrosive agents.

This project was funded by the Knights of Columbus who have been quietly supporting many projects in the basilica. From the grotto chapels to Sixtus’ tomb, the Knights of Columbus have shown a dedication to glorifying the site of Peter’s grave that would have delighted both Sixtus and Julius.

The tomb of Pope Sixtus gleaming in the renovated Treasury Museum warmly recalls an age when the liberal arts supported virtue, serving as assistants instead of antagonists.

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Enduring treasure

The Treasury Museum of St. Peter’s Basilica also brings us back to an earlier age, the first centuries after Constantine’s construction. The oldest monument in the museum is one of the white marble twisting columns that now frame the relic chapels in the piers supporting the dome.

The column, 15 feet high and made of creamy eastern marble, is decorated with low relief cherubs and vines. They are called Solomonic for their resemblance to the columns erected by Solomon for his temple in Jerusalem. A gift of Constantine, they framed St. Peter’s tomb for more than 1,000 years until Bernini replaced them with the bronze columns of the Baldacchino, to fit the scale of the new and massive church.

But one special little treasure remains to recall the Age of Justinian, law giver, art patron and distant ruler of Rome throughout the sixth century. The Vexillum Regis, or Royal Standard, is a jeweled cross and reliquary containing a piece of the true cross; it was given by Justinian II, who reigned from 565 to 578, after the death of his illustrious father.

This extraordinary object, a little over a foot tall, was made of gold with a little chamber at the center to keep a piece of the cross of Christ’s crucifixion found by Constantine’s mother, Helena, two centuries earlier.

As most of the cross was brought to Constantine’s new city of Constantinople, this gift, in its spectacular setting, bespoke of the continued commitment of the emperor to Christ and His Church. Large jewels decorated a precious frame — sapphires, emeralds and pearls, typical of imperial treasures — while
on the back a delicate modeled Lamb stands among curling acanthus leaves.

The cross was used regularly in papal processions and celebrations over centuries, but slowly the reliquary was despoiled of its precious stones: three of the four sapphires replaced with cheaper stones, and the precious pearls simply taken. The restoration replaced the pearls, but left the mish mash of colored stones as testimony to the many vicissitudes of the Royal Standard.

The little fragment of the cross remains however; the glittering gems that so easily captivate men have come and gone, but the humble wood of his salvation is ever present.

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus and University of St. Thomas’ Catholic studies program. She can be reached at

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