By Elizabeth Lev
ROME, JUNE 7, 2007 (Zenit.org ).- Most visitors to St. Peter’s Basilica wonder why the candles on the altars are never lit. Early morning Mass attendees of course know that all the candles on the side altars are lit every morning from 7 to 8:30 a.m. as the individual Eucharistic celebrations are taking place.
But as the last taper is extinguished, the altars fall dark, except the one that will be used for the regular morning Masses. But on feast days of saints venerated in St. Peter’s, the altar dedicated to the saint is adorned with flowers and lit candles, standing out among all the others.
Sometimes the honoree is a well-known saint, such as St. Gregory the Great or St. Joseph, but often these little celebrations allow visitors to reacquaint themselves with long-forgotten saints and realize how important they are to Christian history and culture.
On May 31, St. Peter’s paid homage to what is today a somewhat obscure saint, St. Petronilla, but closer study reveals that some of the finest art in the basilica was dedicated to her altar.
St. Petronilla lived in Rome and was probably martyred in the first century during the early Christian persecutions. Her grave, near that of Sts. Nereo and Achilleo in the catacomb of Domitilla, was one of the most venerated tombs in the city up through the seventh century, when the catacombs were finally abandoned.
As early as the fourth century, Petronilla was already an artistic subject. A fresco in an underground crypt from 356 represents the saint assisting a woman, Veneranda, into heaven. But this was only the beginning of Petronilla’s rewarding association with the arts.
The remains of Petronilla, in a white marble sarcophagus, were transferred in 757 to the old St. Peter’s Basilica built by Constantine. The saint was laid to rest in a former imperial mausoleum situated next to the church, which was consecrated as the Chapel of Petronilla and annexed to the Basilica.
The circular building, which can be seen in old drawings of the ancient church, became the French chapel of St. Peter’s, as Petronilla became patroness of relations between the Pope and the first Holy Roman Emperors.
The inscription on the tomb, “of the golden Petronilla, the sweetest daughter,” the distinctiveness of her elegant mausoleum, and the translation of her relics to St. Peter’s gave rise to the medieval legend that the Roman martyr was the daughter of St. Peter.
The charming tale surrounding the identity of Petronilla recounted that Peter’s beautiful daughter attracted the eye of the pagan son of a high-ranking Roman official, and to protect Petronilla from unwanted advances, Peter and his daughter prayed for her to be rendered too ill to be considered for marriage.
The ruse worked for a short time, but finally the young man realized he had been duped and denounced Petronilla as a Christian. Peter prayed to have his daughter spared a harrowing martyrdom and Petronilla died in her sleep.
This story, while adding romance and famous names, nonetheless demoted Petronilla from her high status of martyr to virgin. The artwork dedicated to her, however, went from a hasty catacomb fresco to one of the greatest treasures of the basilica.
In 1498, French Cardinal Jean Bilhères de Lagraulas wanted to commemorate the upcoming Jubilee Year of 1500 with a new work of art for the Petronilla chapel where he planned to be buried. He approached a relatively unknown, 23-year-old Florentine sculptor named Michelangelo Buonarroti, and asked him to sculpt a statue of the Pietà. The rest is history.
St. Petronilla still ranked high as a virgin martyr in Cesare Baronio’s Martyrology of the post Counter-Reformation era (ending in the 16th century). Antonio Bosio’s exploration of the early Christian sites ensured that Petronilla had enough clout to retain a chapel dedicated to her in the new basilica of St. Peter completed in 1612.
The Pietà was briefly placed back in her chapel, which is along the right-hand aisle against the apsidal wall of the basilica. It was soon moved to its present position, and a new work of art was commissioned for Petronilla.
Francesco Barbieri, nicknamed Guercino, star pupil of the 17th-century Carracci academy of Bologna, and Baroque painter par excellence, was hired to paint the enormous oil on canvas of “The Raising of St. Petronilla.”
The original is kept today in the Capitoline Museums, but the mosaic copy in St. Peter’s faithfully re-creates the effect of the landmark work.
This astonishing work, standing 25 feet high, drew on the medieval legend of Petronilla and represents Peter on the lower half of the canvas lowering his daughter in the tomb while the upper half shows Petronilla, adorned in beautiful silks and velvets being welcomed into heaven by Christ.
The brilliant blues and rich reds catch the viewer’s eye from afar and impart a sense of preciousness to the work, but the most surprising effect can only be seen by those attending Mass. As Peter grasps the ropes to lower his daughter’s body into the grave, the corpse of Petronilla seems to hover above the altar. From the lowest border of the work only two outstretched hands reaching upward can be seen.
One might think that the hands belong to a gravedigger ready to receive the body and lay it in the ground, but those hands also recall the supplication of Veneranda, who relied on Petronilla’s intercession for her salvation. The medieval tale blends with the ancient martyrdom.
St. Petronilla’s life in both history and art recall that the examples of the saints are more than just pretty pictures to be admired in church, but also indications of how we too can be part of the great communion of the elect in heaven.
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The Basilica of Many Levels
Not only was it a week to remember forgotten martyrs but it was also a week to commemorate the rediscovery of forgotten origins. On June 3, San Clemente, one of most interesting churches in the city, organized a concert in its 12th-century atrium to celebrate the 150th anniversary of its excavations.
The Basilica of San Clemente was dedicated to St. Clement, the third Pope after Peter, and author of the Epistle of St. Clement to the Corinthians, one of the oldest pieces of Christian writing after the New Testament (roughly circa A.D. 90).
From the Renaissance era to the 19th century, however, everyone believed that the elegant basilica with the 13th-century mosaic decoration was the same place mentioned by St. Jerome in 392 as preserving “the memory of St. Clement to this day,” although the relics were not brought until 500 years later by St. Cyril, who died in Rome in 869 and was also buried in the church.
In the 17th century, when the Dominicans were expelled from Ireland, they sought refuge in Rome. They were given the Basilica of San Clemente, and they have been in that church ever since.
In June 1857, Dominican Father Joseph Mullooly, prior of San Clemente, began an excavation under the present day church. In 10 years, he discovered a fourth-century basilica directly under the floor level and, pressing further, he found two buildings dating from the first century.
Modern explorations have uncovered some charred remains of structures under that level, identified as buildings destroyed during the great fire of Rome in A.D. 64, the same fire that the early Christian community was blamed for, and the cause of St. Peter’s arrest and martyrdom. With three layers of Christian history in a single structure, San Clemente literally became a time elevator for the vicissitudes of Christianity in Rome.
From the cold embers that brought about the death of St. Peter, the next level brings us to polytheistic world of imperial Rome. One structure was a “domus,” a single family dwelling with faint traces of once-lavish decoration in the moldy plaster carving on the vault. This home was donated to the cult of Mithras, a Persian god popular among the Roman military. In the ancient dining room, visitors can see the couches arranged around an altar for the ritual sacrifice to the god.
Next door, another religious group was meeting discreetly. Although many scholars claim the other first-century edifice under San Clemente was some kind of public structure, other archaeologists have put forward another intriguing theory.
It has been suggested that the large and austere building was owned by T. Flavius Clemens, a wealthy senator who was killed together with his wife Domitilla by his cousin the Emperor Domitian for being a Christian. In A.D. 96, Christians could not own land, so wealthy Roman converts bought land, keeping the titles in their names, but allowing the Christians to use the property. This is the origin of the titular Churches.
Since the first Popes were all Jewish converts, and Jews in Rome were generally freedman who took the names of their former masters, Clement may have been a former slave of T. Flavius Clemens. And the modest building 75 feet below ground level may have been Clement’s home as Pope.
With the legalization of Christianity, the old makeshift Christian buildings were transformed into capacious churches ready to house the large congregations of Christians — some estimates suggest that there were as many as 250,000 in Rome by 313.
Climbing up the narrow mildewed stair from the lowest level of San Clemente, one is forced to recall the first moment the Christians came out from underground and were able to step into the light.
The first basilica was built in the fourth century, hard on the heels of St. John Lateran, the first Christian church built in Rome. It was a big, almost ungainly building, covering the entire space of the older building below. The walls of the ancient titulus still support the church today.
The Basilica of San Clemente lasted for almost 800 years. It was given beautiful liturgical structures as well as artwork. The sixth-century marble choir can still be seen in the topmost level, and beautiful frescos, narrating the lives of St. Clement and other saints, brightened the walls. But this church was sacked by the Normans in 1084 at the height of the Investiture Controversy.
The ancient church had been destroyed, but undaunted, the Romans filled in the debris and built a new church on top of it. The elegant Basilica of San Clemente still stands today, and the splendid décor was enhanced by the magnificent concert held to celebrate the Church’s constant commitment to stand by its flock through persecutions, disasters and destruction.
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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus. She can be reached at [email protected].
By Elizabeth Lev