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Tombs of Apostles

The Many Tombs of Religious Figures in Italy

Italy is the final resting place of many of the Apostles and the Evangelists: some were martyred in Rome, while others were brought to Italy centuries after their deaths. Several of these holy bodies found their way to Italy by less-than-holy means, usually by theft.

There is also the fact that unscrupulous merchants, priests and crusaders helped fuel a trade in holy relics during the Middle Ages when bones, clothes or objects (and fragments of them) of holy figures where smuggled and sold around Europe. Fragments of the Holy Cross were among the most popular in this (un)holy commerce of relics, with the bones of the Apostles coming a close second.

Today, the relics of the Apostles found in Italy may have more to do with tradition than fact, however the intercessory powers of these objects are just as powerful to the faithful.

The tombs of the Apostles

The father of the Church and "The" Apostle: Saint Peter and Paul in a painting by 17th century painter El Greco
The father of the Church and “The” Apostle: Saint Peter and Paul in a painting by 17th century painter El Greco (Public Domain/wikimedia)

Saints Peter and Paul were known to have come to Rome during their lifetimes, and ever since their respective martyrdoms their bodies have been venerated. In the days of Christian persecution the bones of saints were often transferred to various locations for safety. However, once Christianity became legal in Ancient Rome, whatever relics survived were placed in the first Christian basilicas. Today, the city of Rome claims to be the final resting place of at least seven Apostles, although portions of these relics have been divided up among other churches worldwide.

Saints Peter, Jude and Simon the Zealot

The bones of Saint Peter, the first Pope are said to rest under the main altar of St. Peter’s Basilica. His tomb lies not far from his place of martyrdom in the Circus of Nero, where he was crucified upside down. The remains of the ancient cemetery of the Vatican hill still exist under the Basilica, with decorated tombs and Christian graffiti showing a very early date of veneration. Besides Peter, at least a portion of the relics of Saints Jude (Thaddeus) and Simon the Zealot are at the Vatican as well.

The tomb of Saint Peter, in the Grotte Vaticane
The tomb of Saint Peter, in the Grotte Vaticane (Francesco Gasparetti/flickr)

Saint Paul

The Apostle, as he is commonly known: Saint Paul
The Apostle, as he is commonly known: Saint Paul

Paul, the “Apostle to the Gentiles”, spread the word of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire before his martyrdom by beheading. The Emperor Constantine erected the first Basilica of Saint Paul outside-the-walls (San Paolo fuori le Mura) on the site of his tomb. Even though the Basilica has been completely rebuilt over the centuries, recent excavations may have found the actual sarcophagus of Saint Paul. If tradition is correct, the body of the Apostle should be headless, since the Basilica of Saint John Lateran (The Mother Church of Roman Catholicism) claims to house the heads of both Saints Peter and Paul.

Saints Phillip and James the Just

The Apostle Phillip was responsible for introducing Hellenized (Greek-speaking) Jews into the ministry of Jesus. Apocryphal Christian tradition has the Apostle being martyred in Hieropolis (now in modern Turkey) where his bones lay until  they were translated to the Basilica of the Holy Apostles (Santi Apostoli). Along with Saint Phillip, the relics of the Apostle James the Just, (also known as James the Less), who may have been the brother of Jesus, are also interred in the same Basilica.

Saint Bartholomew

On the Tiber Island stands the church of San Bartolomeo all’Isola, built over the ancient temple of Asclepius to house what is believed to be the relics of Bartholomew the Apostle. Legend states that in the 9th century the body of the Saint arrived in Italy from Armenia, where Bartholomew is a Patron Saint and credited with spreading Christianity. The church has had a rough history, but the relics of Saint Bartholomew have survived and lie in a red porphyry Roman bathtub at the high altar.

Basilica di San Bartolomeo all'Isola, on the Isola Tiberina, final resting place of the Apostle Bartholomew
Basilica di San Bartolomeo all’Isola, on the Isola Tiberina, final resting place of the Apostle Bartholomew (Fernando Olguin/flickr)

Saint Matthias

The relics of Saint Matthias, the Apostle chosen to replace Judas Iscariot are said to be split between Trier, Germany and Rome. Legend says Saint Helena brought the Apostle’s relics from Jerusalem and placed at least a portion of them in Rome where they are now housed in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. Besides Saint Matthias the Basilica is also the final resting place of Saint Jerome, a prominent Doctor of the Church.

Saint Andrew

The Apostle Andrew was the brother of Peter and one of the first to follow Jesus. Much like his brother, Saint Andrew felt unworthy to die in the manner of Jesus and so it is said he was martyred on an X-shaped crucifix in the Greek city of Patras. Once Christianity was legalized, Saint Andrew was relocated to the “New Rome” of Constantinople and interred in the Church of the Holy Apostles. During the Fourth Crusade of 1204, Constantinople was sacked and Saint Andrew was looted from his tomb and taken back to Italy. The Apostle was brought to the Amalfi Duomo by Cardinal Pietro Capuano and interred in an elaborate crypt that was prepared for him. Over time,  portions of Saint Andrew’s relics have been given to other churches, including a portion of his skull returned to the Greek Orthodox Church in Patras by Pope Paul VI.

The Tombs of the Evangelists

Among the Evangelists, three of them have final resting places in Italy. Saint Matthew, both an Apostle and an Evangelist, lies in the crypt of the Salerno Cathedral. In the 9th century, Saint Mark was stolen from Alexandria in a barrel of pork and now lies in his namesake basilica in Venice. The headless body of Saint Luke lies in the Padua Cathedral, yet another relic captured during the Crusades. Recent carbon dating and DNA testing has shown it be of an elderly man of Syrian origin who died within the proper timeframe to be the actual bones of the Gospel writer.

Tombs of the Apostles: Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome is the resting place of Saint Matthias, as well as Saint Jerome, Father of the Church
Tombs of the Apostles: Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome is the resting place of Saint Matthias, as well as Saint Jerome, Father of the Church (Giorgio Galeotti/flickr)

For more Information:

  • Abbey of San Paulo fuori le Mura: www.abbaziasanpaolo.net
  • Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore: www.vatican.va/various/sm_maggiore/index_en.html
  • Saint Philip from Catholic Encyclopedia: www.newadvent.org/cathen/11799a.htm
  • Saint James from Catholic Encyclopedia: www.newadvent.org/cathen/08280a.htm
  • Saint Bartholomew from Isola Tiberina: www.isolatiberina.it/SBart_e.html
  • Amalfi Tourism tour of Duomo: http://www.amalfitouristoffice.it/en/percorsi/giallo.htm
  • Basilica di San Marco, Venice: www.basilicasanmarco.it/index.bsm
  • Saint Luke DNA Testing: www.telegraph.co.uk/connected/main.jhtml?xml=/connected/2001/10/25/ecnst25.xml

By Justin Demetri

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