It may surprise you to learn, as I did yesterday, about the tombs of the popes in Rome. Or rather, I should say, I was fascinated to learn about the lack of them. For as it turns out, many of the popes’ tombs have been lost, thanks to the overly enthusiastic sledgehammers of Italian Renaissance and Baroque architects.
Perhaps like me you had never really considered where those Roman Pontiffs from earlier centuries were interred. Some were in catacombs no doubt, from the centuries when Christianity was illegal. Yet you probably reasonably assumed that they were all subsequently buried at St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.
I just so happened to look up the saint of the day on one of my apps yesterday, and learnt that it was the Feast of Pope St. Zachary (679-752). For some reason, I became curious to see what his tomb looked like. I knew that the old St. Peter’s had been built by the Emperor Constantine, and was demolished beginning in the early 16th century. I simply assumed that the graves of the popes had been moved, and the pontiffs later reinterred.
I was rather shocked to learn that not only did Pope St. Zachary not have a tomb I could visit, but dozens of papal graves such as his had been lost as a result of intentional neglect. Because of his sanctity, relics of him may be preserved elsewhere, such as a fragment of bone or the like. Yet his original grave at the Vatican is long gone.
The architects of the new St. Peter’s, beginning with Bramante and continuing all the way through to Bernini, had little love for the Byzantine, Romanesque, and Gothic tombs of the previous popes. Some of these structures were enormous, and looked rather like wedding cakes. So instead of trying to preserve them or their contents to reinstall in the new church – or anywhere else for that matter – in many cases the now old-fashioned tombs were simply smashed to pieces or left to fall apart.
Several of the more important popes, such as St. Gregory the Great, were “transferred”, and had new tombs for them designed in St. Peter’s. Other popes who were less important or influential got their remains tossed together in the same sarcophagus. Still others don’t appear to have been preserved at all, for unknown reasons, and despite being saints – like poor St. Zachary.
You can get an idea of the hodgepodge of surviving papal tombs that resulted from the construction site chaos at St. Peter’s by looking at some of the surviving tombs in the grottoes beneath the church. Partially disassembled monuments, reused sarcophagi, and other oddities from the architectural salvage yard fill many of the niches and hallways. It’s remarkable to perceive how little respect was paid, comparatively speaking, to the remains of so many individuals – and how few “made” it through the construction project.
Apart from the obvious historical and architectural scandal of these losses however, upon further reflection it might not be such a bad thing that so many of these monuments bit the dust a few centuries or less after the men they once contained. No work of Man will outlast the works of God. Perhaps it’s fitting that eventually, the remains of even the most popular of popes will be reduced to nothing more than pieces of bone in a reliquary, or even just a name on an inscription.
Sic transit gloria mundi, as the saying goes. True, most of us will never be interred in a grandiose tomb designed by a famous architect or sculptor. At least in considering the fate of so many of the popes, we have something rather sobering to reflect on, as we continue our journey through Lent.