Shrines & Places

Santa Costanza

ca. 350, Rome, Italy

Today known as Santa Costanza, this centralized structure with a bi-apsidal entrance vestibule, was originally built around 350 AD as an imperial mausoleum for Constantina (d. 354), one of the daughters of Emperor Constantine the Great (r. 306–337). Preserving portions of its rich 4th century mosaic decoration in the barrel-vaulted ambulatory of the interior, the mausoleum of Constantina was formerly attached to the north aisle of an Early Christian coemeterial basilica of which only the substructures survive. Both the basilica and the mausoleum are located above one of Rome's underground cemeteries, or catacombs, in which the Christian martyr St. Agnes was allegedly interred following her martyrdom and later venerated by the Christian community of Rome. The growing cult of St. Agnes eventually resulted in the building of a new basilica during the pontificate of Pope Honorius I (r. 625–638), which is still in use and functioned for centuries as the center of the martyr's cult.

Holger A. Klein

St. Peter's Basilica

Rome, Italy

St. Peter's, cross-section Old St. Peter's Exterior view of the Piazza
Ancient fresco of the Constantinian basilica of St. Peter's in the fourth century.

Ancient fresco of the Constantinian basilica of St. Peter's in the fourth century.

Video from the Domitilla Catacombs on Rome

Watch video from the Domitilla Catacombs in Rome.

Top: Drawing of the contemporary St. Peter's Basilica, with the catacombs and Tomb of St. Peter.
Bottom: Floor plan of St. Peter's. Gray area: Circus of Nero, 1st century; Black area: 4th century, demolished 16th century; Dotted area: 1506-1626. Select the blue circle to view a QuickTime VR panorama.

For Christians in the late antique and medieval period, Rome assumed a similar status to Jerusalem as a holy place. Its landscape was dotted with the graves of martyrs and the tropaia, or "trophies," erected above their tombs, providing Rome with a sacred topography unrivalled by any other city in Europe.

The most famous of these monuments was the tropaion dedicated to Saint Peter on the Vatican hill. Archaeological evidence places the memorial to Peter to the end of second century CE, around the time when pilgrims first started arriving in Rome. Like those who followed them, these pilgrims wished to see the resting place of the apostle, whom Christ had entrusted with building his Church and guarding the gates of Heaven.

By the late fourth century, a large basilica enclosed Peter's tropaion. Contemporary accounts tell us that Constantine the Great was responsible for its construction, and that his mother Helena decorated the tropaion with lavish materials, including gates of Cyprian bronze that protected Peter's tomb from the throngs of visitors.

The appearance of Peter's tomb was radically altered in the sixth century, when Pope Gregory the Great raised its floor, creating a crypt-like space that allowed pilgrims to "see" Peter's remains while mass was being celebrated above. This arrangement proved enormously influential in the construction of the tombs of holy men and women in northern Europe, where Peter had a large following due to the missionary efforts of Gregory.

Indeed, more pilgrims went to Rome from the areas that today constitute England, France and Germany than to Jerusalem, especially after the Holy Land fell under Muslim control in 640 CE. The popularity of Rome among pilgrims is clear from the fact that the routes that they followed changed very little from the ninth through the thirteenth centuries.

Gabriella Szalay

Exhibition Objects Associated with Rome