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Sep 28 The Obelisk that 'witnessed' St Peters Death


We go back to year 1586 and travel to Rome where a large pink granite obelisk known as "The Witness", was moved to its present location in St Peters Square by order of Pope Sixtus V. At over 25 metres high is the second largest standing obelisk in Rome after the one at the Lateran.




In all there are eight Egyptian obelisks standing in Rome, meaning there are more erect obelisks from Egypt in Rome than anywhere else in the World, including Egypt. They were all brought to Rome by various Roman Emperors. The one currently in St Peters Square is called the Vatican Obelisk and sometimes Caligula’s Obelisk, is the only ancient Egyptian obelisk in Rome to have remained standing since Roman times. It comes from Heliopolis, Egypt, where it was built by the Pharaoh Mencares in 1835 BC in honour of the sun. For Egyptians, the obelisk was a solar symbol that represented a vital flow between heaven and earth, a way of communicating to the divine.


It was brought to Rome in 37 BC by the Emperor Caligula on a ship filled with lentils to prevent any damage and erected in the circus he built. The obelisk was originally erected in gardens Caligula had inherited from his mother, and then on the central spina of a circus that was started by Caligula and completed during Nero’s reign. It was Called Nero's Circus and here it was silent witness of the martyrdom of St. Peter and of many other Christians Pliny the Elder wrote about it in his Naturalis Historia (1st century AD). The idea to move it was due to Sixtus’ desire to recover and re-erect all the obelisks lying then in the ruins of Rome. (For more about how various Popes shaped the city of Rome see the podcast of May 22)After the voyage the ship was filled with pozzolana and sunk so as to be used as the base for the left pier of Claudius' harbour, at the mouth of the Tiber. Given the difficulty of moving it, several projects were considered until Sixtus entrusted the job to his favourite architect, Domenico Fontana, who presented a wooden model, containing a lead grid, a replica of the obelisk, which could be easily lowered and raised. His project met with the Pope's approval and on April 30, transport was begun, after a solid foundation had been built to support the obelisk in the centre of the square. With a total height, including base and the cross on top, of 40 metres its relocation was engineered by Domenico Fontana the help of his brother, Giovanni, and took four months. It was erected by 900 men using 140 horses and 44 winches and was an operation fraught with difficulties and nearly ending in disaster when the ropes holding the obelisk began to smoke from the friction.


As a pagan monument in a great Christian square, it is a symbol of humanity reaching out to Christ.., Originally inscribed to "Divine Augustus" and "Divine Tiberius" it is now dedicated to the Holy Cross - "Christus Vincit, Christus Regnat, Christus Imperat. Christus ab omni malo plebem suam defendat." Christ is the victor, Christ is King, Christ is the ruler, May Christ defend His people from all evil) Legend had it that the original metal globe that was placed at the top held the ashes of Julius Caesar. During the re-siting of the obelisk, the globe was opened and found to be empty. The globe can now be seen in the Museo dei Conservatory..It is now topped by a bronze cross containing a fragment of the true Cross. An anonymous painting in the Museum of Rome, illustrating the Corpus Christi Procession, shows St. Peter's Square with the obelisk already in place, before the colonnades were built.

It is often referred to as ‘The Witness’ as many Christians would have been martyred for their faith in its shadow. What do we know about the latter years of Peters life and ministry? Peter was the most prominent figure in the Jerusalem Church up to the time of his departure from Jerusalem. At this point the unchallenged leadership of Peter in Jerusalem came to an end. It is not at all clear where Peter went, but it is not probable that the words “to another place” refer to a different home in the same general area that would provide temporary refuge. We know that Paul went up to Jerusalem to consult with Peter three years after he was converted, and he remained with Peter for two weeks (Galatians 1:18, 19). When Peter left Jerusalem, however, it appears clear to many New Testament scholars (although unconvincing to others) that he assumed a missionary role while the actual leadership of the church devolved upon James, “the brother of the Lord.” This sequence of authority is suggested by Peter’s obedience to the wishes of “certain persons who came from James” and hence his ceasing to eat with Gentile Christians at Antioch which is accounted for in the book of Galatians; and when “certain persons came from James” and opposed the united congregation’s custom of eating together. In apparent deference to James, Peter “drew back and began to hold aloof,” and the Jewish Christians did likewise. The unity of the group had been destroyed. When Paul returned, he upbraided Peter for what he may have considered Peter’s vacillation this lead to the first council of the church - the Jerusalem Council (49 or 50 CE), in which it was settled that hereafter Paul should be “entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised” and Peter “for the mission to the circumcised”


However we have less clear historical record of the martyrdom, and burial of Peter with the absence of any reference in Acts or Romans to a residence of Peter in Rome. If Peter was the author 1 Peter, the mention of “Babylon” in 5:13 is fairly reliable evidence that Peter resided at some time in the capital city. Since the end of the 1st century there has been a strong tradition that Peter had lived in Rome. Further early evidence for the tradition is found in the Letter to the Romans by St. Ignatius, the early 2nd-century bishop of Antioch. Words in the Gospel of John 21 clearly refer to the death of Peter and are cast into the literary form of prophecy. However the strongest evidence that Peter was martyred in Rome is to be found in the Letter of St. Clement of Rome to the Corinthians written around the year 96 CE


Peter, who by reason of wicked jealousy, not only once or twice but frequently endured suffering and thus, bearing his witness, went to the glorious place which he merited).…To these men [Peter and Paul] who lived such holy lives there was joined a great multitude of the elect who by reason of rivalry were victims of many outrages and tortures and who became outstanding examples among us


There is now a scholarly consensus to accept Rome as the location of the martyrdom of Peyer at the time of the reign of Nero as the time. Where was he buried? In the early 4th century, the emperor Constantine with considerable difficulty erected a basilica on the Vatican Hill. The difficulty of the task, on a hill rather than nearby level ground may support the contention that the emperor was convinced that the relics of Peter rested beneath the small aedicula (shrine for a small statue) over which he had erected the basilica. The excavation of this site, which lies far beneath the high altar of the present church of St. Peter, was begun in 1939. The problems encountered in excavation where extremely complex however there are some scholars who are convinced that a box found in one of the fairly late sidewalls of the aedicula contains fragments of the remains of the apostle,