Rome Three Fountains

Saint Peter's statue in front of Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome
Saint Peter’s statue in front of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome

The Apostles Peter and Paul, Martyred and Buried in Rome, Patron Saints of Rome

“O happy Rome, by noble gore of Princes twain art thou now consecrated; empurpled by the blood of such as these, thou alone in beauty dost surpass all the rest of earth.”

So sings the liturgical hymn on 29th June, the Feast of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, the Princes of Apostles and Pillars of the Church, both of whom died a martyr’s death in Rome and are the Patron Saints of Rome.

Saint Peter's Square with Basilica and the Vatican Obelisk in Rome
Saint Peter’s Square with Basilica and the Vatican Obelisk in Rome

Saint Peter and the Ager Vaticanus

Saint Peter was crucified with his head down at the foot of the Vatican Hill in the early stages of Emperor Nero’s great Christian persecution in 64 A.D., and on his sacred remains the glorious Basilica that bears his name rests.

Archaeological research and excavations in the last century, an unprecedented achievement mainly due to the brave determination of Pope Pius XII Pacelli (1939-1958), discovered the tomb of Saint Peter under the floor of of the main altar of the Basilica, where it had remained inaccessible and untouched for almost 2,000 years. Archaeological evidence thus confirmed what Catholic Tradition has always known.

It is now universally accepted that Saint Peter was martyrised in the Ager Vaticanus, an alluvial plain outside ancient Rome’s walls on the right bank of the River Tiber, among the Janiculum Hill (Gianicolo), the Vatican Hill and Monte Mario (Rome’s highest hill), extending north up to the confluence of the Cremera, a tributary of the Tiber.

The first Basilica of St. Peter, erected by Emperor Constantine, on which the present one was built, occupied a part of this area. The Ager Vaticanus at that time included the Circus of Caligula, the third Roman Emperor, who built the circus within the gardens named Horti Agrippinae after Agrippina the Elder, Caligula’s mother, who created them. It is also known as Circus of Gaius, the first name of Caligula, Vatican Circus, and more commonly Circus of Nero, the emperor who completed it. A necropolis, “city of the dead”, ancient cemetery, now under St Peter’s Basilica, was also in the Ager Vaticanus.

In ancient Rome the circus, which was used for chariot races, was an oval-shaped arena (the film Ben-Hur gave a realistic idea of the structure if not necessarily of everything else) with a stone barrier down the middle, called spine (spina), around which the horse-drawn chariots raced. The races were very dangerous, as the drivers raced their chariots at top speed around the arena.

At the heart of the Circus of Nero, in the central spine that separated the tracks, stood an Egyptian obelisk brought to Rome by Caligula in 37 AD from Alexandria where the first Roman Emperor Augustus had moved it (probably from Heliopolis) in 30 BC when he conquered Egypt.

The enormous obelisk remained in the centre of the Circus of Nero until 1586, when Pope Sixtus V had the architect Domenico Fontana re-erect it in the centre of St Peter’s Square, where it can still be admired. It took Fontana four months, great ingenuity and superb skills to complete the work. The Vatican Obelisk was the first obelisk ever to be raised in the modern era. Made of red granite, its height is an impressive 25.5 metres, reaching 40 metres with the cross on its top. The base supporting it is made of four bronze lions, work of the sculptor Prospero Antichi.

Rome has 13 obelisks, more than anywhere else in the world. The globe’s tallest obelisk is the Lateran Obelisk, standing in Rome’s Piazza di San Giovanni in Laterano.

We know that St Peter, along with other Christians, was a victim of Nero’s persecution of the year 64 AD, a persecution confirmed by the Latin historian Tacitus in his Annals. Nero, unable to silence the rumors that held him responsible for the Great Fire of Rome, took Christians as scapegoats, who were immediately condemned and martyrised.

The Apostle Peter’s martyrdom, as mentioned, occurred in the Ager Vaticanus. Usually the condemned were buried near the place of their martyrdom, and so happened with Peter’s body, secretly taken away by the disciples and buried nearby.

According to the Acts of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, St Peter was buried in a tomb under the terebinth tree, next to the site of the naumachia. In classical antiquity, the naumachia is the often bloody spectacle reproducing a naval battle and is also the place hosting it, a special installation similar to an amphitheatre with a flooded arena, when it did not take place on natural or artificial lakes.

In the Vatican, Saint Peter’s burial place was the object of great veneration from the very beginning and, according to the Tradition, it was marked by a terebinth.

The Beheading of Saint Paul by Enrique Simonet, 1887
“The Beheading of Saint Paul” by Enrique Simonet, 1887

Saint Paul and the Three Fountains

Saint Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, was decapitated probably three years later, in the winter of 67 AD, at Aquae Salviae. We reproduce here the 1887 painting The Beheading of Saint Paul by Enrique Simonet.

Paul of Tarsus was condemned to the dignified execution reserved for Roman citizens like him: decapitation by the sword.

One morning, the old Apostle was led by a group of lictors through the Porta Trigemina, a gate of the city of Rome, passing in front of the Pyramid of Caius Cestius. Then they turned to the left into the major road connecting Rome to its important sea port of Ostia Antica, the Via Ostiensis, approximately at the point where the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls is now, and went on into desolate land.

Walking along the Via Laurentina, the group arrived in about half an hour’s walk
to the humid valley that takes its name from Aquae Salviae at the third mile, where today among the tall eucalyptus trees the silent hosts of Trappist friars hold an Abbey.

The great Roman historian Tacitus teaches us that decapitation outside the city walls was an ancient custom.

There, then, fell St Paul’s head.

Church of St Paul at the Three Fountains Rome
Church of St Paul at the Three Fountains Rome

An ancient tradition tells us that the head of the Apostle, separated from the bust, made three leaps along the light slope of the ground before it stopped and, in the three points where it touched the earth, three gushes of water miraculously sprang: the first hot, the second lukewarm, the third cold. On each of the three fountains, which for a long time kept the three different temperatures of the water, an aedicula (niche) was built to remember the miracle. Ever since, the name used to indicate that sacred area was no longer Aquae Salviae but the Three Fountains.

The three aediculae became part of the church erected in the 5th century on the site where, according to Tradition, the Apostle suffered his martyrdom, the Church of St Paul at the Three Fountains (Chiesa di San Paolo alle Tre Fontane), which was later rebuilt by the celebrated architect Giacomo della Porta in 1599-1601 for Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini.

The Church of Saint Paul, placed at the end of a tree-lined avenue, is now part of the Tre Fontane Abbey, held by monks of the Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance, also known as Trappists. Saint Paul is the most ancient of the three churches in the Monastery of the “Three Fountains”.

Above the entrance to the church, over the tympanum of the facade, are two statues of St Peter and St Paul.

The church’s interior is entered after a small vestibule where a multi-coloured marble mosaic from the High Middle Ages is preserved.

The three fountains, as mentioned earlier built to remember the miracle, line the single transverse nave that forms the church’s interior. Covered by monumental marble tabernacles, they are located at equal distance across the length of the nave, on three different levels that testify to the ancient slope of the place. Each fountain has St Paul’s head carved on it.

The three niches housing the fountains, from which water no longer flows since 1950, have columns in black marble and are surmounted by a shell-shaped vault with the Aldobrandini coat of arms.

In a corner is the column to which according to the Tradition Saint Paul was kept bound to suffer decapitation.

A splendid Roman polychrome marble mosaic representing the Four Seasons decorates the nave floor. Donated to the church by Pope Pius IX, it had been brought here from Ostia, the port of ancient Rome.

Photo credits: 3 Fountains photo Wikipedia

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