Vatican Grottoes | The Subterranean Sanctity

Located just beneath the St. Peter’s Basilica, the Vatican Grottoes are a collection of burial spots stowed away under the ground. The Grottoes Vaticane, as they are called here, lie beneath the Church but above the Vatican Necropolis. Clement VIII erected a semi-annular tunnel at the end of the 16th century that led to the Confession and the medieval crypt. The Confession is located under the papal altar and is oriented with the tomb of the Apostle in relation to the necropolis below. It is inaccessible from the Grottoes because the arch that frames it is covered in glass. One comes across a variety of tombstones as the Explore Vatican Grottoes. Famous names include Boniface VIII, who "created" the Jubilee, Pius VI Braschi, who was taken by the French and perished as a captive in 1799, Adrian (1159), the only English pope, and the popes of today. There are also lay persons with historical significance: the Stuarts, English throne imposters in exile in Rome since 1717, and Emperor Otto II, who passed away at the age of 28 in Rome.

Inside Vatican Grottoes

Clementine Chapel (Chapel of St. Peter)
Clementine Chapel (Chapel of St. Peter)

The Vatican Grottoes hold a hidden gem known as the Clementine Chapel, situated at the heart of the peribolos. This chapel serves as a cherished highlight for visitors exploring the Vatican Grottoes, acting as a protective enclosure for the tomb of the Apostle Peter. A remarkable feature within the chapel is the "subterranea Confession," which was constructed in the late sixth century by Popes Pelagius II and St. Gregory the Great.

Incredibly, this room has remarkably preserved both its original identity and purpose throughout the ages, as well as the Pallia niche. Throughout history, devoted pilgrims have flocked to this sacred site, just as they continue to do today. Positioned at the rear of the Constantinian monument, directly above Peter's grave, the location was once believed to be the resting place of the apostle's head.

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Tomb of John Paul II
Tomb of John Paul II

In close proximity to the Tomb of St. Peter, within the Vatican Grottoes, lies the initial resting place of Pope John Paul II, whose burial took place on April 8, 2005. Interestingly, the space previously accommodated the sarcophagus of Pope John XXIII. However, on June 3, 2001, Pope John XXIII's remains were transferred to the St. Jerome Altar in the basilica, following his beatification in 2000.

Subsequently, after his own beatification, Pope John Paul II was repositioned under the Altar of St. Sebastian on May 1, 2011. For the burial of John Paul II, the deepest of the three customary coffins, crafted from cypress, was utilized. These sacred burial sites within the Vatican Grottoes bear witness to the profound reverence and significance accorded to the resting places of esteemed popes, commemorating their enduring legacy and impact on the Catholic faith.

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Chapel of the Madonna of Bocciata
Chapel of the Madonna of Bocciata

The oldest chapel in the vicinity of Peter's tomb has a fascinating history dating back to its origins as a small oratory commissioned by Pope Gregory XIII in 1580. Subsequently, Pope Clement VIII expanded and connected the space to the new peribolos of the grottoes in 1592.

Within this chapel, a remarkable painting by the renowned 14th-century Roman artist Pietro Cavallini can be admired. This artwork is famously known as the "Madonna della Bocciata" due to an intriguing legend associated with it. According to folklore, the face of Mary in the painting appeared bloated after a drunken soldier lost a bowling game and angrily threw a bowl at the sacred image, causing her face to seemingly bleed.

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Icon of the Madonna Dolorosa & Reliefs of the Doctors of the Church
Icon of the Madonna Dolorosa & Reliefs of the Doctors of the Church

Apart from the crypts, visitors come across a wide selection of monuments as they explore the Vatican Grottoes. A huge image of the Holy Madonna may be found in one of the Vatican Grottoes' southern corners. Madonna is seen here wearing red and black clothing and extending her arms slightly, with an orange halo over her head. This artwork is flanked by reliefs of Church Doctors that have been preserved for centuries.

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Funerary Monument of Calixtus III
Funerary Monument of Calixtus III

At the southern extremity of the grottoes, near the exit, there is a funerary monument to Pope Calixtus III. Calixtus ruled the Church and the Papal States from the 14th century until his death. Although his ashes were stored in Santa Maria in Monserrato, a memorial monument in his honor was erected at St. Peter's Basilica.

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Marble Statue of St. Peter Enthroned
Marble Statue of St. Peter Enthroned

The marble statue of St. Peter is a well-known picture across the world. It is, in fact, the most popular sculpture one comes across when they visit the Vatican Grottoes. The statue, which is located just before the grottoes' exit, depicts the apostle sitting with his arms folded and his feet decorated with sandals. Almost every visitor to the Vatican Grottoes is known to make gestures of kissing the Apostle's feet.

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Tips to Visit Vatican Grottoes

Tips to Visit Vatican Grottoes
  • Do not forget to visit Vatican Grottoes while touring the Necropolis- the two are not the same thing as it is a distinct portion that contains various papal graves.

  • The space around the tombs is really fairly big and bright, so you won't feel claustrophobic.

  • For a more in-depth experience, learn about the grottoes before going.

  • Remember that photography is absolutely banned in the Vatican Grottoes, and all visitors must remain silent in the area.

  • Make sure you explore the Vatican Grottoes only after the Basilica; If you don't finish your tour of St. Peter's Basilica before heading to the Vatican Grottoes, you'll have to wait in line again.

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FAQs Of Vatican Grottoes

What are Vatican Grottoes?

    The Vatican Grottoes are a vast papal burial place (separate from the Vatican Necropolis) beneath St. Peter's Basilica. The Grottoes house crypts containing relics of all past, present and would-be Saints at the Vatican City.

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Who is buried in the Vatican Grottoes?

Are all popes buried at the Vatican?

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