Contact Us

Super Hanc Petram The Architectural Medals of the Vatican Basilica and the Homage of the Pilgrims to St. Peter


The construction of a basilica dedicated to St. Peter in the Vatican was commissioned in the 4th century by Emperor Constantine I where tradition has it that St. Peter, the first of the Apostles, was buried.

Cicognara.XII.541_fa_0089r (tav. 109)_CROPPED.jpg
Pieter de Bailliu, Emperor Constantine lays the first stone of St Peter's Basilica,1637.

As the old Constantinian basilica had survived the Middle Ages in a dilapidated state, on 18th April 1506, Julius II laid the first stone of the new and current basilica of St. Peter in the Vatican together with some foundational medals probably created by the engraver Cristoforo Foppa, called Caradosso, and bearing, on the reverse, the project of the apse.

Agostino Veneziano, Medal of Caradosso bearing Bramante’s design for the Vatican Basilica, 1517.

In fact, at first, the pope wanted Michelangelo to build his funerary monument in exact correspondence with the apse, but then only a reduced version of it was realized in St. Peter's in Chains.

From that moment on, several medals marked all the most salient moments of the reconstruction of the symbol of Christianity par excellence which, since the first construction, has welcomed large numbers of pilgrims arriving in Rome from all over Europe.

They, indeed, wished to pay homage to the Prince of the Apostles, leaving a coin marking their presence at the foot of the various altars superimposed over the centuries on the original sepulcher.

Cicognara.XII.541_fa_0089r (tav. 110)_CROPPED.jpg
Pieter de Bailliu, Pilgrims worshipping the monument to St. Peter in Rome, 1635.

These coins, which were continually left by pilgrims, were generally collected at the end of the day by appointed personnel; some of them ended up, for one reason or another - for example, through cracks in the pavement or through small openings in the aforementioned altars - under the floor of the church itself, often near the place where the Apostle's tomb was considered to be. In addition to them, there were also the coins left in this same place by famous people who could be accompanied to the tomb thanks to particular privileges. This is the case of the gold coin - the only one in this group - that Charlemagne left near the tomb of St. Peter on the occasion of one of his visits to Rome. A great number of these coins was discovered during the first decade of the excavations dated to years 1939-1949 promoted by Pius XII in search of the burial of St. Peter in the Vatican.

They constitute a very important documentation of the fact that devotees of all ages have ever known what Pius XII officially confirmed to the world in the radio message of 23rd December 1950 at the end of the excavation works: [...] The gigantic dome arches exactly over the sepulcher of the first Bishop of Rome, of the first Pope, a sepulcher which was originally very humble, but over which the veneration of the following centuries, with a marvelous succession of works, erected the maximum temple of Christianity.

This Gallery of images aims to highlight the medals that show the most significant phases of the reconstruction of St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican, reproducing, on their reverse, the architectures (for this reason they are called architectural medals) and it ends with a small selection of those coins left by pilgrims on the tomb of the Prince of the Apostles which have constituted, since their discovery, the collection Tomba di San Pietro of the Vatican Coin Cabinet.