Feast of Saints Peter and Paul

June 29 is a holiday in Rome, when banks and such will close down (after many Italians take off Monday, for a long weekend). It’s the feast day of the Saints Peter and Paul, two saints particularly significant to the Eternal City due to the fact that both were martyred there.

Peter, originally a fisherman named Simon, became a disciple of Jesus. Around 64 C.E., after the great fire of Rome, he was martyred by Emperor Nero by being crucified. There was one significant difference, however, in how he died: Peter considered himself unworthy to die in the same manner as Jesus, so he requested that he be crucified upside down.

The Crucifixion of Saint Peter by Caravaggio, in Santa Maria del Popolo

It is said that his bones lie in an ossuary under the high altar of St. Peter’s Basilica — you can get a glimpse if you take the “Scavi tour” of the catacombs which lie under the basilica.

St. Peter is considered to be the first pope — the “rock” (a translation of “Peter”) upon which Jesus said his church would be built. 

The bronze statue of Saint Peter Enthroned in St. Peter’s Basilica – rub his foot for good luck

Because Jesus effectively gave Peter the “keys” of the Roman Catholic church (depicted in the top close-up of a fresco by Perugino in the Sistine Chapel), the papal coat of arms includes crossed keys.

St. Paul has a different story.  Paul (then known as Saul) was traveling on a road from Jerusalem to Damascus when Jesus appeared to him in a flash of light, temporarily blinding him. As depicted by Caravaggio, Paul fell from his horse, stunned… and was converted to Christianity.

The Conversion of Paul by Caravaggio, also in Santa Maria del Popolo

Paul became a missionary, traveling throughout the world.  Eventually he was arrested in Jerusalem. Because he was a Roman citizen, he appealed his arrest, which meant that he would be brought to Rome. He would, alas, not find relief there, and died around 67 C.E.  As a Roman citizen, he could not be crucified, so he died by beheading: legend says his decapitated head bounced three times, forming springs, where the church “Saint Paul of the Three Fountains” now stands.