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Peter and Paul: The martyrs of Rome

In this video, you will learn why and how they were represented in early Christian iconography.
The first century apostles Peter and Paul held a particular importance for the Christians of Rome. Although the Bible does not mention the presence of Peter in Rome, according to later tradition he was the first bishop of the city, having received his authority directly from Christ, and was arrested and executed there. This may have been during Nero’s persecution. According to tradition, both Peter and Paul were martyred in the city and from a very early date their tombs were places of pilgrimage. During the persecution of the third century their remains were hidden together in the catacombs of the Via Appia. Later in the fourth century, a basilica apostolorum, (later known as Saint Sebastiano) was built over their graves.
Constantine returned their bodies to the original burial places
and built churches to commemorate them: Saint Peter, west of the River Tiber and Saint Paul, outside the walls, by the Via Ostiense. The popularity of their cult is indicated by the large number of catacomb paintings, gold glass and gems decorated with their images. Typical portraits of Peter and Paul are engraved on the late fourth-century marble funerary plaque of a six year old boy named Asellus, found in Rome. A Chi-Rho sign is inscribed between the two heads of the saints, who are identified by their names, as well as the style of their portraits. Images of Peter’s arrest often show him miraculously bringing forth water by striking a rock in order to baptize his Roman jailers.
Clearly an allusion to Moses striking the rock to bring water in the desert, this image indicates the important role of Peter as a “new Moses” or the rock on which Jesus would found his church. The arrest of Peter and Paul is shown on the fourth century sarcophagus of Junius Bassus, while another sarcophagus from Berja in Spain today, in the Archaeological Museum of Madrid, depicts the saints brought together in front of the Emperor Nero a unique scene showing the unity of Peter and Paul who are about to be martyred.
A very popular representation of these two saints in all kinds of media shows Christ standing on a rock or enthroned in paradise, giving his law in the form of a scroll (or, rarely, a codex) to Peter and Paul. This scene is known as the Traditio legis, or Handing over the law. The representations of both Peter and Paul in church decoration show the concern of the Church of Rome for the primacy of its bishop. Their joint images highlighted the concept of Concordia apostolorum, or “Apostolic harmony” between them. This concept echoed very popular Roman propaganda about the Concordia or Harmony of the joint emperors in Roman iconography, especially in Late Antiquity.

The preeminent apostles Paul and Peter were intimately linked to the city of Rome.

In this video, you will learn why and how they were represented in early Christian iconography, as well as the locations of their main places of worship.

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Change of Era: The Origins of Christian Culture through the Lens of Archaeology

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