Angels & Demons - VATICAN CITY and the SWISS GUARDS

VATICAN CITY and the SWISS GUARDS (Illustration) Ancient Places and/or Civilizations Archeological Wonders Film Geography Philosophy Visual Arts Fiction

In 1942, excavators working below St Peter’s Basilica, in Vatican City, found an ancient grave.  Inside a niche, on the side of the grave, were some bones. No one can be certain about their origins, but the claim has been made that they could be the bones of St. Peter. This image depicts the excavated grave.  Image copyright, Fabbrica di San Pietro, all rights reserved.  Provided here as fair use for educational purposes.  Click on the image for a more-detailed view.


On the 11th of February, 1929, a new city state was created within the environs of Rome.  Home to the Pope, the Sistine Chapel, St. Peter’s Basilica, the Secret Archives and other notable places, Vatican City turned eighty years old in 2009.  Center of the Catholic Church, it is the smallest city-state in the world, covering 110 acres in its immediate environs.

The Vatican is surrounded by a city wall which has been there for centuries.  Much of the place is off-limits to visitors, although tourists and the faithful flock to permitted places on a regular, year-round basis. 

Why is the Catholic Church based at the Vatican?  Its roots are directly linked to the old Roman empire.  Rome, as the empire’s capital, attracted people from all over the world - including two prominent, early Christians. 

Peter (the disciple on whom Jesus said He would build the church) and Paul (the first traveling Christian missionary) both came to Rome.  Both men died there, but it was Peter’s death which first put Vatican City in motion during the second half of the first century.

Martyred on an inverted cross, in a Roman circus arena built by Caligula and later used by Nero, Peter died around 64 A.D.  He was buried outside the place of his death, on the side of a hill known as Vatican Hill.  About three hundred years later, Constantine (the first Christian emperor of Rome), declared that a great church should be built over the grave of Peter.  By this time, Peter’s grave site had become a shrine.

The Vatican hillside was not an easy place to build a church, but Constantine insisted that is where the basilica would be constructed.  His church, the first one on the site, incorporated Peter’s shrine into the floor of the altar. Constantine’s church lasted about 1200 years.

By the time a new basilica was built over the torn-down one, people had forgotten about the burial grounds underneath.  Secret documents, detailing what was there, did not come to light until the 20th century.  Excavations led to interesting findings, including human bones and impressive mausoleums. The area is now known as the Vatican Scavi, the necropolis under St. Peter's Basilica.

Meanwhile, treasures (including art, priceless manuscripts and countless other objects) had found their way to the papal buildings in Rome.  The city had become the center of the Catholic faith.   

Today, the “new” St. Peter’s Basilica - which took 176 years (1450-1626) to construct - is the centerpiece of Vatican City.  Nearby St. Peter’s Square, where more than 350,000 individuals can gather at any one time, is regularly the scene of church events and papal funerals.  It’s also the place where the Pope addresses people from all over the world.

Vatican City has its own security force - the Swiss Guard - whose members still dress in distinctive costumes designed centuries ago.  Young Swiss soldiers (thus far only single, Catholic men from Switzerland’s Catholic cantons are able to serve) have protected popes since January of 1506.  The current contingent is just over 100 men.

Requirements, to be a member of the Papal Swiss Guard, are significant.  Not only must an individual be a practicing Catholic, he must also have completed his compulsory military service, in Switzerland, and be of irreproachable character.  Guards cannot serve less than two years.

Swiss mercenaries, the earliest Swiss guards, first provided assistance to Pope Julius II (the “warrior pope”).  That same pope also convinced Michelangelo to spend years painting the Sistine Chapel and creating sculptures for the Vatican (not to mention Julius’ personal tomb).  One thing Michelangelo did not do, contrary to legend and according to the Vatican, is design the Swiss-Guard uniforms:

With the passing centuries there have been a few minor changes, but on the whole the original dress has been maintained. It is commonly thought that the uniform was designed by Michelangelo, but it would seem rather that he had nothing to do with it. However, Raffaello [Raphael] certainly did influence its development, as he indeed influenced fashion in general in Italy in the Renaissance, through his painting.

One of Michelangelo’s greatest achievements was his work at the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City.  The artist (who much preferred sculpting to painting) created magnificent frescoes on the Sistine’s ceiling.

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Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D. 5197stories and lessons created

Original Release: May 01, 2009

Updated Last Revision: Feb 26, 2015

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"VATICAN CITY and the SWISS GUARDS" AwesomeStories.com. May 01, 2009. Jun 02, 2020.
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