The origin of the Vatican Grottoes dates back to the construction of the current St. Peter’s Basilica in the 17th century. This cathedral is built on the same site as the Old St. Peter’s Basilica, the Vatican Necropolis, and Saint Peter’s tomb.
It took about 120 years to complete the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica, which included the papal tombs and necropolis below the structure. There are over 100 tombs inside the cathedral, most of which can be found inside the Vatican Grottoes.
Clementine Chapel is the precious gem of the Vatican Grottoes, holding the chest that protects the sepulcher of Peter the Apostle. It makes up the center of the peribolos and is the only part of the cathedral to maintain its original purpose and function. Just like back in the day, people of faith make their way to the chapel to pay their respects. It is believed that the head of St. Peter lay above the tomb towards the back of the monument. The chapel gets its name from Clement VIII, who modified the ancient chapel in 1592.
After the funeral of Pope John Paul II on April 8, 2005, his first tomb was placed towards the north end of the Grottoes, less than 100 feet from the tomb of St. Peter. He was placed in the spot where Pope John XXII previously lay, until he was moved to the St. Jerome Altar on June 3, 2001. A few years later in 2011, John Paul II was declared blessed and moved under the Altar of St. Sebastian. His body was placed in a cypress coffin as part of three traditional coffins that lay together. The outermost zinc casket was encrypted with three bronze plaques and a cross and placed in a larger casket which was shut using nails made of pure gold.
The Chapel of Madonna of Bocciata is the oldest in the area around St. Peter’s sepulcher, commissioned by Gregory XIII in 1580. Inside the chapel is an elegant fresco painted by Pietro Cavallini, a renowned 14th-century artist. He called it the “Madonna della Bocciata” because Mary’s face is swollen in the painting. It is believed that a drunken soldier once threw a bowl at the image after losing a game, which made her face bleed.
A massive depiction of the Holy Madonna is present in one corner of the Vatican Grottoes towards the south end. Here you can see Madonna painted in red and black clothes, slightly raising her arms, with an orange halo above her head. This image is surrounded by reliefs of the Doctors of the Church, preserved for many centuries.
Although the Old St. Peter’s Basilica was gravely destroyed, some parts of it remain buried below the new cathedral. Paul V extended the Vatican Grottoes in the 16th century with parts of the old basilica placed on its walls. There are six Archeological Rooms in total containing tombs, frescoes, and other structures from the old cathedral.
A funerary monument of Pope Calixtus III lies at the south end of the grottoes, before the exit. Calixtus was the head of the Church and Papal States in the 14th century until his death. Although his remains were kept at Santa Maria in Monserrato, a funerary monument was built in his honor at St. Peter’s Basilica.
The marble statue of St. Peter is a famous image throughout the world. Located right before the exit of the grottoes, the statue shows the apostle sitting with his arms crossed and his feet adorned with sandals. Almost everyone who visits the Vatican Grottoes is known to perform the gesture of kissing feet of the Apostle.
In between the Chapel with the Tomb of Pius XII and the Chapel of St. Veronica is the beautiful Clementinian Peribolos. The roof of the area is adorned with bright and colorful holy images that stretch along the corridor.
The Georgian Peribolos, unlike the Clementinian one, is worn down with many parts of its walls having fallen off. However, the structure still holds strong even centuries later.
1. Chapel with Tomb of Pius XII
2. Chapel of St Veronica
3. Clementinian Peribolos
4. Chapel of St Helen
5. Clementine Chapel (Chapel of St Peter)
6. Gregorian Peribolos
7. Chapel of the Madonna of Bocciata
8. Opening onto the Archeological Remains of the Confessio (ex Chapel of Salvatorello)
9. Irish Chapel of St Columbanus
10. Chapel of the Madonna of Partorienti
11. Southern Corridor of the Confessio
12. The Confessio - Pallium Niche
13. Northern Corridor of the Confessio
14. Polish Chapel of Our Lady of Czestochowa
15. Lithuanian Chapel of Mater Misericordiae
16. Peribolos - Last Section
17. Mexican Chapel of Our Lady of Guadeloupe
18. Tomb of Pius VI
19. Chapel of the Madonna between Peter and Paul
20. Peribolos - First Section
21. Chapel of the Patron Saints of Europe
22. Chapel of St. Andrew (Grottoes Entrance)
23. Opening in front of the Confessio
24. Chapel of St Longinus
25. Tomb of Pius XI
26. Central Altar
27. Tomb of John Paul II (previous)
28. Tomb of Cardinal Merry del Val
29. Tomb of Queen Charlotte of Cyprus
30. Queen Christina of Sweden
31. Tomb of the Stuarts
32. Tomb of Cardinal Francesco Tedeschini
33. Tomb of Benedict XV
34. Tomb of Innocent IX
35. Archeological Room VI
36. Archeological Room V
37. Archeological Room IV
38. Tomb of Innocent XIII
39. Tomb of John Paul I
40. Tomb of Marcellus II
41. Tomb of Urban VI
42. Tomb of Paul VI
43. Chapel of Our Lady, Queen of the Hungarians
44. Entrance to Scavi from Piazza Braschi
45. Archeological Room I
46. Archeological Room II
47. Archeological Room III
48. Early Christian Sarcophagus
49. Mosaic of John VII
50. Gallery of Clement VIII
51. Sarcophagus of Pius III
52. Sarcophagus of Paul II
53. Polyandrium under the floor
54. Tomb of Hadrian IV
55. Tomb of Innocent VII
56. Tomb of Nicholas V
57. Tomb of Monsignor Ludvig Kaas
58. Tomb of Gregory V
59. Tomb of Emperor Otto II
60. Tomb of Julius III
61. Statue of Pius VI
62. Tomb of Nicholas III
63. Tomb of Boniface VIII
64. Icon of the Madonna Dolorosa and Reliefs of the Doctors of the Church
65. Dividing wall of Paul III and the Remains of two Columns from the Old Basilica
66. Funerary Monument of Calixtus III
67. Marble Statue of St Peter Enthroned
68. Exit from the Grottoes to the Patio
Under St. Peter’s Basilica is a massive papal burial ground (separate from the Vatican Necropolis) referred to as the Vatican Grottoes.
Yes. The papal tombs are free to visit during the opening hours of St. Peter’s Basilica.
You can plan your visit to the Vatican Grottoes as part of your visit to St. Peter’s Basilica. It is located below the cathedral, so make sure you head there towards the end of your tour.
No. You do not need separate tickets to enter the Vatican Grottoes. Once you enter St. Peter’s Basilica, you can make your way below towards the papal tombs.
No. Photography is strictly prohibited at the Vatican Grottoes.