The Daughter of St Peter
Giovanni Maria Vian*
On the mystery surrounding a saint venerated in the month of May
What remains of Petronilla is a Mass, a painting and a mysterious fresco. In honour of this saint, every year, on 31 May, Mass is celebrated in the Vatican Basilica at the altar dedicated to her, the daughter of the Apostle Peter, and in front of the great mosaic reproduction of the painting by Guercino which depicts her burial and glory. But the celebration and the huge 17th-century painting are only the culmination of a long and intricate history lasting nearly 20 centuries. At the beginning there is an allusion to the wife of Cephas in the authentic Letter of Paul (1 Cor 9:5) and a well-known Gospel episode, when Jesus heals the fever of the mother-in-law of the first of the Apostles (Mk 1:29-31). To these sparse historical references later, in the middle of the fourth century, an equally certain fact was superimposed: the image of a martyr, Petronilla, frescoed in the Roman catacomb of Domitilla.
Peter was married, and although in the texts of the New Testament there is no allusion to a descendant, there is no reason to think that he did not have any. His daughter came on the scene instead without name, later, in a Coptic fragment (fourth or fifth century) belonging to a Greek apocryphal text, the Acts of Peter, written toward the end of the second century. “Why did you not rescue your daughter, a virgin, who grew up beautiful and who has believed in the name of the Lord? See, she has a side completely paralyzed and is lying there helpless in a corner. We see those that you have restored to health while you have not helped your daughter in any way”, said the crowd to the Apostle, almost scolding him.
From here the story takes a dramatic turn: to show that God can do anything, Peter obtained the girl’s recovery, but only for a moment, and immediately after he ordered her to return to her previous state. When faced with the tears and entreaties of those present, he explains that his daughter was paralyzed as a result of his prayers, after being kidnapped by the rich Ptolemy, who finally returned her to her parents. “We took her away, praising the Lord that had spared his servant from violence, shame and corruption. That is why the girl is in this state”, concludes the Apostle. The rich suitor repents and, after his death, leaves in his will a piece of land to the girl. Peter sells it but, keeping nothing for himself or his daughter, distributes the proceeds to the poor.
A text of Gnostic origin, the Acts of Peter presents the episode in a negative light, and consequently a radical lack of esteem for devaluation of the body, the sexual dimension and marriage. A tendency that was accentuated in the allusion to the same episode in another Gnostic apocryphal work, the Acts of Philip, written in Greek at the beginning of the fourth century: “Peter, the leader, thus fled from every place where there was a woman. Moreover he was embarrassed on account of his daughter, who was very beautiful. Therefore he prayed to the Lord and she became paralyzed on one side, so that she might not be beguiled”.
A correction in the orthodox sense of the Gnostic legend took place in the sixth century, when in the Passion of Sts Nereus and Achilleus the name of Petronilla appears (which recalls by its similarity that of Peter), healed by her father and then betrothed to the pagan Flacco. However he died after three days, and she thus avoided the unwanted marriage. In the second half of the 13th century this version was inserted and widely circulated in the Legenda Aurea of the Dominican James of Voragine: the paralysis, however, was reduced to a fever, and Peter heals her completely, she only escapes the constraint to marry by dying. Herewith the iconography up to the painting by Guercino.
With her story Petronilla, who died without issue in Late Antiquity, emphasizes the rejection of any dynastic claim to the succession of the Apostle, just as strict rules prohibit the appointment of a Successor by the Bishop of Rome who is in office. Meanwhile, the presence of the burial chamber of Petronilla — “a most sweet daughter” — in the catacombs of Domitilla suggests the identification with that of the Apostle as does the dedication of a church nearby. In the same catacomb there is an unnoticed fresco depicting a young Christian martyr, Petronilla, who leads another woman, Veneranda, into paradise.
Time passed, and half way through the ninth century, to symbolically support the strategic alliance with the Frankish kings, the sarcophagus of Petronilla was translated to the Basilica built by Constantine over the tomb of the Apostle, in a small Theodosian mausoleum which became the Shrine of the new protectors of the See of Rome. So from then on, the daughter of St Peter was affiliated to “the eldest daughter of the Church”. In fact it was a French cardinal who paid a very young Florentine sculptor, Michelangelo Buonarroti, for a marvellous Pietà that was placed in the ancient chapel, later demolished. But the new Basilica would host the one in honour of St Petronilla, to the right of the altar of the Chair by Bernini. And if modernity seems opposed to ties with France, it is precisely the French ambassadors to the Holy See, from Chateaubri to the representatives of the Republic, without distinction, who have kept it alive, even to restoring the annual Mass in the second half of the 19th century. In honour of a mysterious girl, but one of whom there there remains certain Christian witness in the footsteps of Peter.
*Giovanni Maria Vian (1952), professor of patristic philology at La Sapienza University, has studied mainly Judaism and ancient Christianity, the history of Christian tradition, the contemporary papacy. Since 2007 he has been editor-in-chief of L'Osservatore Romano.
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