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The daughter of St. Peter

· Giovanni Maria Vian recounts the saint of the month ·

A Mass, a picture and a mysterious fresco: this is what remains of Petronilla. Every year, on May 31, Mass is celebrated in the Vatican Basilica in honour of this saint, on the day and at the altar dedicated to her, the daughter of the Apostle Peter’s, memory, before the great mosaic reproduction of the painting by Guercino which depicts her burial and glory. But the celebration and the huge seventeenth-century painting are only the culmination of a long and intricate history lasting nearly twenty centuries. At first there is the allusion to the wife of Cephas in an authentic letter of Paul (1 Corinthians 9, 5) and a famous Gospel episode, when Jesus heals the fever of the mother-in-law of the first of the apostles (Mark 8, 14 -15). To these sparse historical references later, in the middle of the fourth century, an equally secure figure is superimposed: the image of a martyr, Petronella, frescoed in the Roman catacomb of Domitilla.

Veneranda and Petronilla (Catacomb of Domitilla, Rome).

Peter was married, and although in the texts of the New Testament there is no allusion to his descendants, there is no reason to think that he did not have any. His daughter enters the scene instead openly, though without name, later, in the 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", says the crowd to the apostle, almost scolding him.

From here the story takes a dramatic turn: to show that God can do anything, Peter gains the healing of the girl, but only for a moment, and immediately after he orders 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 returns her to her parents. “We took her away, praising the Lord that had spared his servant from the violence, shame and corruption. That's why the girl is in this state”, concludes the apostle. The rich suitor repents and dying leaves to the girl in his will a piece of land. 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 Peterin the episode presents a negative conception, and consequently a radical devaluation of the body, the sexual dimension and marriage. A tendency that is 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 scandalized due to his daughter, who was very beautiful. Therefore he prayed to the Lord and she became paralyzed on one side, so that he might not be beguiled".

A correction in the orthodox sense of the Gnostic legend takes place in the sixth century, when inthe Passion of Saints Nereus and Achilleusthe name of Petronilla appears (which recalls by its similarity that of Peter), healed by her father and then claimed to marry the pagan Flacco, but who dies after three days, avoiding the unwanted marriage. In the second half of the thirteenth century this version is inserted in and circulated enormously by theLegenda aureaof the Dominican Jacopo de Voragine: the paralysis, however, is reduced to a fever, while the girl is perfectly healed by Peter, then to escape the constraints of marriage by death. Hence the iconography up to the painting by Guercino.

A daughter who dies without descendants in Late Antiquity, Petronilla emphasizes with her story the rejection of any dynastic claim in the succession to the apostle, just as strict rules are prohibiting the appointment of a successor by the bishop of Rome who is in office. Meanwhile, the presence of the burial of a Petronilla “a most sweet daughter” in the cemetery of Domitilla suggests the identification with that of the Apostle as does the dedication of a church nearby. There remains unnoticed however in the same catacomb another fresco that depicts a young Christian martyr, Petronella, who leads another woman, Veneranda, into paradise.

Time passes, and half way through the eighth century, to symbolically support the strategic alliance with the Frankish rulers, the sarcophagus of Petronilla is transferred to the basilica built by Constantine over the tomb of the apostle, in a small Theodosian mausoleum which becomes the Shrine of the new protectors of the Roman See. So from then on, the daughter of St. Peter is likened to "the eldest daughter of the Church". In fact it will be a French cardinal who pays a young Florentine sculptor, Michelangelo Buonarroti, for a wonderfulPietàthat is located in the ancient chapel, later demolished. But the new basilica will host, to the right of the altar of the Chair by Bernini, one in honour of St. Petronilla. And if modernity seems opposed to ties with France, it is precisely her ambassadors to the Holy See, from Chateaubriand to the representatives of the Republic, without distinction, who keep it alive, until the annual Mass is restored in the second half of the twentieth century. In honour of a mysterious girl, but one for whom there remains secure Christian evidence 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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