The Chains of St Peter
Rome is a city of churches – you can hardly wander around the streets without happening upon a basilica, chapel, or cathedral. You’ll find them whether you intend to or not! And that’s part of the beauty of the City of Churches – all the hidden gems waiting to be found. In addition to the impressive and opulent Vatican City with St. Peter’s Cathedral, Rome is also home to over 900 churches, most (but not all) of which are Roman Catholic.
Some of the most famous Catholic churches in Rome contain precious relics retrieved from the remains of Catholic saints. Whether macabre, quirky, or beautiful, all of these relics are fascinating and worth taking the time to see with your own eyes.
San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome
Perched atop the Esquiline Hill, San Pietro in Vincoli (Saint Peter in Chains) is one of the most popular churches in Rome due to its unique works of art and the precious relics after which the church is named – the Chains of St. Peter. These are the chains that Saint Peter wore whilst imprisoned in Jerusalem, and the chains that bound him during his final incarceration in the Mamertine Prison before his execution in Rome. The church also houses an immense sculpture by Michelangelo, and a beautiful ceiling painting.
The façade of the church is simple and unremarkable, with a colonnaded portico covering the entrance. The basilican-style interior is also striking in its simplicity, with several beautiful pieces of art grabbing the visitor’s attention.
The church is located near the Domus Aurea (the Emperor Nero’s opulent mansion, or “House of Gold”) above the Colosseum, and it’s easily accessible on foot if you’re exploring the valley of the Colosseum. San Pietro in Vincoli is quite popular with tour groups who come to see Michaelangelo’s Moses, and so you will likely see many tour buses and crowds of people around the church. However, in the lulls between tourist activity you will be able to appreciate the artworks at your leisure.
History & Mythology of the Chains of St. Peter
The Chains of St. Peter are relics that are said to have been the actual chains that bound St. Peter during his imprisonment in Jerusalem and Rome. According to Christian tradition, Peter was executed in Rome by the Emperor Nero. Nero blamed the Christians for the Great Fire of CE 64, and ordered the torture and execution of many followers of the faith. St. Peter was crucified along with many other Christians, although it is said that he was crucified upside down upon his own request, considering himself unworthy to be crucified in the manner of Christ.
The Chains exchanged hands several times before coming to rest in the church, and their importance was known and respected. Empress Eudoxia, wife of an emperor of the Western Roman Empire, received them as a gift from her mother (who had originally accepted them as a gift from a bishop of Jerusalem). She gave the chains to Pope Leo I as a special gift.. According to Christian legend, when Pope Leo viewed them along with the chains of St. Peter’s final
imprisonment in the Mamertine Prison in Rome, the two chains miraculously fused together.
They are on display today under the altar of the church.
The Tomb of Pope Julius II and Michelangelo’s Moses
Another curious and fascinating sight inside San Pietro in Vincoli is the large tomb of Pope Julius II (1443 – 1513), begun but unfortunately left unfinished by the great Renaissance artist Michelangelo Buonarroti. It was meant to be a grand and intricately decorate tomb, with the figures of the Pope, Moses, and St. Paul shown together in one powerfully symbolic scene.
Michelangelo worked on the tomb for 40 years of his career – between 1505 and 1545 – although the incredibly ambitious project lost momentum after Pope Julius II died, and thus only the façade on the wall remains. The effigy of Julius II is interesting in that he is depicted as reclining on top of his sarcophagus, which is reminiscent of the recumbent tomb effigy sculptures of wealthy Etruscans.
Perhaps the most famous part of this tomb is the unique sculpture of Moses, who is depicted with small horns atop his head. Many tourists mistake these horns as symbolic of the devil, or Satan, but in fact they are more likely due to a mistranslation of a description of Moses in the Latin version of the Bible. What was depicted literally as “horns” is more accurately translated from the Hebrew as “the radiance of the Lord” (due to the similarity between the words for “beams” and “horns”). The sculpture itself is exquisite – take a close look at the masterful sculpted details of his beard and the veins of his forearms. It is quite easy to forget that this final product was once rough, unworked marble!
The Miracle of the Chains by Giovanni Battista Parodi
When looking up upon entering San Pietro in Vincoli, you will see a beautiful ceiling fresco painted in 1706 by Giovanni Battista Parodi.
It shows Pope Alexander healing the neck goitre (thyroid affliction) of Saint Balbina by touching her with the sacred relics – the Chains of St. Peter. The painting shows how important the chains were to followers of the Catholic faith, to the point of the belief that they could cure illnesses just by touch.
One Church, Many Treasures
A visit to San Pietro in Vincoli should take approximately 30 minutes to 1 hour, should you wish to soak up the atmosphere and appreciate the several important works of art. Entrance is free,
and there is no strict dress code, although it is always recommended to dress appropriately when planning on visiting churches in Rome as a tourist. You can carry a light scarf to cover up should you need to.
Of all the churches in Rome, St. Peter in Chains is definitely high up on the list of “must sees”!