San Pietro in Vincoli (Saint Peter in Chains)

San Pietro in Vincoli (Saint Peter in Chains) is a Roman Catholic titular church and minor basilica in Rome, Italy, best known for being the home of Michelangelo’s statue of Moses, part of the tomb of Pope Julius II.

Also known as the Basilica Eudoxiana, it was first rebuilt on older foundations in 432-440 to house the relic of the chains that bound Saint Peter when he was imprisoned in Jerusalem, the episode called the Liberation of Saint Peter. The Empress Eudoxia (wife of Emperor Valentinian III), who received them as a gift from her mother, Aelia Eudocia, consort of Valentinian II, presented the chains to Pope Leo I. Aelia Eudocia had received these chains as a gift from Iuvenalis, bishop of Jerusalem.

According to legend, when Leo, while he compared them to the chains of St. Peter’s final imprisonment in the Mamertine Prison in Rome, the two chains miraculously fused together. The chains are kept in a reliquary under the main altar in the basilica.

The basilica, consecrated in 439 by Sixtus III, has undergone several restorations, among them a restoration by Pope Adrian I, and further work in the eleventh century. From 1471 to 1503, in which year he was elected Pope Julius II, Cardinal Della Rovere, the nephew of Pope Sixtus IV, effected notable rebuilding. The front portico, attributed to Baccio Pontelli, was added in 1475. The cloister (1493-1503) has been attributed to Giuliano da Sangallo. Further work was done at the beginning of the 18th century, under Francesco Fontana, and there was also a renovation in 1875.

Two popes were elected in this church : Pope John II in 533 and Pope Gregory VII in 1073.

The interior has a nave and two aisles, with three apses divided by antique Doric columns. The aisles are surmounted by cross-vaults, while the nave has an 18th century coffered ceiling, frescoed in the center by Giovanni Battista Parodi, portraying the Miracle of the Chains (1706).

Michelangelo’s Moses (completed in 1515), while originally intended as part of a massive 47-statue, free-standing funeral monument for Pope Julius II, became the centerpiece of the Pope’s funeral monument and tomb in this, the church of della Rovere family. Moses is depicted with horns, connoting “the radiance of the Lord”, due to the similarity in the Hebrew words for “beams of light” and “horns”. This kind of iconographic symbolism was common in early sacred art, and for an artist horns are easier to sculpt than rays of light.

Other works of art include two canvases of Saint Augustine and St. Margaret by Guercino, the monument of Cardinal Girolamo Agucchi designed by Domenichino, who is also the painter of a sacristy fresco depicting the Liberation of St. Peter (1604). The altarpiece on the first chapel to the left is a Deposition by Cristoforo Roncalli. The tomb of Cardinal Nicholas of Kues (d 1464), with its relief, Cardinal Nicholas before St Peter, is by Andrea Bregno. Painter and sculptor Antonio Pollaiuolo is buried at the left side of the entrance. He is the Florentine sculptor who added the figures of Romulus and Remus to the sculpture of the Capitoline Wolf on the Capitol. The tomb of Cardinal Cinzio Passeri Aldobrandini, decorated with imagery of the Grim Reaper, is also in the church.

In 1876 archeologists discovered the tombs of those once believed to be the seven Maccabean martyrs depicted in 2 Maccabees 7-41. It is highly unlikely that these are in fact the Jewish martyrs that had offered their lives in Jerusalem. They are remembered each year on 1 August, the same day as the miracle of the fusing of the two chains.

The third altar in the left aisle holds a mosaic of Saint Sebastian from the seventh century. This mosaic is related to an outbreak of plague in Pavia, in northern Italy. It would only stop if an altar was built for St. Sebastian in the church of S. Pietro in Vincoli in that city. Somehow this story also became accepted in Rome. Hence the altar.

This entry was posted in Rome. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply