Saint Peter in Chains is the next stop on our tour of Station Churches of Rome. The church is the location for Mass on the Monday of the first full week of Lent.
Built in the 5th century the Basilica of St Peter in Chains occupies a spur of the Esquiline Hill which over 1500 years ago would have formed the residential quarter for the rich and powerful in the capital city of the Empire. It was also the area of the Prefectura Urbana, the body set up to rule the city when the Emperor was absent, and so it was an influential part of Rome’s society. The area of the edge of the Esquiline was also the place many early Christians were tried and condemned to death.
The earliest record of the church is found in 431 when it was dedicated to the memory of both saints Peter and Paul. The dedication of the church to these saints in this location has an interesting parallel, dedicated as it is to the two patron saints of the city, it looks out towards the Palatine Hill where Romulus and Remus were said to have first established their city.
Today the church is dedicated to St Peter alone, and specifically reminds us of the imprisoned Peter. He was jailed twice, once in Jerusalem and then again in Rome at the Mamertine Prison, which stands a short distance away from the church. The chains that can be seen in the confessio inside the church have long been held to be those from St Peter’s incarceration in the Holy Land. They were gifted by St Juvenal, the Bishop of Jerusalem, to the imperial family who in turn presented them to Pope Leo I in the 5th century. Upon receiving these chains, the Pontiff rebuilt the original church to house the chains of his predecessor.
Filings from the chains became a popular Roman relic and a tradition grew that when the chains from the separate jail periods came into contact they fused together. Certainly, having both these relics in the same city fuelled the growth in the number of pilgrims travelling to the city of Peter, with the church of St Peter in Chains becoming the second in importance only to St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.
Despite undergoing some large scale works in the Renaissance, original medieval features remain, such as the columns that line the nave and the blue-ground mosaic of St Sebastian from a 7th century altar. The depiction of the saint is considered one of the oldest and portrays him, not as an athlete as in other depictions, but as a trainer of soldiers. The works of the 15th and 16th century include a restoration of the roof by Cardinal Niccolò da Cusa – a beam with his name and the year 1475 – can still be seen. However, the most famed piece of work in the church came about during the pontificate of Pope Julius II. In 1505, he commissioned Michelangelo to construct a free-standing tomb for him. Originally intended for the new Basilica of St Peter, the project remained unfinished as Pope Julius also commissioned Michelangelo to work on frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. The original tomb was never realised according to its original plan but was completed in its present form in 1545. Pope Julius II however was buried in St Peter’s Basilica. Michelangelo’s carving depicts an aged Moses with a beard and wisdom flowing from his horns. This radiance gives connotation of the radiance of the Lord. The figure of Moses is seated as if passing judgement in his role as lawgiver, however features such as a poised foot, the position of the arms and head and his direct gaze gives off a sense that he is ready to spring forth at the Lord’s command.