Monday, February 11, 2008

Stational Church: San Pietro in Vincoli

Today's stational church is the ancient basilica dedicated to St. Peter the Apostle, San Pietro in Vincoli or St. Peter in Chains found on the Esquiline Hill in Rome.

The chains which bound Saint Peter in the Mamertine prison are said to have been found by Saint Balbina, the daughter of the man later known as Saint Quirinus, who was Saint Peter’s jailer and converted by him there. Tradition says that in 109 Theodora, a pious Roman lady (who was a sister of Hermes, a prefect of Rome) built a chapel on the Esquiline Hill as a shrine for the chains. Both Theodora and Hermes were converted by Pope Saint Alexander I (105-115). In the subscriptions of the Council of Ephesus (431) the priest Philip (legate of Pope St. Celestine I) is named the titular of this church, then known as the basilica apostolorum in honor of Sts. Peter and Paul. In 436 Eudocia, wife of the Emperor of the East (Theodosius II, 408-450), received the chains which bound St. Peter in Jerusalem as a gift from Juvenal, the bishop of Jerusalem. She sent part these chains to her daughter in Rome, Eudoxia Zicinia, who was wife of Emperor Valentinian III. When Peter’s chains from Jerusalem and those from Rome were placed together for the first time, it is said, they miraculously united together to form the one chain that is preserved here. The event is commemorated in the ceiling fresco by Giovanni Battista Parodi, painted in 1706. The name “Saint Peter in Chains” first appears in the time of Summachus (498-514), and by the eleventh century this name became the customary reference to the basilica, which has been today’s station since the time of Pope Gregory the Great (590-604). The basilica is cared for by the Canons Regular of the Congregation of the Most Holy Savior (Lateran Canons).

The twenty-two ancient columns are Doric in style, a rare architectural form in Roman churches. Tradition tells us that they were taken from the court basilica where Peter was condemned to death. Their style suggests that the columns were originally in a Greek temple.

The chains themselves are found in the confessio at the high altar. Also of interest here is Michelangelo’s famous Moses sculpted around 1545, part of the unfinished tomb of Pope Julius II (1503-1513). The horns on the head of Moses are the result of a misunderstanding; the Hebrew text says that “a radiance shone about his face” when he came down from Mount Sinai, but the Latin translation could be interpreted as saying that he had horns. From the right angle, and in good light, you can see portraits of Michelangelo and Julius II in Moses’ beard. It is said that the Jewish people of Rome came here in great numbers to venerate the statue when it was erected. Also note the fourth-century sarcophagus of the Maccabee brothers, found in 1876 under the high altar, which commemorates the seven Jewish heroes who died in war to protect the Mosaic Law. Their relics were translated here by Pope Pelagius (556-561). Other relics include those of Saints Aurelius, Emerziana, and Constanza.

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