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  • Writer's pictureWill von Behr, MA

A Brief History of Basilica di San Pietro in Vincoli in Rome

What is San Pietro in Vincoli?

The Basilica di San Pietro in Vincoli is a Roman Catholic church in Rome that was built in the 5th century and dedicated to St Peter (and his chains).

San Pietro in Vincoli Michelangelo's Moses Sculpture

San Pietro in Vincoli History

According to scripture, whilst in Jerusalem the Apostle Peter was shackled in iron chains by King Herod for preaching about Jesus. On the eve of his trial, Peter was visited by an angel, who miraculously freed him from his bonds and led him from prison. In the 5th century, one of the chains was gifted to the Roman Empress Eudoxia, who gave it to Pope Leo I, and built this basilica to house it. Later the second chain was sent to Rome from a church in Constantinople. Leo, holding the two chains beside one another, miraculously fused them together. The bonds became a celebrated Christian relic, and are one of the most revered in any church in Rome.

The 5th-century basilica was heavily restored in the 15th century, and a new façade constructed with its beautiful colonnaded portico. Renaissance painters decorated the walls and ceiling of the basilica with colourful frescoes that depict stories from St Peter’s legend. In the sacristy, or priest’s room, you’ll find Bolognese artist Domenichino’s powerful fresco, The Liberation of St Peter, which captures the moment the angel releases a bewildered Peter from his chains. Genoese painter Giovanni Battista Parodi decorated the vaulted ceiling with the same scene, and Florentine painter Jacopo Coppi created the frescoes in the apse, which tell the entire St Peter story, including the handing over of the chains by the Roman empress.

Though these are all celebrated works in their own right, the most renowned artist to contribute to the church’s interior was the revered creator of the magnificent Sistine Chapel frescoes, Michelangelo. In 1505, Michelangelo was asked by Pope Julius II if he would construct a grand tomb for him, to be adorned with fitting statues and situated under the vast dome in St Peter's Basilica in the Vatican. However, after Julius’s death, his grandiose plans fell by the wayside and Michelangelo instead created a more modest tomb, placed here in the basilica.

Pope Julius’s tomb can be found in the right transept, the cross-shaped area that juts out from the main body of the church. At its centre is a striking statue of Moses, nearly two and half metres tall, with a long beard and stony stare, clasping the Ten Commandments in his right hand. The statue is considered one of Michelangelo’s great works.

Before leaving, don’t forget to have a look at the chains themselves, which are housed under the high altar in an ornate gold and glass case.

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