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San Pietro in Vincoli

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San Pietro in Vincoli is a 5th century basilica, conventual and titular church  at Piazza di San Pietro in Vincoli 4/A in the rione Monti. Pictures of the basilica at Wikimedia Commons are here. There is an English Wikipedia article here.

The dedication is to St Peter the Apostle.


Ancient timesEdit

The archaeologists were able to look under the floor of the church during a restoration in the middle of the 20th century, and found four layers of ancient occupation. The first of these dates to the end of the 2nd century BC, and consists of two houses containing spectacular polychrome mosaic floors. By this time, the westernmost ridge of the Esquiline hill was obviously a high-class residential area in complete contrast to the slum of the Suburra in the valley below (where Via Cavour now is). There seems to have been a rebuilding around the time of Christ.

In the mid 1st century AD the houses were replaced with a much grander edifice, which is identified as belonging to the northernmost end of the palace complex of Nero, the so-called Domus Transitoria followed by the Domus AureaIt survived the downfall of Nero, and was remodelled in the 2nd century to have a colonnaded courtyard with a central pool or cistern. This was replaced towards the end of the 3rd century with a large hall with an apse, which might have been a primitive Christian place of worship (although no evidence of cult was found).

It is known that the headquarters of the Urban Prefect (Praefectura Urbis) was just south-west of the present church. This complex had a prison attached, in use until the 4th century at least, and some commentators consider this significant.

Basilica apostolorumEdit

There was a church here before the present one, which we know because pilgrims in the Dark Ages copied down epigraphs -now lost-  which referred to a rebuilding. The first definitive documentary evidence we have is the signature of a priest called Philip at the Council of Ephesus in 431, described as presbyter ecclesiae Apostolorum. This old church was erected on the foundations of the building there previously, probably in the mid 4th century, and was dedicated to the twelve apostles. The present basilica is slightly trapezoidal rather than rectangular in plan, and this is witness to its re-used foundations.

The church was one of the tituli, Rome's first parish churches, which arose in the 4th century.

Chains of St PeterEdit

The ChainEdit

The relic for which the basilica is famous is the chain used on St Peter during his imprisonment. It is in one length, just under two metres long, with a fixing ring at one end. You can examine it, as it is visible in a glass box under the main altar. In the Middle Ages, its presence here made the church one of the most important pilgrimage venues in Rome and it is a small puzzle as to why it was not counted equal to the Seven Churches later. 

The tradition behind it has two distinct strands, which later commentators intertwined, and appropriately two chains are involved.


One tradition claims that the chains (two of them) fastened St Peter when he was imprisoned by Herod Agrippa in Jerusalem (Acts of the Apostles ch. 12; two chains are mentioned). The pair of relics seems to have first appeared in that city in 439, and the developed story is as follows: In that year Juvenal, the bishop there, gave two chains to the Empress Aelia Eudoxia, wife of Emperor Arcadius and mother of Emperor Theodosius II, during her residence in the Holy Land. She sent one chain home to Constantinople, where it was enshrined in the mausoleum church of the emperor Constantine, the Church of the Holy Apostles (now destroyed). A surviving homily of St John Chrysostom (Homily 8 on Ephesians 3:1) contains a panegyric of it, and was obviously given in the relic's presence. The other chain she sent to her daughter, called Licinia Eudoxia, who was married to the Western Emperor Valentinian III (the Empire being divided between two emperors at the time).

See the apse of the church for a depiction of Juvenal handing over the chains.


The Roman tradition is that one or both of the chains were used on St Peter during his imprisonment at Rome before his execution. One or both would then have been taken eastwards, and so ended up in Constantinople or (somehow) in Jerusalem. 

Later tradition at Rome concerning St Peter's imprisonment placed it at the Mamertine Prison. This was the place where the ancient Roman government put very important malefactors, including captured barbarian rulers. Since Peter was the first pope, so the argument would have run, he must have been important enough for this "courtesy". Unfortunately, historically this is incorrect. Peter was a leader of a trouble-making messianic Jewish sect of no status, and he himself had no standing in Roman society. He would not have been in the Mamertine, but the prison of the nearby Praefectura Urbis might well have been the place of his captivity. This would have been remembered by the early Church, and the construction of the first basilica next to the Praefectura (the prison of which was still in use in the 4th century) could have been an acknowledgement of the tradition.

A tradition associating the chain with St Balbina and Pope St Alexander a the start of the 2nd century is mentioned by St Bede the Venerable in his Patres Latini. The surviving version of the legend is unhistorical, but the older tradition hiding behind it is that the pope built the basilica after St Balbina located the chain in Rome.

Conflation of traditionsEdit

The two traditions concerning the chain, locating it at Rome and Jerusalem, were conflated early on. For example, in the Mirabilia Urbis Romae written in the 12th century, it is claimed that Eudoxia (here erroneously identified as the wife of Emperor Arcadius and who probably never set foot in Rome) brought the chain to Rome after it had been given to her by a Jew in Jerusalem (Juvenal would have objected seriously to that description).

Alternatively it was claimed that there was one chain always in Rome, and that the second chain from Jerusalem was later forwarded to Rome from Constantinople. The nave ceiling of the basilica shows the alleged miracle that took place when they were brought together, in that they joined up to form one chain. In the Middle Ages it was claimed that this happened either in the reign of Pope Leo the Great or Pope Sixtus III, mid 5th century.

Eudoxian basilicaEdit

According to transcribed epigraph evidence, the priest Philip abovementioned and Licinia Eudoxia got together to build a new basilica on the footprint of the old in 442 (or possibly 439). Why this was done is unknown, but the devotional focus is clear from the changing of the dedication from the Twelve Apostles to SS Peter and Paul by Pope Sixtus III in the latter year.

Henceforward the church was known as the Titulus Eudoxiae or the Eudoxiana. Despite later restorations and refittings, the fabric that we have is essentially 5th century and so this is one of the oldest church buildings in Rome. Archaeologists have been able to reconstruct its primitive appearance. The basilica is large -61 metres long and 29 metres wide. At the entrance were five large arched portals (the blocked remnants of these are still visible on the counterfaçade). In the central nave side walls were eleven windows under archivolts on each side, matching the ten arcade columns beneath them. Very unusually for Rome, the side aisle walls also had eleven smaller windows each to match. The right hand side aisle had a side exit of three large arches, seemingly inserted later because they impinged on three aisle windows. It is unknown as to why this exit was provided; a baptistry is a possibility.

Middle agesEdit

In the reign of Pope Pelagius I (556-61), the alleged relics of the Maccabean Martyrs were enshrined here. These are described in the Second Book of the Maccabees as Jews tortured to death for being faithful to the Torah in the 2nd century BC. The source of the relics was allegedly Antioch in Syria.

In 680, a magnificent mosaic of St Sebastian was erected as an ex voto in gratitude for the cessation of an epidemic.

The church became a very important pilgrimage destination in the Dark Ages. As a result, it was restored and embellished by Pope Adrian I (772-795), Leo III (795-816), Stephen IV (816-7) and Gregory IV (827-44). Because of its size, it was sometimes used for councils and conclaves and Pope Gregory VII was elected here in 1073. It was he who changed the dedication from SS Peter and Paul to St Peter in Chains, although the latter name had already been in use for centuries.

During the Babylonian Captivity of the popes at Avignon in France, the church fell into ruins. As a result, Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa (actually, Nikolaus von Kues) took it in hand in 1448 and began a massive restoration. He died in 1464, but left a fund which paid for the continuation of the work overseen by Pope Sixtus IV (1471-1484) and Pope Julius II (1503-1513). The present portico is one result, erected in 1475, and the adjacent monastery was another. The church was served by Canons Regular of the Lateran, who are still in charge, and the monastery contained a community of them from then on.

Pope Julius was cardinal here, Giuliano della Rovere, and he had his palace next door to the left. Part of it survives, and the family emblem of an oak tree or leaf occurs in the church decoration (robur is Latin for oak timber; quercus is the tree).

The failure of the project for a tomb in St Peter's for Pope Julius II finally led to the completed sculptures being put here 1545, including the famous Moses by Michelangelo.

Modern timesEdit

There was a restoration at the end of the 17th century by Francesco Fontana, which resulted in the present ceiling and much of the decoration.

The monastery was sequestered by the Italian government in 1873, and turned into a college of engineering. This it remains, but fortunately the beautiful cloisters have been preserved.

A massive re-ordering of the sanctuary took place in 1875-77. Before then, the chain was kept in the sacristy and only brought out on important days. To allow permanent veneration, the floor under the main altar was dug out to create an open confessio and the chain put in a glass box over its own altar below the main one. Further, a second confessio was excavated behind the chain altar, amounting to a little crypt, and the ancient sarcophagus containing the alleged relics of the Maccabean Martyrs was put here. Above, a large baldacchino was erected over the main altar.

An archaeological investigation of the Maccabean relics was made in the 1930's. When the ancient sarcophagus was opened, what was found was a collection of dogs' bones mixed with ashes. It seems that somebody in Syria in the early 6th century or earlier had a very sick sense of humour when perpetrating this fraud. Perhaps understandably, this discovery was not much publicized, and is still not well known. However, the crypt is now kept locked and inaccessible to visitors.

There was another major restoration in the mid 20th century. When it was finished, the present marble floor was laid.


As one of the tituli, the church would have counted as titular from its foundation. However, the actual list of cardinals only begins in the 14th century after the popes came back from Avignon. 

The present titular is Donald William Wuerl, archbishop of Washington DC, USA, who was appointed in 2010. The previous incumbant was Pio Laghi, who was appointed on February 26th, 2002 but died in 2010.


Layout and fabricEdit

The basilica is in brick and has a nave with aisles, a transept and a semicircular external apse. The nave and transept are covered by a pitched and tiled roof in the form of a T, and the large apse has its own roof which is only slightly lower than the main one. The large monastic cloister is to the south of the church, and the north range of this covers the right hand aisle. Oddly, the left hand aisle is also impinged upon by a row of domestic buildings on a very narrow plot on the south side of the Vicolo delle Sette Sale.

The portico range is approached by a shallow but wide flight of steps, and hides the original frontage.

All these constraining structures surrounding the church means that most of the fabric is invisible from outside. However, if you go down the Vicolo delle Sette Sale you will get a good view of the ancient apse. It is in brick with a crowning cornice in stone with modillions, and there are also two stone string courses inserted into the fabric. You can see how the fenestration was altered perhaps in the 15th century restoration.


The portico and the range above amounts to a separate architectural unit, added on to the ancient frontage. It was built during the pontificate of Sixtus IV (1471-1484) by Baccio Pontelli, and would originally have had a sloping tiled roof. However, the upper storey was added in 1578, on the orders of Cardinal Antoine de Granville, to hide the old façade. Under Pope Clement XI (1700-12) there was a redecoration and a provision of guard railings.

The loggia frontage consists of five arches with molded archivolts, separated by four travertine columns which have a chamfered square as their cross-section (a square with its corners cut off to form an irregular octagon). The capitals of these are non-classical, with a motif claimed to include oak leaves (hence alluding to the Rovere family). If so, they are rather stylized and could be interpreted as acanthus leaves. Above the arcade is an entablature supported on strap corbels, with a molded architrave. The second storey is very simple, and sits on a shallow plinth set on the cornice of the entablature. It has five small rectangular windows with floating cornices, and a main cornice just below the actual roofline. The roof is flat.

The iron railings were added in the same project as the upper storey. The blacksmithing is intricate, and over the central gate the chain reappears. These railings were to keep beggars and sheep out during the night, the latter because the countryside started here until the 19th century.

The loggia itself is divided into five bays by transverse arches running from the arcade columns to engaged pilasters of the same style in the church frontage. The central ceiling panel has a good Baroque motif in stucco, featuring the chain and keys of St Peter within palm branches.

The marble entrance portal is from the 15th century restoration, and the lintel bears the arms of the Della Rovere family repeated three times. If you look closely, you will see that the central shield has a papal tiara, and the two others a cardinal's hat. Pope Sixtus IV and his nephew Giuliano della Rovere are thus being commemorated.

The basilica is unusual in only having the single entrance.


The monastic cloister, which was designed by Giuliano da Sangallo, is now part of Faculty of Engineering (Università di Roma). Since the architect was also a military engineer, this is somewhat appropriate. The cloister has the original colonnaded arcades, but the central garth garden is now paved over. In the garth are a well and a fountain.

The octagonal central well-head (c.1517) is by Simone Mosca, a Florentine colleague of Michelangelo, and is a very fine piece of sculpture. The Della Rovere coat-of-arms is prominent, as well as stylized water-monsters with their bodies forming loops like handles. The well itself should not be overlooked. When the ancient aqueducts collapsed, the only way to get water on the hills was to dig wells. They had to be very deep, and here the well had to be dug down well beyond the level of the Suburra neighbourhood to the north. Mostly, only monasteries could afford to do this in the early Middle Ages which is partly why they ended up being almost the only residences on the hills.

The little basin-on-a-pedestal fountain to one side was added by Cardinal Antonio Barberini in 1642, obviously after an aqueduct had been restored. It is a little squirt celebrated with an interesting and bombastic inscription on the nearest wall in praise of the Barberini family; see the "Romeartover" web-page in "External links" for a transcription.

The entrance to the cloiser is at Via Eudossiana 16.


Interestingly, the church has no campanile of any size. Was there a tower campanile in the Middle Ages, that fell down? What is there now is a little bellcote on the far side of the left hand end of the transept, which you can just about see from the Vicolo delle Sette Sale.



The church has a straightforward layout, of a nave with aisles, transept and apse. There is a pair of chapels flanking the apse in the far corners of the transept, and these have their own little apses. Apart from these, there are no external chapels but only two altars in each side aisle. The Tomb of Pope Julius II is stuffed into the right hand end of the transept.


When you first enter the nave, you may (or may not) agree with some commentators who argue that the proportions are wrong. Like Santa Cecilia, which has the same issue, the basilica here originally did not have a ceiling and the insertion of one means that the interior height of the nave feels too low for its width.

The arcades are made up of twenty ancient columns in the Doric style, an order of architecture which is rare in Roman church arcades. Here, the columns are fluted and are in what is described as "Greek" marble. It is white with grey streaks, and if it is cipollino it is from Euboea. The set of columns must have come from a very high-status ancient building, probably a temple.

The tops of the columns have square stone plates called abaci which here act as imposts supporting the archivolts. The nave walls above the arcades now have three large windows instead of the original eleven little ones, a result of the 15th century restoration.

A ceiling was inserted in the work overseen by Pope Julius II (1503-1513), but the present "waggon roof" styled one is by Francesco Fontana and dates to the start of the 18th century. The large central panel has a fresco by Giovanni Battista Parodi, The Miracle of the Chains, which painted in 1706. It refers to a miracle in the developed legend, that allegedly occurred when the chain from Jerusalem was brought to Rome via Constantinople. The chain from the Carcere Mamertino was brought into contact with it, and the two chains fused of their own accord.

The work is the only one of the artist in Rome.

Part of the floor of the ancient church is apparently still visible, but the unpatterned and highly polished pale brown marble floor that you see now was laid in 1960. Some commentators have expressed their hatred for it, as being an expensive job succeeding in looking cheap.

The counterfaçade was stripped of its plaster in the mid 20th century restoration, and so you can see the blocked remains of the original five entrance arches.


The transept is separated from the nave by a wide triumphal arch, flanked by a pair of ancient pink granite Corinthian columns originally sourced from Aswan in Egypt. Above the arch is a large tablet extolling Pope Clement XI.

The high altar and confessio as it now is was the result of a project finished in 1877, but including older elements. The work was begun by Andra Busiri Vici , responsible for the chain reliquary, and was finished by Virginio Vespignani who erected the baldacchino.

In front of the high altar is a sunken area or confessio, bounded by a richly decorated polychrome marble screen which is extended on each side to delimit the apse choir. This is by Vespignani. There are two staircases going down, so you can venerate the chain of St Peter in its gilded bronze and glass reliquary made in 1856. This is in a niche in the main altar, and is flanked by a pair of statues: St Peter on the left, and the angel who released him from prison in Jerusalem on the right. There is a second, subsidiary altar in the confessio under the chain.

The bronze doors of the niche shrine containing the reliquary are by Caradosso, were cast in 1477 and preserved in the 19th century restoration. They depict the Condemnation of Peter by Herod, and the Angel Liberating St Peter from Prison. Since the chains are permanently exposed for veneration, it will not usually be possible to see the doors. At present, they are only closed on the first day of August and this is the only time that Caradosso's work is visible.

The baldacchino is in a mediaeval style, having four pink granite Corinthian columns and lots of gilded decoration.


On either side of the chain altar is a small door, which leads into a little crypt behind the shrine. In here is an ancient Christian sarcophagus, dating to the 4th century. It was used to contain the alleged relics of the Holy Maccabees, seven Jewish brothers who died of torture with their mother in the 1st century BC war in defence of the Mosaic Law. The relics were translated here under Pope Pelagius (556-561) but, as mentioned, are actually bones of dogs. This is probably the reason the crypt is permanently closed, which is a pity.

The carving on the sarcophagus is very good. Depicted are: Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes, Resurrection of Lazarus, Samaritan Woman at the Well, Peter Refuting Christ's Prophecy of Denial and The Giving of the Law.


The apse is very large, and belongs to the original 5th century basilica. However, the two large rectangular windows are 15th century. The frescoes on the apse wall were executed in 1577 by Jacopo CoppiIl Meglio. From left to right, they depict: St Peter Liberated from Prison, Bishop Juvenal Presents the Chains to Empress Eudoxia and Eudoxia Presents the Chains to the Pope. Below these frescoes are the choir stalls of the canons, following the curve of the wall.

The apse conch is also frescoed by Coppi, and has a cycle of scenes concerning the legend of the Crucifix of Beirut, which allegedly bled miraculously when profaned by Jews. It is not at all clear why this theme was chosen, but Coppi also did a cycle in the church of Santissimo Salvatore in Bologna on the same subject.

Tomb of Pope Julius IIEdit

The monumental Tomb of Pope Julius II, as mentioned, is shoehorned into the right hand end of the transept in 1545 where it is completely out of scale. To be fair, it was never intended to be here but in the new St Peter's Basilica. Further, the present wall monument was a massively downgraded version of an original freestanding tomb project which, when mooted in 1505, would have had about forty statues by Michelangelo. 

Elsewhere, there are two sculptures of Slaves at the Louvre in Paris, France, four unfinished Slaves at the Accademia Gallery in Florence and an unfinished Victory at the Palazzo Vecchio also in Florence.

Here, there are only seven full-figure statues, plus four bearded hero-caryatids, and scholarly argument is continuous about how much of them are the result of the master's own chisel. The summary given here is a fair consensus; since the arguments are based on stylistic grounds, there can be no firm conclusion.

The most famous work of art here is obviously Michelangelo's Moses (c.1513-15), in the central position. The patriarch is shown having just sat down to teach after bringing the Tablets of the Law down from his interview with God on Mount Sinai. The little horns on his head are a result of an early mistranslation of the Hebrew, in which the word for "rays of light" was rendered as "horns". For centuries after it was erected, members of the Jewish community used to come here in great numbers to venerate the statue. There is dispute about the full authorship of the other statues. To the left of Moses is Rachel, and to the right Leah, the sisters whom the patriarch Jacob (otherwise named Israel) married. These are considered to be by Michelangelo, but they are not nearly as good as Moses and so have been claimed as being of his immediate school with the drapery by him. (To be fair, genius cannot be expected to be consistent as any Italian football fan will tell you.)

Above, in the second storey, Pope Julius is depicted reclining on a sarcophagus in the Etruscan funerary style with the Madonna and Child above him, a Sibyl to the left and a Prophet to the right. The youthfulness of the prophet hints at Daniel, and this statue and the Sibyl are ascribed to Raffaello da Montelupo. The Madonna is ascribed to Alessandro Scherano. The pope's effigy was the subject of a debate in 1999, when the tomb was restored. Before then it was ascribed to Tommaso Boscalo and often scorned by art critics ("pathetic" was one word used), but Antonio Forcellino argued after a close examination that Michelangelo carved the face.

Right aisleEdit

The description of the aisles starts at the bottom of the right hand one, and proceeds anticlockwise to the bottom of the left hand one.

The painting of St Augustine over the first altar on the right has been attributed to Guercino.

Then come the tombs of Lanfranco Cardinal Margotti, 1611, and Girolamo Cardinal Agucchi, 1605, which were designed by Domenichino. In between these two is an altar dedicated to St Peter, and the altarpiece depicting The Liberation of St Peter is a copy of a work by the same artist.

The little apsed chapel on the other side of the Tomb of Julius is dedicated to St Margaret, and the altarpiece is a 17th century depiction of her by Guercino again. The polychrome marble altar is a fine piece of Baroque design, fitted into the curve of the apse.

Left aisleEdit

The corresponding apsed chapel in the far left hand corner of the transept is dedicated to Our Lady, but is used as the Blessed Sacrament Chapel. The altarpiece depicting her is anonymous 19th century, and not very good (to put it mildly).

Above, the church organ has a spectacular neo-Baroque case, and was installed by Attilio Priori in 1884.

The monument to Cardinal Antonio Andrea Galli of 1767 is outside the chapel. Then, at the far end of the arcade, is that of Cardinal Odoardo Vecchiarelli, 1667, with his effigy supported by a pair of skeletons. The floor slab showing his family coat-of-arms is a splendid piece of polychrome marble pietra dura work.

Around the middle of the church, on the left hand aisle wall, is an inscription from the pontificate of Pope John II, dated 532, which is the oldest monument in the church.

A 7th century Byzantine-style mosaic of St Sebastian is found over the second altar in the left aisle. We are used to seeing the saint as nude and clean-shaven, but here he is heavily bearded and wearing court dress. The name of the artist is not known. The epigraph underneath describes how the mosaic was offered in thanksgiving for a cessation of an epidemic. Above is a fresco of the Madonna and Child in a tondo.

Next to this altar is the tomb of Cinzio Cardinal Aldobrandini, 1610, a splendid piece of early Baroque theatre with a charming winged skeleton holding a scythe and wearing a veil.

The first altar on the left is dedicated to Our Lady of Sorrows, and the altarpiece showing The Entombment is by Pomarancio (Roncalli). 

Near the west wall is the tomb of Nicholas de Cusa, who was the titular cardinal of the church from 1449 until his death in 1464. The relief carving, embellished with gilding, depicts Cardinal Nicholas before St Peter Enthroned and is attributed to Andrea Bregno. The angel on the right is the one that released St Peter from prison. Below is the cardinal's shield showing a lobster -great fun.

Finally, at the bottom of the left hand aisle is a monument to the Florentine artists Antonio Pollaiuolo and his younger brother Piero, the work of Luigi Capponi (c.1500). Above the tomb is a fresco (in poor condition) showing a penitential procession during the plague of 1476. The artist is not known. To the left is an early mediaeval fresco fragment, behind glass, showing the head of Christ.

Access and liturgyEdit

The feast of the Chains of St Peter is celebrated with great solemnity on August Ist, as is the feast of SS Peter and Paul on June 29th. The former celebration is peculiar to this church.

The church is open 08.00-12.30 and 15.00-18.00/19.00 (later opening April to October).

The presence of Michelangelo's Moses results in much attention from tourist groups. These can get intolerable for any serious or devout visitor in summer. The best time to visit is on a rainy day in November.

External linksEdit

Official diocesan web-page

Italian Wikipedia page

Nolli map (look for 64)

"De Alvariis" gallery on Flickr

Roma SPQR web-page with gallery

"Francospacciabelli" blog gallery (Gives an idea of how bad the crowds can be.)

"Romeartlover" web-page

"Tripadvisor" web-page

"Rometour" web-page

List of cardinals


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