The Chains of St Peter

Gregory DiPippo

Today is the tradition date of a feast which is called in Latin “Sancti Petri ad Vincula”, translated literally as “(the feast of) St Peter at the chains”, although it is usually given in English less exactly as “the feast of St Peter’s Chains” or “of St Peter in Chains.” Like many specifically Roman feasts, it began in commemoration of the dedication of a basilica, which in this case is located on the Esquiline hill, within sight of the Colosseum. When a city has more than one church dedicated to the same Saint, they are often distinguished from each other by nicknames; the appellation “at the chains” would therefore serve to distinguish it from the Vatican basilica.

The tremendous antiquity of this church is demonstrated by the fact that it was restored by Pope St Sixtus III in the 430s. An inscription which records the restoration mentions that the building was already considered old, and that the Pope re-dedicated it to both Apostolic founders of the See of Rome. It is written in five elegaic couplets, a favored poetic form for dedicatory inscriptions in that era. The priest Philip to whom it refers had served as delegate of the previous Pope, St Celestine I, to the ecumenical council of Ephesus in 431.

Cede, prius nomen, novitati, cede vetustas;
   Regia laetanter vota dicare libet.
Haec Petri Paulique simul nunc nomine signo
   Xystus apostolicae sedis honore fruens
Unum, quaeso, pares unum duo sumite munus,
   Unus honor celebret quos habet una fides.
Presbyteri tamen hic labor est et cura Philippi
   Postquam Ephesi Christus vicit utrique polo.
Praemia discipulus meruit vincente magistro
   Hanc palmam fidei rettulit inde senex.

“Yield, former name, to one that is new, yield, what is old: it is pleasing to joyfully dedicate royal offerings. I, Xystus, who enjoy the honor of the Apostolic See, now seal this place in the name of Peter and Paul together. As equals, I pray, do ye both accept this single gift: let a single honor celebrate those whom a single faith embraces. This work and the care thereof nevertheless belong to the priest Philip, after Christ won at Ephesus for East and West. As a student, with his teacher’s victory he deserved his rewards: as an old man, he brought back thence this trophy of the Faith.”

The Roman Breviary refers very obliquely to a tradition stated more explicitly in the Golden Legend and elsewhere, namely, that the Romans dedicated the month of August to honoring the Emperor Augustus’ memory, and that this second feast of St Peter was created to supplant this holiday. It is true that the Latin names for the seventh and eighth months of the year were originally “Quintilis” and “Sextilis”, and that the Emperor Augustus renamed the former for his adoptive father, Julius Caesar, and the latter for himself. However, it is not likely that the cult of “the divine Augustus” was so vibrant in the mid-5th century as to require serious opposition from the Church. There are 32 days between June 29th, St Peter’s principal feast day, and August 1st; this perhaps suggests the tradition that Peter was bishop of Antioch for seven years, and bishop of Rome for twenty-five, a total of 32 as the visible head of the Church, one less than the 33 years of Our Lord’s earthly life.

The breviary also gives the traditional story of the church’s famous relic. When the Empress Eudocia, the wife of Theodosius II, went to Jerusalem in the year 438, she received as a gift the chain by which St Peter was held in prison under King Herod, as narrated in the epistle of the feast day, Acts 12, 1-11. She then sent it to her daughter Eudoxia in Rome, who in turn presented it to the Pope. When it was exposed for the veneration of the faithful together with the chain by which Peter had been held during his imprisonment in Rome under the Emperor Nero, the two chains were miraculously united, so as to appear to be a single chain.

(The chains of St Peter, displayed in front of the high altar of the basilica. Photo by Agnese Bazzuchi, reproduced courtesy of New Liturgical Movement.)

In the year 1706, the painter Giovanni Battista Parodi decorated the basilica’s ceiling with a fresco of a famous miracle attributed to the chains, which is also recounted in the breviary. A count of the Holy Roman Empire was possessed by an evil spirit which caused him to bite himself; when he accompanied the Emperor Otto II to Rome in 969, Pope John XIII placed the chain around his neck, at which the demon was expelled.

Many other miracles have been attributed to the numerous fragments of the chain that were shaved off and given by the Popes as gifts, a practice to which Pope St Gregory refers several times in his letters.

To Childebert II, King of Austrasia: “Claves praeterea sancti Petri, in quibus de vinculis catenarum ejus inclusum est, excellentiae vestrae direximus, quae, collo vestro suspensae, a malis vos omnibus tueantur. – Moreover, we have sent to your excellency the keys of St Peter, in which there is included a piece from the bonds of his chains, that they may be hung upon your neck and protect you from all evils.” (Epist. Reg. VI.6)

(Image from Wikimedia Commons by Marcos Mraz, CC BY 2.5)

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