The Church of Saint Peter in Chains

After you walk up the lovely but horrible steps from Via Cavour, you arrive at a little piazza before the church of St. Peter in Chains (San Pietro in Vincoli). It’s not much to look at from the outside, but treasure lies inside.

Exterior of the St. Peter in Chains

The church, dating form the 5th century, is named for a relic that still is proudly displayed there. A glass case holds a chain that, legend says, once bound Saint Peter. The legend is complicated by a story that the chain that once bound the saint in Jerusalem magically fused with chain that held him in Rome, in the Mamertime Prison. So, apparently it is now just a single, longer chain.

The glass reliquary in the church St. Peter in Chains
The reliquary, behind the main altar inside St. Peter in Chains

Beyond the chains, there are many wonderful things to discover inside this church.

Looking toward the apse

Looking toward the entrancez
The beautiful paintings at the apse
A creepy memento mori inside St. Peter in Chains

But the treasure here, ironically, is part of a massive failure. But, being Rome, this “failure” is by one of the greatest artists of all time. Michelangelo was hired to create a magnificent tomb with more than 40 gigantic sculptures for the powerful Pope Julius II. It would have far surpassed his work at the Sistine Chapel.

The main sculpture you see today was just one of those sculptures, and it alone took two years to complete. By that time, the pope needed to shift funds from the tomb to other things. Work was stalled because Michelangelo was working on the Sistine Chapel, and then the pope died.

In the end, the tomb was reduced to a mere fraction of what Michelangelo had originally planned. The result is, consequently, a bit awkward. But one sculpture does stand out.

The tomb of Pope Julius II

The main sculpture is of the prophet Moses who sits with one hand over the tablets of the Ten Commandments, while his other hand absently strokes his long, curling beard. His body leans forward, his face and body turning to one side as if looking at something going on in the distance. The face is majestic with a slightly furrowed brow — like an older version of Michelangelo’s David — thoughtful, wise, and concerned. Also like the David, he is heavily muscled, his arms powerful, his hands large and strong, the veins clearly showing. To me, he looks like he could be a body double for the king of the Roman gods, Jupiter.

The Moses

There is one very strange thing with this sculpture: the two slightly rounded protrusions from Moses’ head. The result of a translation of a particularly difficult part of the ancient Hebrew into Latin — probably referring to a radiance emitted by Moses after being in the presence of God, which at times has been depicted as “horns.”

The majestic face of Moses — plus the “horns”

Ironically, Julius II’s remains are not here, in his tomb at St. Peter in Chains. Instead, he lies in St. Peter’s Basilica, in much simpler circumstances.