Rome: San Pietro in Vincoli

The San Pietro in Vincoli.

The San Pietro in Vincoli is a church on the edge of the Esquiline Hill, just to the north of the famous Colosseum. It does not look much like a church. In fact, if you walk by, you would probably mistake it for some sort of early Renaissance palazzo. The facade is not typical for a church and there is no campanile. The church is hemmed in between buildings on the left and right, so its form is hardly visible from the outside. And yet, this is a church that is very old and very important for both religious and cultural reasons. The church has the alleged chains (vincoli) of Saint Peter, an exceptionally important relic in the Christian faith. It also houses one of the most famous sculptures by Michelangelo (1475-1564), his Moses, which is part of Pope Julius II’s tomb and can be found in the right transept.

Early history

In Antiquity, this part of the Esquiline Hill was an affluent neighbourhood; the slums of the Suburra were down below in the valley. A church dedicated to the Twelve Apostles (the basilica apostolorum) was built here in the middle of the fourth century. Pope Sixtus III (432-440) re-dedicated this church to just two of these apostles, Saints Peter and Paul, in 439. It was presumably in 442 that an entirely new church was built on this site to replace the old one. The construction of a new edifice is attributed to a priest named Philip and the Western Roman empress Licinia Eudoxia, who was married to the emperor Valentinianus III (425-455). The church is often called the Basilica Eudoxiana or the Titulus Eudoxiae after her.

Interior of the church.

As stated above, the most important relics in the church are the chains of Saint Peter the Apostle. The stories about these chains are confusing, and different traditions somehow became intertwined. Christian tradition dictates that Peter was clapped in chains on at least two occasions. According to the Acts of the Apostles, he was arrested by Herod Agrippa in Jerusalem and subsequently freed by an angel sent by God (“and the chains fell from his hands”; Acts 12:7). An entirely apocryphal, yet apparently authoritative tradition then adds that Peter travelled to Rome where he became the first pope. In Rome, he was ultimately arrested, clapped in chains again and later crucified upside down (the site of his crucifixion has been – incorrectly – identified with that of the Tempietto, next to San Pietro in Montorio). So which chains are kept in the church, those from Rome or those from Jerusalem?

The problem with the Roman version is that there is no firm evidence that Peter, a lowly fisherman from Galilee, ever travelled to Rome. He certainly did not become the first pope there. This makes the stories about his imprisonment and subsequent crucifixion extremely problematic as well. The Jerusalem version at least has a (shaky) base in the canonical Acts of the Apostles, which explicitly mention chains, but of course that does not make it any more ‘true’. According to this version, Peter’s chains from his imprisonment by his Herod were somehow ‘rediscovered’ by Juvenalis, the bishop of Jerusalem, in 439. He gave one of the chains to the empress Aelia Eudocia, who passed it on to her daughter, the aforementioned Licinia Eudoxia. The text above the chains in the San Pietro in Vincoli certainly suggests that these are the Jerusalem chains. It reads (in Latin):

Saint Peter’s chains.

(“The Lord sent His angel and freed me from the hands of Herod”; Acts 12:11)

But there is a third tradition as well, which claims that a chain from Peter’s Roman captivity and one of the chains from Jerusalem were somehow miraculously fused together to form a single chain, just a little under two metres in length. This miracle is said to have occurred during either the pontificate of Pope Saint Leo I the Great (440-461) or that of his predecessor, the aforementioned Sixtus III. This tradition is the most incredible of the three and is best dismissed as pious nonsense. Whether you want to believe any of the other traditions is up to you: this is the realm of religion, not that of hard science.

The church also has the relics of what were once thought to be the so-called Holy Maccabean Martyrs (see Rome: Santa Maria Antiqua for a picture), mentioned in the deuterocanonical book 2 Maccabees. However, research conducted in the 1930s has conclusively determined that these are in fact dog bones.

Later history

Tomb decoration, tomb slab and coat of arms of Nicholas of Cusa.

The San Pietro in Vincoli became an important site for pilgrims from the early Middle Ages onwards. Although the church had been referred to as the Saint Peter in Chains for centuries, it was not until the pontificate of Pope Gregorius VII (1073-1085) that the dedication – previously jointly to Saints Peter and Paul – was formally changed. In spite of its popularity and importance as a pilgrimage destination, the church had become ruinous by the fifteenth century and was in desperate need of restoration. Fortunately, its titular cardinal did not sit on his hands. His name was Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464), a German by birth. He was not just a man of the church, but also an important philosopher and scientist. Nicholas of Cusa started restorations in 1449 and left a significant amount of money in his will, so that the project could be continued after his death. The cardinal died in 1464 and was buried in his own church. His tomb can be found at the beginning of the left aisle. It is a splendid piece of art, attributed to Andrea Bregno (1418-1503). The cardinal himself can be seen kneeling on the left. Saint Peter is in the centre and on the right we see the angel from Acts 12:7. The angel is holding a chain and Peter seems to be pointing at it.

Mosaic of Saint Sebastian.

Restorations were continued by two cardinals from the Della Rovere family, Francesco and his nephew Giuliano. The first became Pope Sixtus IV (1471-1484) and the second Pope Julius II (1503-1513). Pope Sixtus provided the church with its current facade. The portico was designed and executed by Baccio Pontelli (ca. 1450-1492) in 1475. Originally, the upper part of the fifth century facade would still have been visible, but a second storey added in 1578 has completely hidden this as well. It is especially the portico and second storey that make the San Pietro resemble a palazzo rather than a church. The San Pietro in Vincoli owes much of its present appearance to further restorations carried out in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century by Francesco Fontana (1668-1708), son of the more famous Carlo Fontana (1634/38-1714). It was during these restorations that a ceiling was added. The central panel of the ceiling has a fresco by the Genoese painter Giovanni Battista Parodi (1674-1730). It shows the miracle of the two chains, which was already mentioned above.

What to see

Apart from the chains, which are kept in a box under the high altar, and Nicholas de Cusa’s tomb (see above), the church has many more highlights. The apse is from the original fifth century basilica and it was frescoed by Jacopo Coppi (1523-1591). In the left aisle, we also find a very old, seventh century mosaic featuring Saint Sebastian. In 680, Rome was struck by a terrible plague. Simultaneously, the Longobard capital of Pavia was struck by the disease. In both cases, Saint Sebastian is said to have intervened, which is how Sebastian became the patron saint of the plague-stricken. Pavia had a church named San Pietro in Vincoli as well, and there an altar dedicated to Saint Sebastian was set up. In Rome, a mosaic was commissioned and this was set up in the Roman church of the same name a few years after 680. The mosaic is special because it shows the saint as a bearded, middle-aged man. Later works of art usually depict Sebastian as a young man and show his naked body riddled with arrows.

Tomb of Pope Julius II.

Michelangelo’s tomb of Pope Julius II, tucked away in the right transept, is the main focus of most of the tourists visiting this church. Fact is, the tomb was supposed to be much larger, with much more statues. And what is more, it was supposed to be placed in new Saint Peter’s Basilica, the gigantic project started by Pope Julius himself in 1506. Michelangelo had originally, in 1505, designed a freestanding tomb with a ‘footprint’ of some 70 square metres and decorated with about forty statues. But then the Pope commissioned him to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The great Florentine artist worked on this project from 1508 until 1512 and then returned to sculpting the statues for the tomb. Pope Julius II died in 1513. His great new basilica was far from finished and the same was true for his tomb.

The designs for a freestanding tomb were quickly ditched, in favour of a much more modest wall tomb. Instead of the intended forty statues, only seven were actually executed (not including the four telamons, the male versions of caryatids). The tomb was not finished until well into the 1540s. One of the reasons for the delay was the fact that Michelangelo had been commissioned to work on the Sistine Chapel again. This time Pope Paulus III (1534-1549) had charged him with painting the Last Judgment (1536-1541) on the back wall of the chapel. And as the great Australian art critic Robert Hughes remarked, a man – even Michelangelo – only has a single pair of hands. The wall tomb was placed here in the San Pietro in Vincoli in 1545, the church that the Pope had served as titular cardinal from 1471 until his election as Pope in 1503. So in the end, the tomb ended up in a Saint Peter’s basilica, though not in the Saint Peter’s Basilica.

Close-up of the lower part of the tomb.

The lower part of the tomb has three statues. The central one is Michelangelo’s famous sculpture of the prophet Moses (ca. 1513-1515). It is flanked by statues of Rachel and Leah. Moses appears to be having little horns, the result of a mistranslation of the original Hebrew text of Exodus. A different interpretation is, however, that these are actually onsets of rays of light, which is closer to the meaning of the Hebrew word ‘karan’ used in Exodus. There is a rather comical tradition which claims that, when the statue was finally finished, Michelangelo shouted: “Now speak!”. When the statue did not answer him, the artist is said to have struck its knee with his chisel. There is indeed a scar on the knee, but the story sounds like a later invention.


The upper part of the tomb has four more statues. In the centre we see a recumbent effigy (gisant) of Pope Julius II. Behind him is a sculpture of the Madonna and Child and the Pope is flanked by a Sybil and a young Prophet, perhaps Daniel. Michelangelo himself certainly sculpted the entire Moses statue, but his level of involvement in the other statues is far from certain. Much work was definitely done by his school, and the Sybil and Prophet are usually attributed to his pupil Raffaello da Montelupo (ca. 1505-1566), the man who made the original angel of the Castel Sant’Angelo. Michelangelo also sculpted a couple of statues that were not included in the final version of the wall tomb. His Dying Slave and Rebellious Slave ended up in the Louvre in Paris, while his Genius of Victory can nowadays be admired in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence.


  • Capitool Reisgidsen Rome, 2009 Dutch edition, p. 170;
  • Robert Hughes, De zeven levens van Rome (Dutch translation of Rome: A Cultural, Visual and Personal History), p. 241-242;
  • Luc Verhuyck, SPQR. Anekdotische reisgids voor Rome, p. 175-178;
  • San Pietro in Vincoli on Churches of Rome Wiki.


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  8. Wonderful Rome and its romantic churches !

    “Rome, thou art a whole world, it is true, and yet without love this
    World would not be the world, Rome would cease to be Rome…”

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