Of Miraculous Chains and Horns of Light

I love traveling in winter — fewer people, nicer weather to walk around in, cheaper prices, everything is just better. Whenever I see plants or vines like this, though, as beautiful as I think they look without one leaf on them, I have to wonder how it must look all green and lush, the stems holding onto the wall for dear life. The great tragedy of the seasons (which is also their greatest gift) is that everything is constantly changing, and so a brief period anywhere means we only see one aspect of it, and are left wondering about the rest of the year.

San Pietro in Vincoli

Located on the Oppian Hill, just a short distance from the Colosseum, San Pietro in Vincoli (Saint Peter in Chains) was built to house the relics of the chains that purportedly once bound Saint Peter while imprisoned in Jerusalem. These relics passed through various hands before reaching this church: first they were given to Aelia Eudocia, Empress of the Eastern Roman Empire, by Iuvenalis, Bishop of Jerusalem. She then gifted them to her daughter, Empress Eudoxia, who finally presented them to Pope Leo I.

Reliquary holding the chains

Excavations in the 1950s revealed that the church, which was originally built in 432-440 and consecrated in 439, sits on even older foundations. The building subsequently underwent several renovations, particularly under Pope Julius II from 1471-1503 (San Pietro in Vincoli is the family church of the della Rovere, and Julius II was originally born Giuliano della Rovere). This work included a portico, added in 1475, and a cloister, completed in 1493-1503. The fresco in the ceiling was done by Giovanni Battista Parodi in 1706, and depicts the Miracle of the Chains, whereby Pope Alexander heals the neck goiter of Saint Balbina by touching her with the chains that once bound Saint Peter.

The best part of this entire church is, undoubtedly, Michelangelo’s Moses. Intended to be part of a 47-statue funeral monument for Julius II that was never completed, it became the centerpiece for this monument in San Pietro in Vincoli instead.

You may notice that Moses is depicted with horns. This is because in the original Hebrew texts described him as having “beams of light” coming out of his temples, the Hebrew word for which is very similar to that for “horn.” One mistranslation later, it became standard iconography for Moses to be depicted in this way.

Funerary monument of Cardinal Cinzio Aldobrandini by Carlo Francesco Bizzacheri and Pierre Le Gros the Younger

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