City blog. Rome based.

Saint Peter in chains Basilica and Michelangelo’s Moses: 5 good resons to visit it [VIDEO]

A stone’s throw away from the Colosseum, the basilica of San Pietro in Vincoli (Saint Peter in chain) tells us about historical events, breathtaking artworks and fascinating legends.

There are tons of  reasons to climb the Esquiline Hill in Rome, and visit it will not leave you disappointed.

In this post I will focus on the basilica of San Pietro in Vincoli and 5 good reasons to visit it.

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Questo articolo è disponibile anche in italiano.

Cet article est disponible en français.

Brief history of the Esquiline hill in antiquity

The Esquiline Hill in Rome is one of the richest in history.

It was originally located outside the city center, but it became soon the beating heart of an ever-expanding city.

Between the 9th and 3rd centuries BC the hill was occupied by necropolis. In the late Republican era, the city of Rome grew and the location itself of this hill made the Esquiline particularly attractive for the construction of new buildings. The Esquiline hill was then occupied by various types of buildings, mainly horti.

Soon the exclusive Esquiline Hill was filled with stately buildings: representative residences and homes of high-ranking personalities.

5. The basilica of San Pietro in Vincoli (Saint Peter in chains)is one of the oldest churches in Rome

In the fifth century AD, a Christian place of worship was created from the adaptation of a senatorial representation hall of one of the high-ranking residence on the Esquiline hill. This titulus (this is, in fact, the name used to identify these early Christian places of worship in private homes, before being properly churches) was entrusted by Pope Sixtus III to the presbyter Philip.

Philip took care of the adaptation works of the new “church”, financed by Sixtus III himself and by Emperor Theodosius II. Thus was born that was known with the name of Ecclesia Apostolorum, for being linked to the memory of St. Peter and St. Paul.

The historical and religious events of the following years affected this new church, helping to transform it into the one we see today.

The history of the basilica San Pietro in Vincoli is told in the frescoes of the apse, made by Jacopo Coppi in 1577.

In 44 A.D. the apostle Peter was imprisoned in Jerusalem by Herod Agrippa, the king of Judea (grandson of Herod the Great, responsible for the massacre of the Innocents). Peter was sentenced to death, but the divine intervention of an angel during the night frees him from his chains allowing him to escape execution.
Empress Aelia Eudocia II (wife of the Eastern Roman emperor Theodosius II) during a trip to Jerusalem receives, as a gift from the patriarch, the chains that had held St. Peter prisoner in Jerusalem.
Licinia Eudocia (or Eudoxia), daughter of Aelia Eudocia II and Theodosius II (as well as wife of Valentinian III, Western Roman emperor), receives the chains of St. Peter from her mother and shows them to Pope Leo I.

In the year 442 Licinia Eudocia (aka Eudossia) decided to rebuild what we know today as the basilica of San Pietro in Vincoli.

the basilica of San Pietro in Vincoli is also known as the “Eudossian basilica”

4. The miracle of the chains of St. Peter

Leo I, comparing the chains from Jerusalem with those used to imprison St. Peter in Rome in the Mamertine prison, witnessed a miracle. The two chains miraculously merged together.

the Latin word VINCULA means “chain”

3. The chains of St. Peter are an important relic

The basilica of San Pietro in Vincoli was rebuilt at the behest of the Empress Licinia Eudossia to contain the chains of St. Peter which was the object of the miracle. The Ecclesia Apostolorum, already linked to the memory of St. Paul and the apostle St. Peter, then became the basilica of Saint Peter in Chains. The link with St. Peter became prevalent, thanks to the presence of the sacred chains.

23 rings in the chain are those that held Saint Peter prisoner in Rome in the Mamertine Prison,

11 rings are those from Jerusalem

The very fact that the empress wanted this church to be built highlights its importance.

Not much remains of the ancient church of the fifth century:

  • part of the external walls of the apse area
  • the brick counter-façade (some windows and closed openings can be seen)
  • the 20 beautiful columns in Greek marble used to split the naves, coming from a previous building of the 1st century

The chains of St. Peter are exhibited under the altar, in a reliquary made in 1856 by Andrea Busiri Vici.

2. The basilica of San Pietro in Vincoli is very close to the Colosseum

The Colosseum is one of the must-see attractions in Rome.

Sometimes it’s hard to figure that just a 5-minute walk from one of the most famous ancient buildings in the world exists another place so rich in history. But it shouldn’t be surprising: Rome always reserves incredible surprises!




1. Michelangelo’s Moses

In 1400 the titular cardinal of this basilica was Francesco Della Rovere, known better as Pope Sixtus IV.

Sixtus IV is the pope who gives the name to the Sistine Chapel, as he is responsible for its reconstruction

After Francesco Della Rovere, his nephew became titular cardinal of the basilica of San Pietro in Vincoli: Giuliano Della Rovere.

Giuliano Della Rovere continues the family tradition, becoming pope with the name of Julius II (1503) and, as his uncle, taking care of the Sistine Chapel: Julius II is responsible for Michelangelo’s intervention in the ceiing of the Sistine Chapel (1508 -1512).

Julius II first artistically met Michelangelo within 1505 when, only two years after the papal election, Julius II needed to commission his tomb to the best artist in town.

Michelangelo was a very young artist, but he has already made two capital works for his artistic fame and for the history of art: the Pietà (1499, in the Saint Peter Basilica in Vatican) and the David (1504, in Florence).

The tragedy of the tomb

Julius II wanted a grandiose monument, which should have been placed in the center of St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.

Michelangelo made the design and immediately went to Carrara to choiche the best marble ever to create a magnificent work. The pope’s tomb was supposed to be a sort of huge marble pyramid decorated with over 40 oversized white marble statues.

Obviously, the plans changed very quickly. The project was grandiose, but also too expensive, and the pope had to put it on hold. All available funds had been diverted to the reconstruction of St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.

At the same time, the Sistine Chapel needed a new decoration of the ceiling. Julius II, once again, addressed his request for this colossal painting to Michelangelo, who after a refusing and a escaping to Florence had to accept the assignment.

Between 1508 and 1512 Michelangelo painted the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel, but he ever ceasing to think about the grandiose project for the tomb of Julius II.

In October 1512, the vault of the Sistine Chapel was done and Michelangelo restarted to actively work on the tomb.

Julius II died on February 21, 1513.

In the few months between the end of the Sistine Chapel and the death of Pope, Michelangelo probably only made one statue.

The following popes prevented the construction of a tomb of that size, as dreamed by Michelangelo and Julius II, inside St. Peter’s Basilica. Over the years, several times Michelangelo had to resize his project until being totally distorted. He finally had to accept event the compromise of a new location.

The funeral monument of Julius II in the basilica of San Pietro in Vincoli

Finally, in 1545 Julius II obtained his funeral monument, 40 years after the commission of the tomb to Michelangelo and 32 years after his death. Not, however, in the basilica of St. Peter in the Vatican as he desired, but in another basilica of St. Peter: Saint Peter in Chains, the basilica in which, decades earlier, he had the role of cardinal.

The funeral monument we see today in San Pietro in Vincoli is considerably smaller than Michelangelo’s designs, and only one of the statues is the work of the great Renaissance artist: the Moses.

It is not surprising that Michelangelo was used to refer to this work as the “tragedy of the tomb“.

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