Friday, February 22, 2008

The Feast of the Chair of St. Peter at the Vatican

One of the most impressive festal celebrations still retained at St. Peter's is the grand illumination of Bernini's dazzling Cathedra Petri altarpiece in the apse of the basilica on February 22, the feast of the Chair of St. Peter. Dozens of wax candles cluster in surreptitious sockets hidden along every edge of the whirling bronze mountain, spangling the reliquary with endless rows of pinprick-bright flames.

This year, the custom has been no less spectacular, as photos from a reader based in Rome indicate. Our correspondent was kind enough to include photos of the ancient statue of Saint Peter on the north side of the nave, vested in martyr-red brocade and an immense jeweled triregno to mark the occasion. More experienced Vatican-watchers than I may be able to gage if the statue of the first pope is more splendidly arrayed this year than before; at the very least I think I can glimpse the sleeve of an alb that I thought had not been used some years ago.

One particularly delightful detail is the fictive but wholly appropriate attributed coat-of-arms of Pope St. Peter on the ends of his papal mantle. [Update: Actually, these were positively identified as the arms of the Reverenda Fabbrica di S. Pietro; and the cope used is not a mantum.]

Another interesting detail is that the two reliquary-statues of SS. Peter and Paul were placed on the high altar, despite the fact the liturgy of the day occurred at the less-than-felicitous freestanding altar of the Chair. While one should avoid turning Vatican-watching too much into a liturgical Kremlinology ("Is that Beria standing next to the General Secretary, on his left or on his right?" versus "Were there Cardinal deacons this go-round?") this all seems to me yet another promising sign from this most visible of our churches.

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