Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Decorations of the Vatican Basilica on the Feast of St. Peter's Chair

As on the other feast days of St. Peter, special decorations are put up in the Vatican Basilica on February 22nd for the Feast of St. Peter's Chair. The bronze statue of the Apostle attributed to Arnolfo di Cambio (1240 - 1310 ca.), made in all likelihood for the Jubilee of 1300, is dressed in pontifical robes similar to those formerly worn by the Pope.

The statue as it normally appears. The feet are famously much worn by the constant kissing and touching of the faithful.

The statue "dressed" on the feast day.

The altar is decorated with two bronze statues of Saints Peter and Paul, donated to the Vatican Basilica by the family of Pope Urban VIII Barberini in 1692.

The enormous sculpture of St. Peter's Chair by Bernini at the back of the Basilica is covered with candles. Here we see the Chair as it normally appears, in an older photograph that also shows the former altar of the Cathedra beneath the sculpture.

The Cathedra as it appears on the various feasts of St. Peter's. (Decorating it in this fashion must have been a rather messy business before the modern electric lights which we see here.) In the foreground may be seen the modern altar, which recently replaced an earlier free-standing altar installed in this same part of the Basilica.

A closer view.

It is perhaps easy to forget that the feast of Saint Peter’s Chair is not only the commemoration of his ministry as chief of the Apostles, but also the feast of a relic long reputed to be his actual throne. Although it never attained to the popularity of the Veil of St. Veronica, the Vatican Basilica’s relic par excellence in the High Middle Ages, it was regularly seen and venerated by the faithful, being first explicitly named “the Chair of St. Peter” in 1237. Before the long period of the Popes’ residence in Avignon, (during which many medieval customs of the Papal liturgy disappeared,) the Pope was enthroned on the relic for part of his coronation ceremony, and used it as his liturgical throne in the Basilica on the feast of February 22. Its veneration continued through the Renaissance and the Counter-Reformation periods; but since 1666, it has been kept within Bernini’s Cathedra Petri at the back of the Vatican Basilica, and very rarely brought out. The very magnificence of the sculpture, and its presence as the visual culmination of the church, has overwhelmed its purpose as a reliquary; all the more so since the relic itself cannot be seen within it, and has so rarely been removed from it for viewing. It was last exposed in 1867, at the behest of Blessed Pope Pius IX, during the celebrations of the eighteenth centennial of the martyrdoms of Ss. Peter and Paul. A copy (pictured below) is displayed in the treasury of St. Peter’s, but with little to indicate the prominence which the original formerly held.

This is not the place to explain in detail the much-discussed question of the authenticity of the throne itself; suffice it to say that as it exists today, it now known to be largely a work of the ninth century, given to the Pope by the Emperor Charles the Bald in 875. On the other hand, the ivory panels on the front of the chair are much older, although it is impossible to say how much older; they may have been removed from another chair which was earlier regarded as a throne of St. Peter. It may be supposed that if these panels were incorporated into the Carolingian chair from a much older object, there was a very good reason for doing so. In any case, whether or not any part of it was once used by St. Peter, it may be venerated as are other relics of uncertain authenticity, such as those of Christ’s Crib at St. Mary Major, as a kind of icon in three dimensions. (Pictured below, the original chair in an image made during the exposition in 1867.)

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