Rome is packed with beautiful churches. Each of them has interesting features – an intriguing history, unique architectural features, beautiful art pieces (statues, paintings, frescoes and more), and some even have archeological sites that testify of the many stratifications and phases of the history of Rome.
One of my favorite churches is San Pietro in Vincoli. I visited – again – during a recent trip to Rome and was quickly reminded of why this is an absolute must-see for art lovers on a trip to the Italian capital.
Visiting San Pietro in Vincoli is easy. The church is very centrally located in Rome, near the Colosseum and the Roman Forum. So you should not pass on the possibility of going. In this post, I will share everything you need to know before visiting San Pietro in Vincoli church, its history, most prominent pieces, and a short but useful practical guide.
Head over to my post The Must-See Churches In Rome.
The History Of San Pietro In Vincoli, Rome
Rome is home to a seemingly endless list of religious buildings, each with their own story and interesting architecture. San Pietro in Vincoli, or – in English – Saint Peter in Chains, is a Catholic church and minor basilica. The church is actually stunning, tucked away in a corner not far from the Colosseum. The highlight of the church, for many, is the chance of seeing Michelangelo’s famous statue of Moses and other storied relics.
Although the basilica was built in 432, like many buildings in the Eternal City, it actually sits on the site of some former structures. It was here that a portion of the Baths of Titus once stood at the foot of the Esquiline Hill. These were Rome’s first baths for imperial use and would go on to be the standard design for public bathhouses in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD.
Excavations of the basilica have revealed the layout of a house that dates between the first and third century AD. This large building was demolished towards the end of the fourth century and a church was built in its place. It’s not known what happened to this original church, but it was rebuilt on the foundations between 432 and 440 and intended to hold the relic of the chains that bound Saint Peter when he was imprisoned in Jerusalem.
The biblical episode, the Liberation of Peter, tells the tale of when Saint Peter was imprisoned by King Herod and then rescued from his cell by an angel; during his release the chains that bound him fell away. These are the chains that are believed to be held as a relic in the church after making their way to Rome.
The story goes that Empress Eudoxia, wife of Emperor Valentinian III, the western Roman emperor from 425 to 455, received the chains as a gift from her mother Aelia Eudocia. Eudocia, wife of Valentinian II, was gifted the chains herself from the bishop of Jerusalem.
When Empress Eudoxia gave these chains to Pope Leo I, it is said that Leo believed them to be similar to the chains which had been used to imprison Saint Peter in Rome – and on saying so the two chains miraculously fused together. This twisting tale has left its mark on the city in the form of the large basilica; they are now kept under the main altar of the building in a purpose-built reliquary. As such, the church is also known as Basilica Eudossiana.
The church was consecrated by Pope Sixtus III in 439 and has been an important place of worship ever since. Over the years, a number of changes and restorations have taken place on the structure, including the addition of a front portico in 1475 and renovations in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Inside the church are multiple pieces of artworks which reflect the history of the area as well as prominent people of Rome. The central nave is edged by two aisles with three apses sectioned off by towering Doric columns. The gilded 18th-century ceiling is beautifully adorned with central frescoes which depict the Miracle of the Chains, and were painted by Giovanni Battista Parodi in 1706.
The most prominent piece of art in the church, however, is Michelangelo’s Moses. Completed by the Renaissance artist in 1515, the sculpture is not exactly how it was first intended to appear.
The piece was commissioned by Pope Julius II as part of his own enormous funeral monument. The pope had commissioned Michelangelo to carve out the original design, which included 47 statues, but the final product was a much more scaled back version of the artwork.
There are many more notable pieces of artwork on display around the church including the canvases of Saint Augustine and Saint Margaret by Guercino, and an altarpiece which showcased The Deposition by Cristoforo Roncalli.
Alongside the artwork, the church is also known for being the final resting place of a number of prominent figures in Rome, which include Antonio del Pollaiuolo, the sculptor who added the figures of Romulus and Remus to the statue of the Capitoline Wolf.
Much older graves have also been uncovered in the church. In 1876, archeologists discovered the tombs of those that were thought to be the seven Maccabean martyrs. This is not thought to be a likely story, but their deaths are marked each August 1st on the same day that the fusing of the chain’s miracle is remembered.
What To See When Visiting San Pietro In Vincoli
Michelangelo’s Statue of Moses
This standout sculpture by famed Renaissance artist Michelangelo is the centerpiece of San Pietro in Vincoli. The sculpture, a depiction of Moses, was commissioned by Pope Julius II in 1505 to be part of the funerary monument of his tomb. It was also originally planned to be placed higher in the design, opposite a statue of St. Peter. The final outcome was much different, however, as Moses sits in the center on the bottom tier of the tomb.
Michelangelo sculpted his Moses following the description of him he found in the the thirty-fourth chapter of Exodus in the Latin translation of the Bible. Sculpted out of marble between 1513 and 1515, the expression and pose of the statue seems quite serious; Moses has one hand resting on tablets (the 10 Commandments), and the other one holding up his long beard.
Over the years, many observers have made note of this astonishing Michelangelo masterpiece, highlighting the artistry that it must have taken to sculpt such realistic hair, the outlines of muscles, and the drapes of Moses’ clothing out of marble. In 1913, even Sigmund Freud himself spent multiple weeks trying to work out the sculpture’s intent and emotional impact on its audience.
People have wondered why Moses is touching his beard in the way that Michelangelo sculpted; others have speculated as to why the great artist depicted the biblical figure with horns. Though Moses is said to have become “horned” after a conversation with God in the Latin translation of the bible, it is still up for debate whether or not they were supposed to be horns at all.
As the statue was originally supposed to be positioned high up, onlookers would not have seen the horns anyway, which further confuses the issue.
You should also read my posts Where To See The Works Of Michelangelo In Rome and 30 Statues In Rome You Should See.
Tomb of Pope Julius II
The statue of Moses mentioned above was actually originally planned to be part of a much larger centerpiece for the Tomb of Pope Julius II. In fact, it was meant to be one of 40 statues that the pope commissioned Michelangelo to create over five years.
The tomb was initially supposed to be seven meters wide and eight meters high, which would have made it one of the largest tombs of its time. It was originally designed to depict the Christian world – the lower level illustrating humanity, the middle level prophets and saints, and the upper level the last judgment. In fact, this top level was supposed to feature two angels leading a depiction of the pope himself towards heaven.
Pope Julius II set about finding a place in which to erect his tomb, deciding on the grand setting of St. Peter’s Basilica itself, which he also planned to remodel.
For the statues of the tomb, however, Michelangelo spent eight months selecting the perfect piece of Carrara marble for the construction. But at some point the pope and Michelangelo fell out, which forced the artist to flee for his own safety; at this time, Michelangelo undertook a few projects in Bologna.
During Michelangelo’s absence, Donato Bramante allegedly convinced the pope that building his tomb while still alive was bad luck, and Michelangelo’s talent (and his time) was better used in working on the Sistine Chapel.
Before his tomb was completed, the pope passed away. In 1513, the colossal design for the tomb was scaled back as agreed between Michelangelo and the new pope, Leo X. The final design was reimagined as a much smaller wall tomb. Michelangelo created other statues for the project, including The Dying and Rebellious Slave, both of which are now to be found in The Louvre, Paris, and The Genius of Victory, which is now in Palazzo Vecchio in Florence.
The final tomb as you see it today is not actually a tomb. It is in fact a funerary monument, as Pope Julius II was not actually interred there. Today, alongside Moses, visitors can see several sculptures of Old Testament figures including Leah and Rachel, thought to be the work of Michelangelo’s assistants.
The chains to which the Church of San Pietro in Vincoli was dedicated, and the reason for it existing in the first place, can be seen at the church’s reliquary. These ancient chains sit inside an ornate gilded glass box inside a warmly-lit niche of the main church altar.
Tradition has it that these chains are the ones brought from Jerusalem in the 5th century; they were given to Pope Leo I and miraculously fused with those used to imprison him in Rome. Surrounding the reliquary is a marble balustrade where four black marble statues of angels guard the relic.
Mosaic of St. Sebastian
Dating back to the seventh century, the Byzantine style mosaic of St. Sebastian can be found above an altar on the left hand side of the church. This is one of the oldest depictions of St. Sebastian and dates to around 683. It is believed that the relics of the saint himself were taken to Pavia in northern Italy in order to stop an outbreak of a plague that was occurring in the region.
St. Sebastian was born in Lombardy, so a church – also named San Pietro in Vincoli – was built in Pavia, where an altar for St. Sebastian’s relics was also constructed. In order to underline the relationship between Pavia and Rome, a completely identical altar was built in this church in Rome, too.
The mosaic itself depicts Sebastian with a beard, dressed in courtly clothing and with a halo around his head. Unlike the traditional image of St. Sebastian, this mosaic does not show the saint with archers or arrows because this depiction wasn’t created until the year 1000.
Miracle of the Chains fresco
Painted by Genoan artist Giovanni Battista Parodi in 1706, the fresco of the Miracle of the Chains can be seen in the elaborately coffered ceiling of San Pietro in Vincoli. The colorful fresco depicts the moment when an evil spirit possessing a count of the Holy Roman Empire, who accompanied the Emperor Otto I to Rome, was exorcized by the chains of St. Peter as held by the pope.
Practical Info About Visiting San Pietro in Vincoli
How to fit San Pietro in Vincoli into your itinerary
Luckily, for those interested in seeing San Pietro in Vincoli, the church isn’t situated in an out of the way location. It’s easy to get to and there are a number of sights nearby that can be combined with a visit to the church, such as the Domus Aurea (Nero’s Golden Home).
Officially, the Domus Aurea is actually part of the Parco del Colle Oppio, which is where you’ll find other ancient monuments such as the Baths of Trajan and the Baths of Titus, among others. For more religious exploration, there’s the beautiful 16th-century Chiesa di Santa Maria ai Monti, which features an impressive fresco; or the nearby Basilica di San Clemente with one of the most impressive mithraic temples in Rome.
If you want to keep to more classic landmarks, you’ll find the Church of San Pietro in Vincoli near the Colosseum and the Roman Forum, so it’s really easy to fit in your itinerary. You could for example plan to visit San Pietro in Vincoli right as it opens, then plan on visiting the Domus Aurea (beware it’s only open Friday to Sunday and it must be booked in advance) and then head to the Colosseum and the Roman Forum for a full day of exploration.
Make sure to read my post A Guide To Visiting The Domus Aurea, Rome.
San Pietro in Vincoli opening hours
San Pietro in Vincoli is open daily from 8:00 am to 12:30 pm, and from 3:00 pm to 7:00 pm. Like most churches in Rome, San Pietro in Vincoli is free to enter. No security checks are required.
Best time to visit San Pietro in Vincoli
Tour groups are likely to appear in the early afternoon and mid-morning, mostly to see Michelangelo’s sculpture of Moses, so if you want to avoid crowds, go as early as possible or visit later on in the evening – after you’ve spent the day exploring the surrounding area of the Oppian Hill.
Should you get a guided tour?
It isn’t necessary to get a guided tour if you want to be wowed by this ancient church – there’s some information on display, so you can learn a bit about the history here.
However, I must admit when I visited independently I wished I had a guide that could explain the history, the art, and the significance of what I was looking at. If – like me – you want a more in-depth experience or a guide to whom you can ask questions, then a guided tour is definitely a good idea.
For a guided tour of the Monti neighborhood of Rome that also goes inside San Pietro in Vincoli, click here.
Make sure you cover your shoulders and tops of your arms, as well as your legs above the knee – being a Catholic church, modest dress is advised.
For more information, head over to my post The Vatican Dress Code: What To Wear (And What Not) When Visiting The Vatican – it really applies to all churches in Rome.
Is photography allowed?
Yes, photography is allowed. Note that the use of tripods and selfie sticks will almost certainly be frowned upon.
There are no toilet facilities for the public at the church.
Travelers with disabilities can certainly visit the church, but it is not the most practical place for wheelchair users. Note that this is an old building, and there are a lot of stairs involved in reaching the building itself.
How to get there
Not that the church of San Pietro in Vincoli is very close to the Colosseum – just a 7 minutes walk.
From Rome Termini station it is possible to reach San Pietro in Vincoli by taking metro line B to Cavour; after this you simply walk five minutes. Alternatively, bus 75 leaves Termini station every 15 minutes; jump on and get off at Cavour (it takes around 10 minutes): the church is around 100 meters from here.
For those wanting to stretch their legs, you’ll be pleased to know that the basilica is only a short walk from the station – in fact, it only takes around 15 minutes to walk the 1.2 kilometers (0.75 miles) route to the ancient church along Via Cavour.