Wednesday, June 6, 2012

A Special Statue

Today's photos:


1. The façade of St. Peter's Basilica features a row of thirteen statues across the top: Christ, John the Baptist and eleven of the twelve apostles.

2. The thirteenth-century bronze statue of St. Peter inside the basilica.

3. The toes of the statue are worn smooth from the touches of the faithful.

4. The statue is vested on the feast day of Saints Peter and Paul. (I don't like it!)

5. The marble statue of Peter at the entrance to the crypt of the basilica.




I have often pointed out to visitors the row of thirteen statues across the top of the façade of St. Peter's Basilica. They represent Christ, St. John the Baptist and eleven of the twelve apostles. So if I ask: "Which apostle is missing?", the answer I inevitably get is "Judas, of course". Well, that answer is only partially correct. Judas certainly is not in the group, but his replacement, St. Matthias is there in his place. Everybody is surprised to hear that the "missing" apostle is none other than St. Peter himself.


The reason Peter is not included in this group is because there is a very special statue of him inside the basilica, located on the right side of the center aisle near the main altar. It is a beautiful bronze statue which depicts the Apostle seated on a marble throne, holding the ever-present keys in his left hand (I will give to you the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven), while his right hand is raised in blessing.  This statue has been treated with great devotion and respect by the faithful for many centuries.


A curiosity


Look closely at the extended right foot of the statue and you will see that the bronze has been worn smooth so that the toes of the foot are barely visible. This is due to the touches and kisses of the faithful over the centuries.  It is hard to imagine just how many touches and kisses it has taken to render a carved bronze toes as smooth as glass!


The original location of this statue was probably in the monastery of San Martino which stood next to the old St. Peter's Basilica.  After the monastery was abandoned and eventually torn down, the statue was moved into the old basilica, and then transferred into the new one sometime after the year 1612, the year the basilica was officially finished.


Every year on June 29, the feast day of Saints Peter and Paul, the co-patrons of the City of Rome, the statue of Peter, the first pope, is adorned with papal vestments, the tiara (the papal crown once worn by the popes which indicated their temporal power), and the Fisherman's Ring, worn by all the popes.  In my opinion, St. Peter, a simple fisherman, looks a little out of place and somewhat uncomfortable wearing all that fancy regalia. If you ever find yourself in Rome on June 29 you will discover that it is a holiday in honor of the city's two patron saints.  (For more about Peter and Paul see The Sights of Rome, Chapter 17: Peter and Paul).


A curiosity

A centuries-old legend relates that the statue was made from the fused bronze of a statue of Jupiter by order of Pope St. Leo the Great (440-461).  According to the story, Attila, king of the Huns, was leading his army towards Rome to sack the City.  Pope Leo went out to meet the Hun a short distance outside of Rome in an attempt to convince him to spare the Eternal City.  During their meeting, Saints Peter and Paul, swords in hand, are said to have appeared in the sky above the two leaders, indicating that they were prepared to fight to save the City.  This miraculous appearance of the Apostles convinced Attila to abandon his plans to attack Rome.  The pope then had the statue of St. Peter made to thank him for this intervention. An enormous relief carving of this event exists above the altar in the Cappella della Colonna at the far end of the basilica on the left side. Unfortunately that area is usually not accessible to visitors.


Legends aside, although there is no universal agreement on the actual dating of the statue of Peter, most experts believe that it was made by Arnolfo di Cambio in the late thirteenth century (1296).  The first historical mention of the statue is found in the Vatican Archives from 1460.  The marble chair on which the statue rests today is from Renaissance times.  Whatever the exact date of the origin of the statue, it remains a precious icon of the Christian Faith and one of the most ancient and beautiful testimonials of the Church of Rome. 


Near the entrance to the Vatican Grottoes (the crypt below the main floor of the basilica), there is an ancient marble statue of St. Peter in almost the exact same pose as the bronze statue inside the basilica.  The body of this statue is believed to have been in antiquity a Roman statue representing a philosopher, while the head and hands are thought to have been added in the Middle Ages.  The statue originally stood at the entrance of the old basilica, placed there as if to show St. Peter welcoming visitors into his church.  In this current position he seems to be welcoming pilgrims to the crypt, burial place of dozens of popes, including Peter himself.  The Latin inscription on the base of the statue is a modern one, from the time of John Paul II (1978-2005).











During the pontificate of John Paul II, this very ancient statue of the Prince of the Apostles, which Pope Pius XII had restored in the year 1949, was brought back to a new and more fitting beauty and was set up in this place in the year 1979.



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