22 February 2010

Feast of the Chair of Saint Peter

22 FEBRUARY 2010. Today, 110 candles will be lit in St. Peter's Basilica in the annual rituals that surround the Church's celebration of the Feast of the Chair of Saint Peter. Today's feast, however, is not a feast in honor of a piece of furniture--a chair. No. Today's feast celebrates the primacy of the Pope as the head of the unified, catholic Church and the role of the Church as the servant of the communion of the whole Church.

The Chair of Saint Peter is a cathedra that is encased within a magnificent gilt bronze reliquary sculpted by Gian Lorenzo Benini at the height of the seventeenth century. Like many Medieval relequaries, Bernini's sculpture takes the form of the thing that it encases. While for years it was thought that the chair encased in Bernini's sculpture was actually a chair used by Saint Peter, studies performed at the request of Pope Paul VI in 1967 have actually shown the chair to be from the ninth century. The Vatican tour guide for St. Peter's Basilica now relates that the chair was given as a gift by Charles the Bald to the Pope in A.D. 875.

 Chair of Saint Peter
Looking upon Bernini's great work cannot compare to mere pictures and a bit of text on these pages, but there are a couple of aspects of the sculpture that require description. First, the reliquary chair appears to be supported effortlessly on splayed scrolling bars put aloft by four over-lifesize sculptures of  great Doctors of the Church, two from the West (Saints Ambrose and Augustine) and two from the East (Saints Athanasius and John Chrysostom). The Chair of Saint Peter appears to hover over the altar in the Basilica's apse, and is lit from a great oval window above that displays an image of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, illuminating the surrounding gilded sunrays and sculpted clouds.

The Feast of the Chair of Saint Peter is an ancient celebration in the Church's history, dating to A.D. 354, when the fest was listed in the Chronographia Romana, an ancient calendar of civic and religious observances. While the feast initially celebrated the beginning of the episcopacy of Saint Peter, with a focus on the primacy of the Pope, over the centuries the feast has come to focus on the service of the Pope as the head of the unified Church. Shown in Bernini's work, Christ is handing the keys to Saint Peter on one side of the chair, while the other side is balanced with the image of Christ washing the feet of the twelve.

Today, we might understand the chair of Saint Peter this way: the cathedra is not a throne, but a teacher's chair. It does not subject and weigh down the Doctors of the Church who support it, but they are drawn to the chair. They gather around it.

Let us too gather around the Holy Father and our Church!

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