Cathedral Basilica of St. Peter in Chains, Cincinnati

We head across the Ohio River into Cincinnati and come to the Cathedral Basilica of St. Peter in Chains, which is perhaps one of the more uniquely named seats of an archbishop in the United States. It is a very old building, whose cornerstone was laid in 1841, but has received an extensive renovation in 1957 which has given the cathedral its distinctive hybrid appearance.

It’s actually very cool to see a church structure such as this still standing, as downtown St. Louis was once graced with dozens of Greek Revival houses of worship similar in appearance as St. Peter in Chains. But usually, these early Americans churches were demolished, and replaced with Romanesque and Gothic Revival structures in newer residential districts further out from the central business district.

The tower was once the tallest building in Cincinnati for years.

The interior is striking, reflecting the appearance of an early Christian basilica such as those commissioned by the Emperor Constantine in the Fourth Century.

Apparently the Archbishop at the time of the renovation had a hand in designing the artistic program of the new mosaics.

The name St. Peter in Chains alludes to a famous church where the chains are on display that held the first pope in two prisons, one in Jerusalem, the other in the Carcer in Rome.

The famous fresco by the Renaissance painter Raphael in the Vatican Stanze depicts the moment when the angel awakens St. Peter, and escorts him to safety from his jail in Jerusalem. You can see that represented above in the monumental mosaic in Cincinnati.

And on the other side, you can see St. Paul visiting St. Peter in prison in Rome.

That prison, the Carcer or Tullianum, still exists deep below the streets of Rome. I’ve visited the prison three times, twice before extensive archeological excavations, and once after. The photograph below is from after the archaeological excavations dug out later floors and returned the disused Roman cistern-turned-prison to its original appearance.

St. Peter fled Rome and while running down the Appian Way south of the city, he encountered Christ walking the opposite direction. There is a church at the spot, commemorating the meeting, where Peter asked Christ, “Domine, Quo Vadis?”-Lord, where are you going? To which Christ responded, “I am heading to Rome, to be crucified again.” One of my favorite paintings by the Bolognese artist Annibale Carracci depicts the moment. Suitably admonished for his cowardice, Peter returned to Rome, where he was crucified upside down at a site which is now the church of St. Peter in Montorio, or Mountain of Gold. Caravaggio captured the moment of St. Peter’s crucifixion in the Cerasi Chapel in St. Maria del Popolo.

Since the Renaissance, the Tempietto designed by Donato Bramante stands on the site of the crucifixion of St. Peter. It was considered a perfect building when it was built, ushering in Renaissance principles of architecture in Rome.

Back in Cincinnati, a side chapel has recently received a polycarbonate copy of Michelangelo’s Pieta. I support these copies, though many people I know do not, as if you’ve ever been to St. Peter’s Basilica as I have four times, you know that it is basically impossible to enjoy the original work considering it is covered by bullet-proof glass which reflects dozens of flashes of the mobs of tourists and other philistines who cluster around it. It is a far more enjoyable experience to appreciate Michelangelo’s work in solitude and up close even if it is technically a copy.

The last surprise are the Stations of the Cross which are rendered in the truly unique way of copying ancient Greek Black and Red Figure ceramics. They are very cool.

As mentioned above, the cathedral is named after a famous basilica in Rome that was the patronage church of the powerful Della Rovere Family, who gave us Pope Julius II, the “Warrior Pope.” He commissioned the Sistine Chapel ceiling from Michelangelo and the papal apartments from Raphael.

The church is interesting, and is off the beaten path near a university where students throng the streets. It is a bit unfinished.

You can see the chains hanging in that glowing yellow glass case that are purported to be the ones that held St. Peter in both Jerusalem and in Rome.

But let’s be honest, 99% of the people come to see the Tomb of Julius II, which features the work of Michelangelo and his assistants. You don’t need to be an art historian to tell which parts were done by Michelangelo and what was done by his much less talented assistants!

Moses is perhaps one of Michelangelo’s most famous compositions after his David.

8 Comments Add yours

  1. Tom Bartholow says:

    Was the minaret that sticks up over the porch always part of the building? It looks so ungainly to me.

    1. Chris Naffziger says:

      Yes, it is famous for being the tallest structure in Cincinnati for years, so it is historic. You can see it in this historic print from 1875 (scroll down):

      1. Tom Bartholow says:

        Thanks, Chris. How extraordinary.

        1. Chris Naffziger says:

          Perhaps what is so strange about it is its exceptional cleanliness in its current form.

          1. Tom Bartholow says:

            Yes, sure, that too. And the pinkish protective material surrounding it. But to my eye it’s the proportions. Too tall, too thin above, too thick at the base, and when you see it with the building, the effect altogether is like something biological, as though this might be a huge fossil piece. Now, granted I’m only seeing a couple of photos and an engraving to judge this. What do you think of it, and how did it strike you when you could see it directly?

          2. Chris Naffziger says:

            I thought it was definitely out of proportion with the building, but it’s a classic example of architects of the 1830s and 40s trying to reconcile earlier trends in American architecture with the Greek Revival style, which of course did not have steeples originally!

  2. This building is also notable for having once held the second chime of bells made in America, along with a marvelous chiming machine, all installed in 1852. The chiming machine was unfortunately scrapped in the 1930s, having worn out; the bells were moved to a suburban church (and replaced here by modern bells cast in the Netherlands) in the mid-1950s.

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