Walk through the mighty doors of St. Peter’s Basilica. Make the long trek down the immense nave. Pause in the transept to admire Bernini’s magnificent baldacchino that shelters the high altar of the Basilica, then continue into the apse where you’ll find—below the same artist’s alabaster window of the Holy Spirit—the “Altar of the Chair.”
The central feature of the Altar is another stunning work of art by Bernini—an immense bronze chair, seemingly lifted up by golden clouds and flanked by four giants of the early Church: St. Ambrose and St. Augustine from the West, and St. Athanasius and St. John Chrysostom from the East.
This bronze chair that you see on the outside is a sculpture from the 17th century. Within it, however, is a much older chair, made of wood with ivory detailings.
Is this St. Peter’s original chair?
It was once believed to be. The actual origins of this chair are uncertain, but we do know that it was a gift from King Charles the Bald, the grandson of Charlemagne, to Pope John VIII in the ninth century. Studies done on the chair suggest that the oldest parts of it date to around the sixth century.
While the dating shows that this chair wasn’t in use at the time of St. Peter, it still holds (as a gift from the grandson of a great Catholic king) a crucial place among the glories of St. Peter’s Basilica.
Bernini intended, through the sculpture, to illustrate key truths about the papacy: the Chair of St. Peter—borne up by clouds and seeming to float—is sustained by Heaven rather than human aid. The Church Fathers are portrayed holding small loops connected to the Chair, which shows that they offer guidance, but are not supporting its weight. The Holy Spirit, depicted in the alabaster window, sheds His light from above—guiding and illuminating the work of the successors of St. Peter until the end of time.
Take your own tour of St. Peter’s Basilica with Fr. Jeff Kirby in 101 Surprising Facts About St. Peter’s and the Vatican. You will learn more about the beautiful art and architecture of this awe-inspiring Basilica and the incredible theology and Church history carved into every corner. Available right here at The Catholic Company!