By Anne Leader
Today is the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter (Cathedra Petri), celebrated since at least the 9th century on 22 February. The honored chair is that believed to have been used by the Apostle Peter at the first assemblies of Christians. A moveable chair stood in the baptismal chapel built by Pope Damasus at Old St. Peter’s. A second chair was affixed to the church apse. Through the Middle Ages, the baptismal chair was brought to the high altar on 22 February for the pope’s use during mass. This day was also celebrated as the anniversary of Peter’s selection by Jesus as the leader of the church.
Pope Alexander VII (r. 1655-67) commissioned Gianlorenzo Bernini to create a reliquary to preserve the precious wooden chair. His resulting Cathedra Petri is a magnificent multimedia ensemble showing a bronze, chair-shaped case held by the Latin and Greek Doctors of the Church (Ambrose, Augustine, Athanasius, and Chrysostom). In 1867, the reliquary was opened for the first time in two centuries, photographed by the Alessandri brothers, and examined. Padre Raffaele Garrucci (1812-85) and archaeologist Giovanni Battista de Rossi (1822-94) found the oldest part of the chair to be of plain oak that was strengthened and embellished in the 9th century. The chair remains an important symbol of the papacy and the primacy of St. Peter, as explained by Gregory the Great: “Though there are many Apostles, pre-eminence of authority belongs permanently to none other than the Chair of the Prince of the Apostles, which Chair though established in three places remains nevertheless that of one and the same [Apostle Peter]. He lifted it to the highest dignity in the [Rome] where he deigned to fix his residence and end his life.”
Gianlorenzo Bernini, Cathedra Petri, St. Peter’s, Rome.
Relic, as photographed in 1867.