What is the Chair of Saint Peter, and why does it get its own special day in the Catholic Church’s liturgical calendar?
Usually, the Catholic Church’s liturgical calendar designates feast days, solemnities, and memorials that we celebrate throughout the year. We honor martyrs, popes, doctors of the Church, and. . . chairs?
Here are seven things you need to know about the chair that gets its own day on the liturgical calendar.
1. Yes, there’s a real chair
The Chair of Saint Peter, also known as the Throne of Saint Peter, is a relic you can visit today in the St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
2. Catholics have been celebrating this feast day for a while
“The Latin liturgy celebrates today the feast of the Chair of Peter. It is a very ancient tradition, witnessed in Rome since the end of the fourth century, which renders thanksgiving to God for the mission entrusted to the Apostle Peter and his successors,” Pope Benedict XVI said during a 2006 homily on the feast day.
3. Saint Peter may not have sat on the chair at St. Peter’s Basilica
Tradition held that Peter himself sat on this chair when he gave sermons in Rome.
“We conclude, therefore, that there is no reason for doubting the genuineness of the relic preserved at the Vatican,” The Catholic Encyclopedia stated.
However, advances in science and archaeology may tell a different story. When archaeologist G.B. De Rossi examined the chair in 1867, he concluded that only the wood skeleton dates from the early age. Meanwhile, the oak parts of the chair belong to a re-construction made in the Byzantine period.
Regardless of whether St. Peter actually sat on the chair, the Church emphasizes the spiritual significance of the chair on this feast day.
4. The feast is about more than just the chair
“The See of Rome, after Saint Peter’s travels, thus came to be recognized as the See of the Successor of Peter, and its Bishop’s ‘cathedra’ represented the mission entrusted to him by Christ to tend his entire flock,” Pope Benedict said during his 2006 homily.
“Celebrating the ‘Chair’ of Peter, therefore, as we are doing today, means attributing a strong spiritual significance to it and recognizing it as a privileged sign of the love of God, the eternal Good Shepherd, who wanted to gather his whole Church and lead her on the path of salvation,” he continued.
5. It’s needed some chair repair
The chair you can visit at St. Peter’s Basilica isn’t the original chair of St. Peter. Worms ate away at the original wood, leaving it fragile. Throughout the ages, people have cut off pieces of the original chair to use as relics.
Today’s display in the basilica was created by the Italian artist Bernini in 1666 to protect the chair from further damage.
6. Four Church Fathers hold up Bernini’s chair
In Bernini’s design, four larger than life Doctors of the Church support the weight of the chair.
Western doctors Saint Ambrose and Saint Augustine of Hippo support the outsides of the chair. Meanwhile, Eastern doctors Saint John Chrysostom and Saint Athanasius support the inside of the chair.
7. The original chair looked quite a bit different than the chair you see today
Before Bernini’s reconstruction, the chair stood twenty-two inches high, thirty-five inches wide, and twenty-five inches deep. To the right and left of the seat, four iron rings were used to slide carrying poles through in order to move the chair.
The chair was last publicly exposed in 1867.