Altar of the Chair of St. Peter
Today, February 22nd, is the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter. The Church has celebrated this occasion since at least the mid-4th century. It is a commemoration of St. Peter, the first pope, and his primacy over the Church as well as an acknowledgment of the primacy of the pope today. Before giving a history of the Chair itself, a little background on St. Peter is necessary.
St. Peter is consistently shown in the Scriptures to be the head or Vicar of Christ's Church on earth after Christ's Ascension. Peter's primacy over the rest of the apostles is clearly delineated. Peter presided over the election of Matthias as an apostle replacing Judas the traitor. After the Holy Spirit came among the apostles on Pentecost, it was Peter who first went forth to preach to the crowd that day. And it was he who worked the first miracle.
In fact, so great was his power that merely his shadow falling upon the sick as he passed by healed their maladies. It was Peter also who excoriated Simon Magus for trying to buy the apostles' power. On another occasion when Ananias and Saphira attempted to deceive him, Peter pronounced fatal judgment upon them. And when Peter and John were arrested by the Jewish authorities, it was Peter who spoke in their defense.
Whereas in the Acts of the Apostles, we read how the apostle Paul visited only those places where he actually preached, Peter visited the churches everywhere in Palestine. Peter was the first to accept Gentile converts and to end the distinction between Jewish and Gentile Christians.
When Paul brought before the apostles the controversy about requiring Gentile converts to be circumcised, again after much discussion it was Peter who resolved the matter by declaring circumcision unnecessary for Gentiles. When persecutions against Christians in Jerusalem broke out, Peter dispersed the apostles, going first to Antioch Syria as its first bishop and shortly thereafter to Rome, where he remained until his death. The precedents Peter set as bishop of Rome were followed by his successors and the supreme authority his successors exercised was acknowledged by the bishops who succeeded the other apostles.
The Chair of St. Peter encased in bronze by Bernini in the middle of the 17th Century and placed behind the main altar in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome is the second of two chairs used by St. Peter during his years in Rome. The first one no longer exists and is presumed to have been destroyed by the barbarians in the 400's. (What follows is paraphrased from the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia.) This second chair was moved from its original place in the Church of Sancta Prisca to the baptistery of the Vatican basilica by Pope Damasus during his reign in the late 300's.
In the Middle Ages it was the custom to put the Chair on display for the public to see. Also, until the early 1300's when the papacy was in Avignon for seventy years, newly elected popes were enthroned on St. Peter's Chair. After the Chair was encased by Bernini it was not put on display for 200 years until 1867. At that time it was carefully examined and its oldest parts were determined to be made from oak, much of which was worm-eaten and had pieces removed for the making of relics.
About the ninth century the Chair was reinforced with pieces of acacia wood ornamented with ivory. The Chair is about four feet seven inches high, 3 feet wide with the seat at one foot ten inches above the ground. Besides this relic of St. Peter, archaeologists in the 1950's located and positively identified the grave and bones of St. Peter under St. Peter's basilica.