Visiting San Pietro in Vincoli in Rome and Michelangelo’s Moses: all you need to know

by marta
Main nave in San Pietro in Vincoli with white columns, ceiling frescoes and main altar

All you need to know to plan a visit to San Pietro in Vincoli (St Peter in Chains), a stunning church in Rome famous, among other things, for the statue of Moses by Michelangelo.

The church of San Pietro in Vincoli (St Peter in Chains) is one of the most interesting in Rome.

It overlooks an otherwise nondescript square in the Monti neighborhood, on the Oppian Hill just in front of the Colosseum, and it is one of those churches whose simple façade deceives you into thinking this may be a minor basilica.

It is all but!

St Pietro in Vincoli has huge importance in Rome from a religious and artistic point of view.

It is the church said to hold the chains of St Peter’s and it is home to a statue of Moses by Michelangelo, of world fame.

I personally love San Pietro in Vincoli and always make a point of walking in when in the area.

Michelangelo’s Moses always makes an impression but there are many details in the church that never cease to teach me something new about the place!

I love coming here anytime we are in Monti and I highly recommend you make time for a visit as the Moses but also the frescoes and the whole atmosphere of the church is fabulous.

This is all you need to know about visiting San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome. 

This article is part of our series: where to see Michelangelo’s Masterpieces in Rome.

Photo collage with San Pietro in Vincoli Rome altar and MIchelangelo's Moses with overlay text: Michelangelo's Moses, St Peter's chains and more: why and how to visit San Pietro in Vincoli Rome

How to get to San Pietro in Vincoli

San Pietro in Vincoli overlooks Piazza San Pietro in Vincoli, a small square on the Oppian Hill, in Rome city center.

You can reach the church by car, parking right in front, at the pay and display blue parking spaces or, better, you can come here on foot.

You can walk up from the Colosseum or from Via Cavour, via the steps climbing Salita dei Borgia.

Bus and Metro stops are a few minutes’ walk from the church.

The closest metro stops are Metro B Cavour and Metro A Colosseum and the closest buses are 51, 75, 85, 87, 117, and tram n. 3.

San Pietro in Vincoli opening hours and admission

San Pietro in Vincoli is open from 8.00 am to 12.00 pm and then again from 3.00 pm to 7.00 pm (15.00 to 19.00h)

Admission is free: face coverings are currently compulsory and hand gel is available at the door.

Like all Rome churches, San Pietro in Vincoli requires modest attire so it is advisable to avoid wearing shorts, very short skirts, or revealing tops (women and men), when visiting.

What to see in San Pietro in Vincoli

San Pietro in Vincoli was first built in 442AD, on a site that had previously hosted a roman home and then a church.

The built was ordered by Empress Eudossia, wife of Valentinian III and it is therefore also known as basilica Eudossiana.

The main reason art lovers come to this church is the big statue of Moses by Michelangelo, part of the burial monument to Pope Julius II, buried here and also some interesting frescoes by Italian Masters

The religious reason why the faithful come here is instead to be found in the chains that are safeguarded here and that are said to be those that kept St Peter captive.

While these are the two main things to see in San Pietro in Vincoli, there is more to this church worthy of a visit.

Below you will find my higlihights.

Michelangelo’s Moses and the burial monument to Julius II

This statue of Moses by Michelangelo is one of the most beautiful sculptures by Michelangelo you can see in Rome (another one not to be missed is La Pieta’ inside St Peter’s basilica).

Michelangelo's Moses and the burial monument to Julius II in San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome
Burial monument to Pope Julius II with Michelangelo’s Moses in the center

It is part of a large stone burial monument erected by will and for Pope Julius II and dates back to 1505-1545, the overall work having been carried out over 40 years!

It is one of the most celebrated works by Michelangelo for its exquisite detailing and peculiarity of iconography.

You find the statue on the right-hand side of the basilica, close to the main altar.

The statue is part of a large monument with several other figures and it sits, literally, in the center of it.

Moses is represented sitting down, his legs positioned as if just about to stand up, and with the Tablets in his hands.  

It is said to represent Moses just as he came back from Mount Sinai and the horns on his head seem to confirm this interpretation.

In ‘Exodus’ it is said that Moses came back from receiving the Tables with the commandments with ‘two ray of light shining off his forehead’.

This detail seems to have been misinterpreted and ‘rays’ have become ‘horns’, a confusion easily explained by the similarity between the two terms in the original language.

The detail of the horns may seem small but it is one of the most distinctive of the statue and one that has been at the center of many studies.

This Michelangelo’s Moses is often referred to as the Horned Moses or the Moses with horns!

Other elements of the burial monuments

Moses is the most important element of the monument however, the whole composition is worthy of notice.

At the top, you can see Julius II’s crest and 4 candelabra.

Underneath a Madonna with baby and, at her feet, Julius II himself, with a sybill and a prophet at its sides.

The lower part of the monument is organized in 4 areas with Moses at the center, the personification of contemplative life in the form of Rachel, and the allegory of active life in the form of Lia, symbols of the two ways to salvation.

Fun fact: the monument was originally meant for St Peter’s Basilica. However, Michelangelo didn’t finish it in time and the location of the monument was eventually decided by the successors to Julius II who decided to move it to this other church!

The confession/crypt and the chains of St Peter

The confession or crypt dates back to 1876-77 and was built by architect Vespignano under the order of Pope Pius IX.

Box with chains of St Peter in Rome
The chains of St Peter in their urn

The crypt has a double ramp of stairs and an altar in the center with a crystal and gilded urn-reliquary containing the chains of St Peter.

Tradition says that the chains were originally two sets of chains, one in Jerusalem and one in Rome.

In the V century, the Patriarch of Jerusalem Giovenale sent the chains from Jerusalem to empress Eudocia, as a gift, and she in turn sent them to her daughter Licinia Eudossia, effectively moving the chains from the Eastern Roman Empire to its Western part.

Eudossia gave the chains to Pope Leo I (Leone Magno) so he could keep them with the chains from Rome he already had.

Tradition tells us that the chains, once one beside the other, miraculously fused together.

These are the chains now kept in San Pietro in Vincoli (Vincoli= chains)

The naves and columns

The church of San Pietro in Vincoli has three naves, framed by stunning ancient columns that seem to have originally come from Greece.

They were probably first used in the nearby Portico di Livia and then incorporated in the first Paleochristian church on this location.

The side chapels

Along the side naves of the church, there are several works of art worthy of notice.

Antonio and Piero del Pollaiolo burial monument in Rome with sculptures of their two faces and a fresco on top
Burial monument of Antonio and Pietro del Pollaiolo

Beautiful is the mosaic of St Sebastian, the works of art by Guercino and Domenichino, the burial monument of Pollaiolo and the peculiar gravestone of Nicola Cusano.

The mosaic os San Sebastiano dates back to 680 AD and caught the attention of art historians as the Saint appears here as an old man with a beard and not as the handsome young man popularised by Reinassance artists.

This type of representation seems to follow Byzantine-style iconography of the Saint rather than that of the Roman church and it is said to be closer to the description of San Sebastiano from his ‘passion’, written in the V century.

Peculiar is also the burial monument of Nicola Cusano, decorated with the Cardinal’s symbol of the crab and the one to Mariano Vecchiarelli, decorated with two full skeletons, again a type of iconography that while not unique in Italy, is rare in Rome.

Last but not least, it is worth seeking out the works of Domenichino, Guercino and Antonio and Piero del Pollaiolo, the latter now buried in this church (their burial monuments has a beautiful fresco!)

The ceiling and apse frescoes

Several parts of the church are decorated with frescoes.

Main nave church of San Pietro in Vincoli
Main nave of San Pietro in Vincoli with ceiling frescoes

On entering, you will probably first notice the ones on the main part of the ceiling, depicting the miracle of the chains  Giovanni Battista Parodi (1674-1730) and, closer to the altar there are several more representing, from left to right: the liberation of St peter in Jerusalem, Eudocia receiving the chains from Giovenale and Eudocia giving the chains to the pope, all by Jacopo Coppi (1523-1591)in 1577.

Main altar in San Pietro in Vincoli with the chains in front and the frescoes decorating the apse behind
Frescoes behind main altar San Pietro in Vincoli Rome

The pipe organ

To the left of the main altar you can see the beautiful pipe organ of the church.

It dates back to the XVII century and if you leave a coin in the dedicated box, you can hear it play!

Organ in San Pietro in Vincoli with golden colored pipes
San Pietro in Vincoli, organ

The cloister

San Pietro in Vincoli has a lovely cloister but this is not inside the church.

Rather, it is inside the now faculty of engeneering, a few meters to the right of the church!

The cloister is fabulous and while it is not inside the university, it is open to visitors: just join the students going up the main staircase and be ready to marvel at this incredible sight!

What else to see near San Pietro in Vincoli

San Pietro in Vincoli is in a part of Rome rich of monuments and attractions.

The closest geographically are:

The Colosseum and the Roman Forum, which are just at the bottom of the hill, few minutes walk from the church

The Monti neighborhood and especially the church of Santa Prassede

The Domus Aurea, (currently closed, 2020)

I hope you enjoyed this overview of my highlights in San Pietro in Vincoli and it helped you plan your visit. Safe travel planning!

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