On the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter (February 22), 110 candles illuminate this ornate chair by Bernini behind the main altar in St. Peter’s Basilica. Bernini’s chair contains within it an actual chair that dates at least back to the ninth century.
The chair commemorates Peter’s role as teacher, sitting in the office of bishop of Rome, and celebrates the successors of Peter who have held that sacred office. Hence, this feast day is not about an actual chair as much as it celebrates Peter’s office of leadership and service in Rome.
Notice how in this baroque masterpiece, there is an alabaster dove window above the chair. This famous window symbolizes the Holy Spirit. Under the dove window, bronze clouds flow toward the chair, supporting it in mid-air. This symbolizes how the office of St. Peter is supported by the Holy Spirit. On the chair itself, Bernini depicts three key scenes from Peter’s life: the giving of the keys (symbolizing the authority Christ’s gives him to lead the Church), the washing of feet (symbolizing how Peter’s office is one of service), and Jesus’ instruction to Peter to “Feed my sheep” (pointing to his role as teacher and guide).
Below the chair are large statues of four doctors of the Church. The ones without miters are from the East: St. Athanasius and St. John Chrysostom. The ones wearing miters on their heads are from the West: St. Ambrose and St. Augustine. Together they represent four of the greatest theologians in the early Church. Yet, in this depiction they are not the ones holding up the chair. That’s what the cloud of the Holy Spirit does. As brilliant as each of these men might have been, they are depicted as pointing in reverence to the Chair of St. Peter.
On this feast day, let’s ask St. Peter’s intercession for our Holy Father Pope Francis who now sits in the chair—the office—of the bishop of Rome, that he may be blessed in his leadership, service and teaching in the Church.