Chains of St. Peter

January 16, 2010

The story of St. Peter’s deliverance from the prison in Jerusalem, where he was held bound with two chains between two soldiers, is told in the Book of Acts, ch. 12. It is said that an angel came by, whacked him on his side while he was sleeping, told him to be quiet and to follow him, and led him out of his cell, past the prison guards and through the prison gates; passing a corner, the angel left Peter alone; only then, when he was out on the street by himself, did he realize that all this was real and not a dream. He headed directly for the house of Mary, the mother of John Mark, where the disciples were gathered and were praying for him; there he stood and knocked on the outside gate. Every time I read this story I am reminded of the home that belonged to Fr. Martin Ritsi, now the director of the Orthodox Missions Center in St. Augustine, Florida, when he and his family lived in Tirana, Albania in the 1990’s, and I was an Orthodox missionary there; like all the homes in that dusty neighborhood, his small front yard was enclosed with a fence and metal gate, and, when visiting his home, one had to ring the doorbell at the gate and hope that someone inside would hear it. Since the doorbell, like most things in Albania in those days, did not always work properly, one had to be very persistent in pressing the button, and sometimes, abandoning technology, one had to bang loudly on the gate until someone inside would hear. I often think about that gate when I read about St. Peter and the little girl Rhoda, who was so thrilled to learn that Peter was standing out in the street that she forgot to open the door.

The time of Peter’s arrest can be determined fairly closely; it must be placed between the years 41 and 44 A.D.: that is, between the return of Herod Agrippa to Judaea from Rome following the death of the Emperor Caligula, and Herod’s own death a few years later. (Luke states that this arrest occurred in the days leading up to Passover; perhaps it would make sense to place this scene in February or March of the year 42.) The immediate political background to the persecution of the Church that took place during these years is succinctly described by W.H.C. Frend in his book The Rise of Christianity (Philadelphia 1984), p. 90:

“In 41-42 other significant events occurred. While the Christians were expanding their influence, Palestine had experienced a series of incidents that foreshadowed the breakdown of relations between Jews and Romans that took place a quarter of a century later. During the winter of 39-40 the Jews in Jamnia destroyed an altar erected by the pagan Greek minority in the town. News of this event reached the emperor Caligula, and as a punishment he ordered that a gilded statue of himself should be set up in the Temple. Rome was moving away from the Jewish alliance, but for the Jews this step, reminiscent of a similar move by the Seleucid Antiochus IV Epiphanes, was intolerable. Very many (Philo suggests ‘thousands’) were prepared to commit suicide or allow themselves to be killed by the Romans rather than acquiesce in this ‘abomination of desolation.’ They found a sympathetic advocate in Publius Petronius, the legate of Syria, who managed to postpone carrying out the order at some personal risk. At Rome, Herod Agrippa, a grandson of Herod I, who in 37 had been appointed tetrarch of the dominions of Philip and Lysanias (Upper Galilee, Abilene, and parts of Lebanon) managed to get the order rescinded. Caligula’s murder on 24 January 41 prevented its renewal. Agrippa returned to Palestine determined to represent his people to the uttermost within the bounds of client-kingship. His territories had been enlarged to include Jerusalem and Judea and he had been granted the title of king. Jerusalem became his capital and the Sadducean high priesthood his allies. ‘No day passed for him without the prescribed sacrifice,’ commented Josephus. He appointed a new high priest, ordered those who had taken a Nazarite vow to display this by having their heads shorn, and turned on the Christians. ‘He killed James the brother of John with the sword; and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also’ (Acts 12:2-3). The first organized persecution of the church had broken out.”

In other words, as political tensions began to rise between Judea and Rome, and as the newly appointed governor of Judea, King Herod Agrippa, sought to win favor with his subjects, he encouraged religious uniformity; dissident groups like the Christians, who were critical of the Sadducean high priesthood, were an easy target for persecution.

I sometimes wonder why there is no traditional Orthodox icon commemorating St. Peter’s escape from prison, although the feast of the Chains of St. Peter is celebrated on January 16th, in the East as in the West. For that matter, traditional iconography seems to neglect a whole range of biblical material. The only scenes in the Book of Acts commonly represented in traditional Eastern Christian art are the ascension of Christ into heaven and the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles at Pentecost. (Perhaps occasionally one sees images of St. Paul being let down outside the walls of Damascus in a basket.) Even the conversion of St. Paul on the road to Damascus is depicted only infrequently. And as for depictions of events in the Old Testament, they are even rarer. Why is this?

In the case of the feast of the Chains of St. Peter, I recall reading that it began to be celebrated in the Eastern Church in the sixth century, after the healing of the Acacian Schism in 519. It may simply be that the feast never had a very important place in the Byzantine calendar, whereas, in Rome, Peter’s chains are housed in a basilica (San Pietro in Vincoli, first built in the fifth century), so it is not surprising that the feast should have a more important place there.

This still does not explain, however, why other scenes from the lives of the apostles are not represented more often in Orthodox iconography. It makes me wonder: is it that they are simply too pedestrian? There is nothing terribly awe-inspiring about Peter standing out in a cold street in the small hours of the morning, waiting for a little girl to open the door; it is hard to envision such a scene in hieratic poses, against an atemporal background of uncreated light.

In other words, the icon is, perhaps, misunderstood if it is viewed as primarily a historical image. It is, one may say, primarily a theological image, something whose function is to teach a theological truth. But, does theological truth ignore history? If so, why not throw out most of the Acts of the Apostles and the Old Testament?

But perhaps my view of Byzantine art is skewed by the fact that I am looking at it from the vantage point of an American in the early twenty-first century; I am, perforce, given a certain idea of it by the things that I have seen in churches that I have been to and in books that I have read. If I were living in the eighth or tenth or fourteenth century, and had other icons or illuminated texts in front of me, perhaps I would have a significantly different picture of what Christians of those times saw as important and worth communicating by way of visual art.


14 Responses to “Chains of St. Peter”

  1. bedwere Says:

    St. Peter freed by the angel is not an uncommon subject in western iconography. But maybe even this is not surprising.

  2. bekkos Says:

    Right. And I suppose one thing I am attempting to ask in this short essay is why there should be this difference between how the eastern and western traditions iconographically represent biblical events. I’m not sure that, in the case of Peter’s chains, it’s simply due to the fact that Peter’s chains are in Rome and not in Constantinople. There seems to be a more general assumption in western Christian art that an image is meant to give an historical representation of an historical event, whereas the eastern view seems to conceive of things differently. Perhaps it has something to do with Pope Gregory the Great’s justification of images in churches as providing “picture books for the unlearned,” a notion that seems quite irrelevant to those who view icons as providing a “window onto eternity” and a medium by which reverence is directed to the person depicted.

    At one level, the absence of an Eastern icon depicting St. Peter’s deliverance by the angel is wholly unremarkable. One would not expect the iconographic tradition of Constantinople to play up the role of St. Peter at a time when there were serious disagreements over precisely what that role was, and when St. Peter’s position in the Church was commonly urged as a counterclaim against Constantinople’s own ecclesiastical authority. But I think that the fact that we have this feast of Peter’s chains, and yet we have no icon for it, is worth noting.


  3. James Says:

    Handmaid at at her January 16 post has an icon showing the chains.

  4. bekkos Says:


    Thanks! It is a beautiful icon. I stand corrected.


  5. Kiran Says:

    Alas, we in the West no longer celebrate this feast, except in the ‘Extraordinary Form’

    Thank you by the way, for this blog. I appreciate the discussion of the filioque, and (alas) had no idea before I read your blog, who John Bekkos was. It is very heartening to see someone else committed to the Unity of the Church.

    I (a ‘Roman Catholic’) only recently discovered orthodox theology, liturgy and philosophy, much of which is fascinating and (I think) necessary, but was distinctly unimpressed with certain blogs I read from the Orthodox side, not so much in that they disagreed with the Catholic position, as because (in my view) they were lacking in charity and a willingness to appreciate the other side. Having said this much, I will admit that similar Catholic blogs and such-like can be found.

    Happy Feast, then, of St. Peter in Chains, from the other end of the world!

  6. Your view is skewed by the fact that you are a cursed roman papist disguised as an Orthodox.

  7. bekkos Says:


    Do you curse people to their faces, or only when you lurk? People who read this blog know who I am. Who are you?

    Peter Gilbert

  8. I don’t curse people neither in their faces, nor over the internet.

    Papists are already cursed zillion times. I’ll just repeat it both over the internet, of straight in the face of any papist disguised as an Orthodox lay, or cleric, who tries to spread accursed heresies to Orthodox.

    The bones of your idol, Bekkos, are boiling in Mount Athos for centuries, for everyone to see. You should have paid a visit there while you were in Dures.

    I am an Orthodox poster, who posts on blogs according to their rules of posting. If you required name, address, ID, etc, you should have put it as a rule to your blog before complaining.

  9. Veritas Says:


    I appreciate your conviction; that being said, I think you may lack a critical view of the historical record. So, to you, my following words may seem something akin to forked-tongue blasphemies; but I am sincere when I tell you that some of the loud ramblings coming from holy Mt. Athos aren’t always to be whole-heartedly believed. Peter can refer you to a Greek scholars research into the so-called “murders” committed by John Bekkos; but, alas, you may be disappointed by the fact that historical research cannot corroborate these Athonite allegations.

    You also may be a bit ignorant to the fact that many ideological views (such as your own) are historically contingent upon many factors; it is true, most of these factors are unfortunate, and the West has much responsibility to bear. However, in the interim, you may want to ask yourself the not unimportant question: Is your specific ideological faith based on something all its own, or is it not based upon an obstinate view on what it wishes not to be?


  10. @ Veritas,

    The rule of thumb to recognize a fool is to watch after false assumptions in one’s speech.

    I am very well aware of “scholars” aiming to re-write history based on their own agenda. There are plenty of them these days and we can enumerate their “scholarly” findings – which equals zero, since their only goal is to put at doubt what’s already known based on half truths. Only real ignoramus swallow that.

    I don’t need to learn history of Orthodoxy from your Western “scholars”.

    The fact that Bekkos’ bones are boiling in Mount Athos is just that – a fact – that can be testified by anyone.

    Of course, I wouldn’t expect you to address that. You needed to make assumptions about my ignorance, implied my obstinacy and vaguely recommended unidentified Western “scholars”.

    I laughed out loud.

    Bekkos bones are boiling in Mouht Athos, remember?

  11. bekkos Says:

    With regard to the question of Bekkos’s bones, Bekkos died in prison at the fortress of St. Gregory on a peninsula in the Gulf of Nicomedia in the year 1297, and was buried in his cell. No Byzantine historian, or any other historian or reliable witness who ever wrote about such subjects, ever reported that Bekkos’s bones were taken to Mt. Athos. And how you, or some other onlooker, can vouch for the fact that some bones on Mt. Athos, boiling or otherwise, belong to the late John XI Bekkos is a question I will not bother to ask you, since your lack of interest in anything except making yourself obnoxious has been made sufficiently clear.

    I should have known better than to give a temporary soapbox to someone with a username “orthodoxlurker,” who links his name to a fake website, and whose great aim in life is to tell people he disagrees with that they are cursed (although, of course, he doesn’t himself curse anybody). Mr. Orthodoxlurker, you are henceforth consigned to the realm of spam, justly and with due cause.

  12. Kiran Says:

    orthodoxlurker, so? Who cares? Mount Athos frequently, in more recent times has come out in criticism of Orthodox Metropolitans, such as Zizoulas, simply for engaging in Ecumenical endeavors. Mount Athos is not the source and summit of the Christian faith. It is not to be identified with Mount Zion.

    The rule of thumb to recognize a fool is that he doesn’t bother engaging with people who disagree with him. Such lack of Charity cannot be from Christ.

  13. Kiran Says:

    I will not get any further involved in this debate. However, I shall reiterate my thanks to Dr. Gilbert for this blog and for his work. There is much that is very exciting here, and I shall look forward to reading it in greater detail. It shows how much East and West can learn from each other. I am especially fascinated by the discussions of St. Augustine on the blog. God bless, Kiran

  14. bekkos Says:


    Thanks. Pray for me, the sinner.

    This discussion is ended.

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