Church of the Week: St. Peter in Chains Cathedral, Cincinnati

Saint Peter in Chains, which I visited in late September 2010, is the cathedral of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Cincinnati. It is a Greek revival structure located at 8th and Plum Streets. Construction began with the laying of its cornerstone on May 20, 1841, under the direction of then-bishop—later archbishop—John Baptist Purcell, and formally dedicated on November 2, 1845. Its striking single spire, which soars to two-hundred and twenty feet above street level, was the tallest man-made structure in the city for many decades, and is constructed of pure white limestone.

The interior is striking and unique among Roman Catholic cathedrals in America, with its Greek-themed mosaics depicting the Stations of the Cross, its ornate Corinthian columns and its massive bronze doors.

Those doors are the work of Robert C. Koepnick. They feature the papal crossed keys and inverted crosses, echoing the tradition that St. Peter was crucified upside down.

I've been in a lot of churches--and a lot of cathedrals--and this one has a truly unique look and feel to it. The mosaic on the sanctuary's rear wall blends the radiance of gold infused Venetian glass with the strong colors of various marbles and glass. The work of August Wendling of Aachen, Germany, shows a glorious Christ, in Byzantine fashion, seated with one hand raised in blessing. He gives the keys of the Kingdom to a kneeling St. Peter, who is surmounted by the triple papal tiara. Peter appears twice more: in chains at Jerusalem at the lower left, and imprisoned with Paul in Rome's ancient Mamertine Prison at the lower right. The quotation in the center of the mosaic is from the Acts of the Apostles: "and Peter was kept in prison, bound in chains" (12:5,6). The title of the Cathedral, St. Peter in Chains, is represented by continuous links of a chain framing the mural as well as in other decorative elements of the cathedral. The mosaic measures 35 feet high by 40 feet wide. At the time of its installation, it was the largest mosaic in the United States.

The Blessed Sacrament Chapel is in the left transept of the Cathedral. Against the black marble of the back wall rise panels of pierced gold-leafed woodwork which frame the pilasters and pediments of the altar and tabernacle. On the tympanum (the triangular face of the pediment) are the Greek symbols for "Jesus Christ, the Victor." The angels flanking the altar are the work of Ernest Bruce Haswell. The Chapel's sidewalls are cream Tavernelle, the pillars Imperial Black marble.

The Baptismal Chapel is located in the north transept of the cathedral. The baptismal font constructed of marble and bronze is surmounted by a bronze figure of the risen Savior by Robert Koepnick. A wall of stone tracery and stained glass provides dramatic surroundings.

Keeping with the Greek motif, massive Stations of the Cross adorn the walls of the nave.

Classic Greek vase paintings provided the inspiration for Cincinnati artist Carl Zimmerman's depiction of the passion and death of Jesus. The black and white figures on a clay red background are woven into a tree of life motif and cover the entire wall between windows.

As a visitor or worshiper exits, he or she sees two inscriptions above the doors to the nave: "The house of the Lord is well founded on solid rock" and "My house will be called a house of prayer." Over the doors rises the rear gallery. The mahogany is accented by a row of Guardian Angels. In the gallery is the organ screen, again accented by gilt angels, all the work of Ernest Bruce Haswell.

I noticed as we left--and I hope it's intentional--that the glass in the front doors reflects the Plum Street Temple across the street. To me it seemed reflective (pun intended) of Christianity's roots in Judaism.


  1. Hi Bob,

    I am the grandson of the late Ohio sculptor Robert Koepnick and would like your permission to post a link to this blog post on my Facebook page. I am also working to preserve the legacy of my grandfather's work by providing others with links to his works since the parish of St. Peter in Chains Cathedral recently removed the pages dedicated to the church's artists, including the one dedicated to my grandfather, from their website. Thank you for your time and consideration.

    May the Lord grant you many years of peace, health, and happiness.

    David Koepnick

  2. David, what an honor to have you comment! I'd be thrilled to have you link to this blog post on your FB page.