In 1893 — on the 15th anniversary of its founding — the Newman Society presented a bronze statue of St Peter to the Church of St Aloysius Gonzaga, now the home of the Oxford Oratory.
The gift commemorated the departure of the much loved Fr Walter Strappini SJ, who had served as Rector of the parish for eleven years and had been a formative influence in the early years of the Society’s history.
The statue was a scaled replica of the famous statue of St Peter which stands in the Vatican Basilica and is attributed to the thirteenth century sculptor Arnolfo di Cambio. The original model for the sculpture can be seen in the Basilica’s crypt, where there can be found a classical sculpture of a seated philosopher which has been transformed into a christianised image of the Prince of the Apostles teaching from his cathedra.
On the Feast of Ss Peter and Paul, the bronze statue is vested with a cope, Episcopal ring, and Papal tiara. A special indulgence can be obtained by kissing its foot, which has been worn down to a smooth surface by the veneration of centuries of pilgrims. The gesture has a two-fold meaning: it is an act of veneration of St Peter and — as the traditional gesture of obeisance upon meeting a Pope — is also an expression of loyalty to the person of the Holy Father as successor of ‘the Fisherman’ Peter.
In the St Aloysius parish records (now served by the Congregation of the Oratory) there survives a papal grant giving this same indulgence to the Newman Society’s statue and Fr Cyril Martindale SJ’s parish history notes that it was much venerated by people entering and leaving the church.
During the iconoclasm of the 1960s and ’70s, the statue was removed from the church and decapitated (!). Miraculously, the head was rescued by a parishioner and was returned to the parish several years ago. It can now be seen in the Oratory House, where it serves as a sad reminder of the reprehensible destruction of so much of our Catholic patrimony, culture and identity falsely carried out in the name of the Second Vatican Council (see below).
The surviving ‘bust’ may be a familiar sight to some as it is occasionally vested by the Oratorian Fathers to adorn altars of devotion on significant feast days. That the statue has become again an object of devotion for the faithful is a comforting reminder that “wherever Peter is, there too, is the Church” and that the words of Our Lord to St Peter, “Tu es Petrus et super hanc petram aedificabo Ecclesiam meam, et portae inferi non praevalebunt adversus eam“, ring through the ages forever true.
The Fathers of Vatican II on Sacred Art:
“Very rightly the fine arts are considered to rank among the noblest expressions of human genius. This judgment applies especially to religious art and to its highest achievement, which is sacred art. By their very nature both of the latter are related to God’s boundless beauty …
… The practice of placing sacred images in churches so that they may be venerated by the faithful is to be firmly maintained …
… Ordinaries must be very careful to see that sacred furnishings and works of value are not disposed of or allowed to deteriorate; for they are ornaments of the house of God.“
(Vatican II, Sacrosanctum Concilium, 122, 125, 126)