Keys of St. Peter- What Are They and Why Are They Significant?

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The keys of Saint Peter, also called the Keys of Heaven, refers to the metaphorical keys given to Saint Peter by Jesus Christ, before his ascent to heaven. These keys are said to open the doorway to heaven. Jesus could trust no other disciple but Peter with these keys, whose duty it was to take care of the common people and govern the churches.

The symbol of the Keys of Peter can be seen in the Coat of Arms of the Pope, Vatican City State, and the Holy See, as an emblem of obedience and divinity.

In this article, we’ll be exploring the origins of the Keys of Peter, its significance in religion, symbolic meanings, its use in contemporary times, and its depiction in famous artwork. 

Origins of the Keys of Peter

The Keys of Peter as a Christian symbol can be traced back to the pagan beliefs of Ancient Rome. In ancient Rome, people gave immense importance to Janus, the god and guardian of gates. Janus was bestowed with the keys to the pagan heaven, and he protected and guarded the skies. He provided access to all the other gods, who lived and thrived within the skies.

Janus was believed to be the oldest of all Roman Gods and was given much importance in religious rituals. He was the first to be worshipped and invoked in all Roman religious ceremonies. During public sacrifices, offerings were given first to Janus before any other god.

When Christianity came to Rome, many pagan beliefs and traditions were adopted by the religion and Christianized. This not only spread the religion, but it also made it easier for pagans to relate to the new religion. It’s believed that the biblical Keys of Peter are none other than the keys of Janus. 

The Keys of Heaven is a highly significant symbol, as it signifies Peter’s authority and role as God’s representative on earth. By extension, this showcases the authority of the Pope, who is the successor of Peter’s church on earth.

The Keys of Peter and in the Bible

According to Isaiah 22, the Keys of Peter were originally kept by Elaikim, a faithful and honest minister. This responsibility was transferred to Saint Peter after Christ’s death and ascension into heaven. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus promises to give the Keys of Heaven to Peter, and he is ordained to lead the church and take care of its people.

Many Catholics believe that Jesus chose Saint Peter because he was the most devoted and trustworthy disciple. Saint Peter stood by, supported, and understood Jesus. He was the only one who understood that Jesus was, indeed, Christ the God. Peter was also the most dedicated disciple, who consistently stood by Jesus in tiring and challenging times. For Catholics, The Keys of Peter reflect an ardent faith and devotion to god.

 Symbolic Meaning of The Keys of Peter

The Keys of Heaven depicts two crossed keys, one gold and one silver.  

  • Meaning of The Golden Key: The golden key is said to be the key that opens the doors of heaven. It is a symbol of spirituality and belief. Peter had the golden key to guide the churches and the people in all matters spiritual and religious.
  • Meaning of The Silver Key: The silver key was used to govern people on earth, and teach them good morals and values. The holder of the silver key had complete authority both to pardon and punish. The power to judge good and evil deeds rested with the keeper of the keys. 
  • Symbol of True Faith: The Keys of Peter stand as an emblem of true faith and belief in God. Many Christians and Catholics believe that those who worship Jesus must strive to be as true and devoted as Peter.
  • Symbol of Reward: Saint Peter received the Keys of Heaven as a reward for his faithfulness. Likewise, it’s believed that the true and devoted followers of Christ will always be rewarded.  

The Keys of Heaven in Use Today

The Keys of Heaven is a highly important symbol in the Catholic church. It’s used in many important emblems and logos.

  • Papal Coat of Arms: The Papal Coats of Arms of the Popes of the Catholic church have two golden keys which represents the keys given to Saint Peter. The Keys of Peter serves as a reminder to the Popes that they must be pious, and service oriented towards god and the people who are entrusted to them. Like the Papal Cross, the Papal Coat of Arms represent the Papal office.
  • Vatican City state flag/ Holy See: The Vatican City flag and the Holy See are used interchangeably. The flag of Vatican City was adopted in the year of 1929 when the Vatican became an independent state. It was to be ruled by the Holy See or the popes.  The flag is yellow and white, and has the papal tiara and golden keys incorporated into it.  The symbol of The Keys of Peter highlights the responsibility of governance ordained by God to the Popes.

The Keys of Heaven in Art

The Keys of Heaven is a popular symbol in churches and Christian art. There are numerous paintings and artwork that show Saint Peter holding a set of keys:

  • The Delivery of Keys

‘The Delivery of Keys’ is a fresco executed by the Italian Renaissance painter Pietro Perugino, in the Sistine Chapel of Rome. The fresco depicts Saint Peter receiving the Keys of Heaven from Jesus.

  • Christ giving the keys to Saint Peter

‘Christ Giving the Keys to Saint Peter’ was drawn by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, an Italian painter. It shows an image of Peter bowing down before Christ and receiving The Keys of Heaven.

  • St. Peter’s Basilica

Saint Peter’s Basilica, which is the church of St. Peter, has been constructed in the Renaissance architectural style. The structure of the church is similar to that of a key, reflecting The Keys of Heaven that Christ entrusted to Peter.

In Brief

The Keys of Peter are an important emblem in Christian Faith and represent the power, authority and responsibility of the Catholic Church and its role as God’s representative on earth.