Can you handle S. Stefano Rotondo’s panorama of martyrdom in all its beauty?

The mystery of Santo Stefano Rotondo

There is always some mystery surrounding the church of Santo Stefano Rotondo and I must confess that when I crossed the threshold of this fascinating place. Santo Stefano Rotondo is not only architecturally and archaeologically interesting because of its remarkable construction, but also has lot’s more to offer through the medium of its religiously tinted and deterrent imaginaries. I felt I entered a labyrinth of codes, secrets, and unseen truths similar to the ones Dan Brown creates in his books.

“The centre was a perfect shape of the octagon. The building looked like a holy sanctuary from the ancient world, eight cornerstones, three concentric circles and four large chapels in the shape of a Greek cross. The dome soared an astonishing seventy two feet overhead, supported by monolithic columns of probably pre-Christian origin. This building is a kaleidoscope of ancient history Early Christian, Medieval, Papal, Roman, astronomical, mathematical, and others yet unknown. A tiered gallery of frescoes, which zealously depict a panorama of horror and butchery in thirty four scenes of martyrdom, encircle the building’s walls. The dim glow of the window holes was aided only by a pale shaft of sunlight that filtered down through the windows in the dome’s upper walls to illuminate the room’s most startling feature a beautiful altar hewn from a block of polished white and honey brown marble, situated dead centre of the octagonal sphere” (text originates from Dan Brown’s book The Lost Symbol).

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A bit of history

The Basilica of Santo Stefano Rotondo -St. Stephen in the Round- was built by Pope Simplicius (468-483) on the grounds of abandoned Roman military barracks Castra Pergrinorum on the Celian Hill. Under the church are the remains of a second century mithraeum. A mithraeum is a temple of the cult of Mithras, especially venerated by Roman soldiers at the time. Stefano Rotondo is the only early Christian Church with a circular plan (diameter of 64 m or 210 feet) still in existence today and was dedicated to St.Stephen. The original building was decorated with mosaics and marble, but unfortunately all the original decorations have been lost.

But there is more to Santo Stefano Rotondo than you might expect at first sight. The church is designed in the form of a Greek cross and three concentric circles of columns, similar to the design of the Holy Sepulchre Church in Jerusalem. Santo Stefano Rotondo was probably financed by the wealthy Valerius family, whose estates covered large parts of the Celian Hill. They had connections to the Holy Land as well, and probably would have seen the Holy Sepulchre Church in reality. St. Stephen’s relics were reportedly found in Jerusalem in 415 and brought to Rome by the mid-fifth century.

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In the seventh century the bones of St. Primus and St. Felicianus were supposedly moved from the catacombs of Nomentana to S.Stefano Rotondo and placed in a dedicated chapel. A large mosaic of a jeweled cross with St. Primus and St. Felicianus standing on either side can still be seen. The church also holds a tablet recording the burial of Irish king Donough O”Brien, son of Brian Boroihme, Ireland’s great national hero, who died in Rome in 1064.

In the Middle Ages Santo Stefano Rotondo fell into disrepair and at one point became completely roofless. Sadly the design was radically altered in 1450 by Nicholas V (1447-1455), when the outer wall and three arms of its Greek cross plan were pulled down, reducing the church’s size from a 210 feet diameter to 133 feet or 40,5 meters. In 1454, Pope Nicholas V entrusted the ruined church to the Pauline Fathers, the only Catholic Order founded by Hungarians. This is probably the reason why S. Stefano Rotondo later became the unofficial church of the Hungarians in Rome.

Martyrdom in all its beauty

At the end of the 16th century, the walls were decorated with 34 scenes of martyrdom, giving a detailed account of every possible means of torture. Commissioned by Gregory XIII the frescos are intended to make the visitors realize how terrible the sufferings of the martyrs were, the horror of which no one can escape. The study of martyrs had also an educational purpose: it was part of the psychological preparation of the missionary Jesuits. What to expect when you go to non catholic countries to convert the people to Catholicism.

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In similar fashion it allowed parents to show their children how the martyrs had suffered for their faith. Each fresco includes an inscription explaining the scene and giving the name of the emperor who ordered the execution, as well as a quotation from the Bible.

Not everybody liked the depictions. In his book ”Pictures from Italy” Dickens wrote in 1844: “To single out details from the great dream of Roman Churches, would be the wildest occupation in the world. But St. Stefano Rotondo, a damp, mildewed vault of an old church in the outskirts of Rome, will always struggle uppermost in my mind, by reason of the hideous paintings with which its walls are covered. These represent the martyrdom of saints and early Christians; and such a panorama of horror and butchery no man could imagine in his sleep, though he were to eat a whole pig raw, for supper.”

If you are interested in some beautiful and unusual architecture and think you can handle the “panorama of horror and butchery no man could imagine in his sleep” take some time out to visit this atmospheric gem of a church. It’s of another time and another world.