1. Through the gate you see the façade of the church of Santo Stefano.
2. The main altar, surrounded by a balustrade, is in the center of the inner circle.
3. One of the paintings on the balustrade surrounding the altar.
4. Looking at the main altar from inside the chapel of Saints Primus and Felicianus
5. The chapel is preceded by 4 Corinthian columns supporting 3 arches.
6. Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows.
7. The crucifixion begins the cycle of the martyrs.
8. A Christian is thrown to the lions.
9. These lions don't seem too interested!
10. Callixtus is thrown from the window into a well. (photo from the guidebook)
The church of Santo Stefano Rotondo (photo 1) is on the Caelian hill, a short walk from the Colosseum. It is one of the oldest churches in Rome, dating back to the pontificate of Pope Simplicius (468-483). Between the years 523 and 529 John I and Felix IV enhanced it with the donation of precious mosaics and marbles. Important restorations were carried out in the twelfth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
There are several features which make this church almost unique in Rome. One is its shape – perfectly round. Because of the presence of other buildings and a surrounding wall you cannot see its round shape from the outside, but once you enter you will see immediately why it is called Stefano "Rotondo".
You will recall that the Pantheon (Santa Maria ad Martyres) is also a round church, much older than Santo Stefano Rotondo. The difference is that the Pantheon was not built as a Christian church, but as a pagan temple, transformed into a church in the seventh century. Santo Stefano Rotondo, on the other hand, was built originally as a church.
The interior consists of two circular walkways separated by magnificent granite columns with Ionic capitals. Twenty-two of these columns surround the main altar, creating a circular walkway around it in the very center of the church. An additional thirty-four columns are inserted into the inner wall of the building. This creates the second circular walkway between the two rows of columns. There was originally a third, circular walkway which was, unfortunately, dismantled during the twelfth century restoration.
Before that twelfth century restoration, carried out by Innocent II (1130-1143), Santo Stefano Rotondo was the third largest church in Rome, after St. Peter's and St. Paul Outside the Walls. Some of you will recognize the name Innocent II as the Pope who re-built the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere. (See my guidebook of that basilica).
THE ALTAR AND ITS BALUSTRADE
Adding to the already pronounced sense of roundness in the church is the eight-sided balustrade surrounding the altar itself. This was provided by Gregory XIII Boncompagni (1572-1585). The outer face of the balustrade is decorated with twelve paintings depicting episodes from the life of St. Stephen. Another twelve paintings on the inner face of the wall recall stories of the miracles of the saint. Embedded into the center of two sides of the balustrade are enormous ancient granite columns with magnificent Corinthian columns which support an arch high above the altar (photos 2 & 4).
Each painting on the balustrade displays a short Latin inscription at the top which acts as a title explaining the scene. As an example, in photo 3 the inscription reads as follows:
STEPHANUS PLENUS GRATIA ET
FORTITUDINE FACIEBAT PRODIGIA
ET SIGNA MAGNA IN POPOLO
Stephen, full of grace and fortitude,
was performing miracles
and great signs among the people.
THE CHAPEL OF SAINTS PRIMUS AND FELICIANUS
Immediately to your left as you enter the church is the chapel of Saints Primus and Felicianus (photo 5) who were martyred during the persecutions of the emperor Diocletian (283-305). The walls of the chapel are completely covered with frescoes by Antonio Tempesta (1555-1630), many of which depict graphic scenes of torture and martyrdom.
There are several cruel scenes here of Christians being attacked by lions (photo 8), but the "lion scene" I like best is the one in this chapel which seems out of character compared to the others. It shows two lions sitting calmly and showing no interest at all in the two Christians kneeling and praying next to them (photo 9).
OUR LADY OF THE SEVEN SORROWS
As you stand facing the chapel, on your right you will see an interesting and unusual representation of Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows by Antonio Tempesta (photo 6). Seven swords are shown piercing the heart of Mary. Above the handle of each of the seven swords is a medallion, in the center of which is painted a scene from the life of Jesus which caused his mother great pain and sorrow, including several scenes having to do with his passion and death.
THE CRUCIFIXION OF CHRIST
Another unusual painting, which begins the cycle of the martyrs, is the scene of the crucifixion of Christ (photo 7). Several saints are shown standing next to the cross, including St. Peter on Christ's right and St. Paul on his left. At the foot of the cross are two babies who represent the babies killed in the infamous slaughter of the innocents ordered by Herod. These innocent babies can be considered the first real martyrs. The cycle of the martyrs continues from this point clockwise around the perimeter of the church.
THE CYCLE OF THE MARTYRS
Another unique feature of this church is the cycle of martyrs, a series of thirty-four paintings along the peripheral wall of the church, executed by Pomarancio and Matteo da Siena in 1582. The paintings are separated from one another by the thirty-four columns embedded in the wall. They all depict explicit and extremely brutal scenes of torture inflicted on the martyrs in Rome in the early years of the Church.
These graphic scenes of intense cruelty were painted at the time the church was under the care of the Jesuit order which staffed the Hungarian-German College in Rome, where young men were being prepared for future missionary work in Hungary and Germany. Part of their preparation was to become aware of the dangers they could face and the real possibility of becoming martyrs for the faith.
Many of these frescoes are extremely realistic and include a wealth of cruel and bloody details. Charles Dickens was appalled by the brutality and violence of the scenes. And the Marquis de Sade is said to have fainted when he saw the painting which depicts an executioner as he rips off the breasts of a young virgin martyr.
Almost all of the paintings have a large central scene of martyrdom in the foreground with other smaller, but no less cruel scenes in the background. As you look at the paintings you are struck by the contrast between the violence of the act and the resigned and peaceful countenance of the martyrs.
A Latin inscription with a translation in Italian accompanies each of the 34 paintings, but many of them are not well preserved and difficult to read.
One of these paintings especially interests me because it represents the martyrdom of Pope St. Callixtus I (217-222), the founder of the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere. He was killed by being thrown from a window of his house into a well (photo 10). In the 1600s a small church was built in Trastevere on the site of his home. Inside the church you can see the remains of a well said to be the one into which he was thrown. This is the only place I have ever seen the martyrdom of Callixtus represented in art. The caption which accompanies the painting reads:
CALLIXTUS ROM. PONT. PRAECEPS
IN PUTHEUM DATUR
Callixtus, the Roman pontiff, is thrown headlong into a well
I am limited as to how many photos I can attach to the post, so I will send out a second post next time including more photos from this amazing church of Santo Stefano, especially those depicting the tortures of the martyrs.