Thursday, September 1, 2016

The Basilica of San Crisogono

Today's photos:

1. Façade and bell tower of the basilica of San Crisogono.

2. A close-up of the bell tower.

3. Overall view of the interior.

4. Seventeenth-century ceiling.

5. Ceiling painting: The Glory of San Crisogono.

6. Borghese family coat of arms on the ceiling.

7. Main altar.

8. Saint Anthony of Padua.

9. Main door with coats of arms of current pope and titular cardinal.

10. A second-century sarcophagus in the underground area.

This church (photo 1) is located in Trastevere on the busy street, Viale di Trastevere, which divides the old neighborhood into two parts. It has the distinct honor of being the only church in the world dedicated to Saint Chrysogonus (San Crisogono).

A curiosity

But who was this San Crisogono whom many Christians have never heard of? In fact, little is known for sure about his life. He is believed to have been martyred during the reign of Diocletian (285-305) in the town of Aquileia in the Friuli Venezia Giulia region in the north eastern part of Italy.

The first mention of a place of worship here was in the year 499. That modest fifth century church was enlarged and decorated with frescoes in the eighth century during the pontificate of Gregory III (731-741). Between the years 1123 – 1129, Cardinal Giovanni da Crema constructed an entirely new basilica on the same spot, effectively burying beneath it the earlier fifth century structure.

The bell tower (photos 1 & 2), attached to the left side of the church, was built during the medieval period (1124). The basilica which we see today dates back to 1626 when G.B. Soria re-structured it for Scipione Borghese, the titular cardinal of the church.

A curiosity

Scipione Borghese was the nephew of Pope Paul V Borghese (1605-1621) whose name appears rather pompously in the very center of the inscription across the façade of St. Peter's Basilica. It was the Borghese pope who appointed his nephew as titular head of this prestigious basilica of San Crisogono.

In fact, the inscription across the façade of this church also places the Borghese name prominently over the main entrance (photo 1). Must be a family tradition!


Scipione Borghese, Cardinal Priest of the Holy Roman Church and Grand Penitentiary, in the year 1626

Above the inscription and atop the balustrade you will see pictured a row of eagles and dragons which appear on the famous Borghese family coat of arms.

The interior is in the typical basilica style: two rows of columns which divide the space into one large center aisle and a smaller aisle on either side (photo 3). The granite columns are from ancient Roman buildings.

The painted wooden ceiling (photo 4), among the most beautiful in Rome, displays in the center a painting by Guercino entitled The Glory of San Crisogono (photo 5).

A curiosity

Unfortunately, this is a nineteenth-century copy; the original painting was stolen in 1808, probably by the occupying Napoleonic troops, and is now in the Stafford House in London. One wonders how it ended up there!

The Borghese coat of arms featuring the eagle and the dragon can also be seen on both ends of the ceiling (photo 6).

The thirteenth-century floor (photos 3 & 6) is the typical medieval cosmatesque style found in most of Rome's early churches. It gets its name from the Cosmati family, two members of which developed this style of flooring with its geometric design. Here too, lest you forget, are the Borghese eagle and dragon!

The main altar (photo 7) is surmounted by a monumental baldacchino (canopy), another typical feature of Roman churches. Beneath the altar are preserved the relics of San Crisogono: his hand and part of his skull.

An illuminated statue of St. Anthony of Padua (photo 8) is prominently displayed against the left side wall of the church. This saint is very popular in the neighborhood because there is a statue of him in at least three of the most important churches in Trastevere: Santa Maria in Trastevere, San Bartolomeo all'Isola and San Crisogono. As a child in Catholic elementary school I was taught to say a prayer to St. Anthony whenever I lost something, and he would help me find it. Also of interest on this same side of the church is a larger than life size crucifix.

The basilica is also a titular church, another feature absolutely unique to Roman churches.

A curiosity

When the Pope creates new cardinals he assigns to each one a church in Rome in order to give all his cardinals everywhere in the world a tangible connection to Rome, the center of Roman Catholicism. The church is then known as a titular church and the cardinal becomes the titular head (in title only).

The current titular head of San Crisogono is Andrew Yeom Soo-Jung, the archbishop of Seoul, South Korea. He was appointed in February, 2014 by Papa Francesco. The titular cardinal's coat of arms is displayed on the left side of the main entrance to the church, just opposite that of the current Pope on the right side (photo 9).

Because this basilica was built over earlier churches, it has always been known that there were remains of the ancient structures several meters below the floor, but it was not until 1907 that systematic excavations began below the church. Now, for a modest fee, you can descend a modern staircase which leads from the sacristy to the underground area. The visible remains are from the two earlier churches of the fifth and twelfth century.

Among the items to be admired are fragments of eighth-century frescoes, remains of a baptismal basin, columns and column bases and other unidentified pieces. There are also several sarcofagi to be admired, one of which, from the second century, is so well preserved that it appears to have been made yesterday (photo 10)!

This church also plays an important role in the Festa de' noantri, an interesting week-long festival held every July in the Trastevere neighborhood. For the story of this very popular festival and its connection with this basilica, see my book Rome: Sights and Insights, chapter 9: La Festa de' Noantri.


Post a Comment