I recently went to Rome – mostly as a romantic getaway – but also to get a better idea what Rome would have looked like to the medieval emperors who came down to be crowned by reluctant popes. A lot of the main historic sites have been fundamentally remodelled (St. Peter, St. John Lateran, Santa Maria Maggiore), but more survives than one thinks.
The first thing to remember is that by the time say Henry IV or Frederick Barbarossa come to Rome, many of these churches are already unfathomably old. The first great period of church building in Rome was during the fourth and fifth century. Emperor Constantine funded the construction of the two great basilicas of Old St. Peter and the Basilica of the Lateran. But as the share of Christians in the population grew from 15-18% under Constantine to being the vast majority by late fifth/early 6th century, new churches needed to be built all across Rome.
These early churches were mostly new built over virgin land or land previously used for residential or industrial purposes, not over existing pagan temples. The building was usually in the form of an ancient Roman basilica. These basilicas were originally secular buildings used amongst other things to hold court cases with the judge/governor/emperor sitting in the apsis dispensing justice.
There is one still extant imperial basilica, in Trier that dates from the time of Constantine.
In early Christian churches, the judge’s seat was replaced with the altar but otherwise the architecture remained the same. And this apsis was than lavishly decorated with mosaics, depicting Christ in the place where the emperor would usually have sat. This mosaic here is the oldest and most beautiful in Rome dating back to around 390 AD.
Imagine you come from say a great Carolingian monastery like Corvey with beautiful early medieval interior decorations, and then you look at this. Nobody during this period was able to create such natural expressions or depiction of movement. It must have been a complete shock to see…
The Basilica of Santa Sabina
The best way to get an impression what these early churches looked like is to visit Santa Sabina on the Aventine hill. The church was built between 422 and 432 and is largely unchanged in its structure today.
If you stand inside you can experience what a space like old St. Peter would have felt like. Not at all dark and “medieval”, but bright, symetric with clean lines. Windows were in clear glass, letting the bright Roman sun into the building. All eyes look down towards the Apsis where all teh important things, like teh coronation is happening.
Though Santa Sabina does no longer have the brilliant Mosaics that once covered its apsis, it has another, truly astounding piece of decoration, its doors, which are original from the 5th century.
Let me repoeat this. This is a set of cedar doors made in ~430 AD. The image cannot really convey what they look like. The wood is still shiny, the carving beautiful and detailed, as if no time had passed.
I know the doors in the Pantheon are older and larger, but still, these must be the second oldest doors still in operation anywhere in the world. And if you go to Santa Sabina, you share the space with some Dominican friars, the kids from the primary school opposite and a small number of full-on history geeks (Birkenstocks and all) – well worth it (also got a great view over the city from the park).
The Mystery of the Destruction of Old San Clemente
The next church to look at is San Clemente, which is interesting for two reasons. The first one is its marvellous mosaic that covers the whole of the apsis.
This work of most likely Byzantine artists is a little younger than the others we will be looking at here but it contains such marvellous little details that again display the incredible craftsmanship of these unknown artists.
The church of San Clemente is full of other fascinating things, such as the grave of Saint Cyril and a beautiful renaissance chapel to Santa Catarina.
But the most interesting stuff is underground. San Clemente was built over what was initially a private house, then became an industrial complex, some argue the mint where the empire would strike its coins. It at least in part became an apartment block with a sanctuary for the cult of Mithridates in its centre. By 392 all these buildings had been filled in and a church built on top.
This church was redecorated in the 9th and then in 11th century. And then something strange happens. The whole church is getting destroyed, filled in and a new church is built on top of it around 1099 to 1120.
All these underground structures have been excavated and can be visited., something well worth doing. If you go, buy the ticket online before you enter the church, it is 2€ cheaper and connection is better outside.
During the excavations they found part of the fresco decoration of the church that was destroyed, depicting the story of Saint Clement. And that is where the mystery starts.
Initially people thought the church was destroyed during the sack of Rome by Robert Guiscard in 1084, which I talk about in Episode 36: (https://historyofthegermans.com/captivate-podcast/cominghome/).
But they could not find any signs of burning so the suggestion was the lower church had been deliberately destroyed. But why? Some argue it was because the street level had risen and so the old church was constantly flooded.
But there could be another reason. The images in the old chapel depicted the Saint Clement, which in the 1080s was a dangerous name. As you know Henry IV had elevated Wibert of Ravenna to be antipope Clement III. Painting a church with the deeds of the antipope’s namesake was an affront. And moreover, who was the titular deacon of San Clemente in the 1080s? Hugh Candidus, or Hugh the White. You remember him? He is the cardinal who fell out with Gregory VII and alleged the pope was living in sin with Matilda of Tuscany and was up to all sorts of shenanigans (check out Episode 35).
Hence pope Gregory and his successor, Pope Paschalis II who was deacon of San Clemente after Hugh the White had motive and means to literally bury the antipope Wibert and his enabler Hugh the White. If that is true, it would be a rare case of church destruction on ideological grounds.
San Cosmas and Damian vs. Castor and Pollux
The foundation of this church was in 527, when Theodoric the Great, king of the Ostrogoths , and his daughter Amalasuntha arranged the donation of two buildings on the Forum to the Church under Pope Felix IV. These building were the Temple of Peace and the “temple of Romulus”
Three interesting observations can be made about this. Firstly, the king was consciously not acting in his own name, but as the agent of Emperor Justinian I in Constantinople. Modern historians may have pretended that the Roman Empire came to an end in the West in 476, but the inhabitants of Rome were not aware of this fifty years later. Secondly, the area of the Roman and Imperial fora was still functioning as part of the city and had not yet fallen into complete ruin. Thirdly, this was the first Christian church to be founded in the area. Again, despite modern popular historical imagination, much of the nobility of Rome was still hostile to Christianity in the 5th century and this may have prevented the provision of churches in the cultic centre of the city before this one.
The new church was not a titulus or a monastic church, but was a diaconia. This meant that it was a centre for the Church’s charitable activities such as helping poor people. When the pope united the two buildings to create a basilica devoted to the two holy Greek brothers and doctors, Cosmas and Damian, he may have been wishing to continue the free public medical services formerly based in the Temple of Peace. There may also have been a deliberate contrast with the ancient pagan cult of the divine twin brothers Castor and Pollux, who had been worshipped on the other side of the Forum in the Temple of Castor and Pollux.
The whole structure was changed many times and today the entrance is no longer on the Forum but from the Via dei Fori Imperiali which has its advantages, i.e., no entrance fee. Go there, even if all you need is shelter from the August heat. It has a lovely shaded little cloister.
But that is not the only reason you may want to get there. The apse of the new church was decorated with a mosaic, representing the parousia (coming at the end of time) of Christ. This work was immensely influential, and art historians have been able to trace its inspiration in mosaics in later Roman churches. It stands nowadays as one of the foremost examples of the old Classical style of depiction starting to mutate into the (then novel) Byzantine style.
The mosaics are masterpieces of 6th century ecclesiastical art. The apse mosaic is especially fine, but you need to remember that you should be standing seven metres lower than you actually are, in order to see it as the creators intended. There is a coin-operated light for it at the head of the center aisle in front of the alter.
In the middle is Christ at his parousia, or Second Coming as triumphal judge at the end of time. He is standing on the red clouds of dawn, and is dressed in golden robes with a single monogram I which stands for either Iesus or Imperator. In his left hand he holds the rolled-up scroll of the Torah, which only he is able to interpret. To the left is St Paul, and to the right is St Peter. They are introducing SS Cosmas and Damian to Christ, and it is not possible to tell which is which because the mosaicists followed the tradition that they were identical twins. They are carrying martyrs’ crowns. To the far left is Pope Felix IV, who as founder holds a model of the church; this figure was restored in the 17th century. The reason for this is that Pope Gregory XIII saw fit to alter the figure to show Pope Gregory the Great in the previous century, and a very bad job was done. The Baroque restorers put it right. To the far right is the martyr St Theodore. The figures stand in front of a river labelled Iordanes (Jordan) and are flanked by palm trees.
Note the phoenix on the left-hand palm, a symbol of the resurrection.
Below Christ is another representation of him, this time as the Lamb of God accompanied by twelve sheep representing the Apostles. The Lamb stands on a hill with Jerusalem on the left and Bethlehem on the right, and from the hill flow the twelve Rivers of Paradise labelled Gion, Pison, Tigris and Eufrata (Euphrates).
Santa Prassede and the running pope
After the destruction of Rome during the Gothic wears (535-554) the city’s population collapsed. The low-lying areas were gradually abandoned and became hotbeds of malaria and other diseases.
There was no longer the money to build splendid rectangular basilicas on brownfield sites. The church began to invade the now abandoned pagan temples, using fallen masonry to create new structures. These are often oddly shaped and Roman columns protrude from the walls.
When pope Paschal I (817-24) began the construction of Santa Prassede, he did intend to create a classic basilica, but it did not really work. the surveying during the construction was seriously badly done and the edifice is “wonky”. The nave walls and colonnades are not parallel, neither are they straight. The transept is not at right angles to the nave’s major axis, and neither are the façade and the atrium.
But it is still standing and it houses one of the greatest early medieval interiors in Rome. Two 9th century mosaics stand out, those on the triumphal arch in the centre of the nave.
The overall theme is the Second Coming of Christ and the End of Time, based on the description given in the “Apocalypse of St John” (Book of Revelation).
On the triumphal arch, the one closest to the nave,The Heavenly Jerusalem is depicted as a walled and gated enclosure with its golden walls set with jewels. In it, Christ accompanied by two angels is venerated by two queues of apostles and saints; to the left, the first two are Our Lady and St John the Baptist, and to the right the first is St Praxedis. At the ends of the queues are Moses and Elijah. The city gates are guarded by another pair of angels, and a further two escort more saints through flowery meadows, with the right hand group led by SS Peter and Paul.
Below this composition, on either side of the arch, are two crowds of people holding crowns and palm branches. These are the multitude of the martyrs.
And then there is the Apse Mosaic – just look at it
And if you look for some historic context, here is a tale from 1118
The papacy had recovered from the depth of its depravity in the 10th century thanks to a string of powerful popes, namely Leo IX, Gregory VII and Urban II. By 1111 the tide was however turning. Pope Paschalis II made a most unexpected offer to emperor Henry V to return all the lands and privileges the church had received over the centuries in exchange for the emperor no longer interfering with church affairs. That backfired terribly as literally everybody hated the idea, except for the pope and the emperor. Paschalis lost all authority in Rome. The two great Roman families of the Frangipani and the Pierleoni began fighting over control of the seat of Saint Peter.
When Paschalis died in 1118 the Frangipani made their move. The cardinals had elected the former pope’s chancellor as pope Gelasius II. On the day of his election, the Frangipani captured him, put him into a windowless cell and tortured him mercilessly. Censius Frangipani allegedly hissed at him like a giant snake, grabbed the pope by the throat, struck him with his fists, kicked him, drew blood with his spurs and dragged him away by his hair. Had he not been rescued by a mob paid for by the Pierleoni, Pope Gelasius would hold the record for the shortest Pontificate. This way he lasted a year and a bit. In his last months he could not hold the Vatican and hence celebrated mass at the church of St. Prassede, an amazing and truly ancient but size wise very modest building. If you are in Rome, go there it is a wonderful refuge from the hustle and bustle of the city.
Anyway, whilst saying mass he was attacked by Censius Frangipani again and only escaped on a swift horse. His attendants found him hours later sitting in a field, muttering incoherently – still wearing his papal vestments. Gelasius had enough. He left Rome to travel to France and died in the safety of the abbey of Cluny.
His successor Calixtus II was able to regain some semblance of control, but the next election, Honorius II ended with even more bloodshed.
If you want to follow the whole story, including detail about the divisions in the church and the city of Rome around 1130, listen to Episode 45 of The History of the Germans or read the transcript, both available here: https://historyofthegermans.com/…/episode-45-triple…/
My greatest find on the whole trip was however Santa Prudenziana. Santa Prudenziana, if she existed, was the sister of Santa Prassede but her church is even more undeservedly overlooked.
And overlooking it is easy. The church sits in a non-descript street below Santa maria Maggiore and is itself a couple of metres below street level. The façade is less than impressive and I would have instinctively walked past had I not looked for it.
But this is a true treasure trove. This basilica is recognised as the oldest place of Christian worship in Rome, dating back potentially to the time of the Apostles but more convincingly to the time of pope Pius I (140-155). The popes would reside in this complex until Constantine offered them the palace of the Lateran in 313.
In around 390, the church received its mosaic, which is of prime importance, not just because of its beaty, but also because of its subject.
The magisterial figure of Christ, seated on a gilded throne embossed with jewels and cushioned with purple fabric, recalls ancient representations of Jupiter. The apostles are dressed in togas, like Roman senators. Such images reflect the fundamental change in the role of the church. No longer a persecuted minority that has to hide from authority, Jesus (or god) is now in charge, determines the order man has to live by. You can see visually how the church goes from providing spiritual guidance to being an unquestionable authority, a process we have heard so much about in the podcast.
Image of mosaic in Santa Prudenziana
Today this tiny church is serving the global community of Catholic Filipinos, the largest Christian community in Asia.
I could go on for hours from here. And maybe I will write another post looking at secular medieval buildings in Rome. But if you ever go, sure, do all the classic Roman and renaissance things, but if you have a bit of time on your hand, check out these treasures. They are so worth it. (and also listen to the History of the Germns Podcast – also worth it)