5. St Lawrence extra Murales
On a tall pillar outside St Lawrence extra Murales there is a statue of the third century saint, apparently a deacon in the early Roman Church. His martyr’s death is reported as 258 CE when the first major drive occurred to force Christians to fit in with the customs of the general Roman population. The Emperor Valerian promulgated that “all Christian clergy to perform sacrifices to the Roman gods and forbade Christians from holding meetings in cemeteries.” Lawrence was a deacon for the Bishop of Rome, Sixtus II and both were put to death for their refusal to follow this Roman law. One traditional story has it that Lawrence was asked for the Church’s riches and he produced the poor and the sick of the Christian community. Like many people in authority, Roman officials don’t like ‘Smart Alecs’ and so he was put to death by being roasted on a griddle, presumably shaped somewhat like the device that the poor guy still carries on his pedestal high above the church that is named after him. Another famous tradition about his last moments claims that as he was being grilled, he quipped to his already annoyed torturers, “Turn me over. I’m done on this side.” I won’t suggest that St Lawrence is the patron saint of BBQs (as that would be fake news) but I am not sure the Saint himself would find it amusing if he realised that one day he would become the Church’s official saint of Cooks and Chefs!
The area where the church now stands is where tradition tells us that St Lawrence was buried. Apparently Constantine I in his regular support of the Christian community built a small chapel here in remembrance of Lawrence. The church we see today, like so many of the old churches of Rome, has gone through many renovations and rebuildings since the time of Constantine. The etching below is from 1750 and presents St Lawrences in a very different setting to the urban environment that surrounds it today.
On the day I visited St Lawrences, I passed a very fine statue of Pope Pius XII just up the road from the church. It was almost like greeting an old friend from my childhood; he was the Pope during the 1950s when I still hadn’t heard of his mixed reputation over his attitude towards characters fleeing Europe after the War. The answer to his statue’s presence in this area maybe that his parents were buried in this Church and their tombs were part of the casualties of an allied bombing raid on Rome in 1943. They were aiming for the nearby railyards but hit the Church and destroyed its façade as well as the bombs falling on a populated area and killing over 3000 casualties.
Like all the other Pilgrim Churches, St Lawrences outside the Walls is worth a visit for many reasons but particularly for its murals of the life of St Lawrence.
6. Basilica of the Holy Cross of Jerusalem
A visit to the Basilica di Santa Croce in Gerusalemme is not just about visiting one of Rome’s lovely churches, its about catching up on your understanding of that curious character St Helena and her occasional descriptor as one of the first archaeologists. This Basilica is the usual result of 16 centuries of remodelling from the original building that was the residence of Helena, the mother of Constantine I, to the Baroque masterpiece it is today after its 18th century makeover. Helena has two claims for recognition by history; the first is of course her single-parentage of Emperor Constantine I, whose father, Constantius, put her aside early on in his reign. The second is her association with the burgeoning Christian Church in Rome and her decision to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to look for physical remains of the events in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. On this trip she brought back a whole host of ‘relics’ that started a process of relic hunting that came to dominate Church building and Western Christianity for the next 13 centuries.
The relics, brought back to Rome and eventually housed in a chapel attached to Helena’s palace in Rome, include….
- Part of a panel said to have been nailed to Christ’s cross which bears the word ‘Nazarene’ in Latin, Greek and Hebrew.
- Two thorns purportedly taken from the crown of thorns placed on Christ’s head.
- A nail said to have been used in the crucifixion.
- Three small wooden fragments of the True Cross.
These are still housed in the Cappella delle Reliquie in the Basilica. Whilst the good will of Helena and her drive to gather evidence of the life of Jesus of Nazareth cannot be doubted, her arrival in Jerusalem at the start of the fourth century was most likely seen as a great boon to the charlatans of that city. Certainly her role as an ‘archaeologist’ does not make her a good model for modern students of this science, particularly when it comes to assessing the provenance of these objects. Wikipedia puts it succinctly when it describes these relics as “several famous relics of disputed authenticity”.
Constantine I is famous for building a new capital for the Roman Empire on the Bosphorus, which became known after his death as Constantinople. He transferred some of Helena’s Jerusalem relics to his new capital and I have discussed their fate in another article on this site. ISTANBUL: The Rebadging of Byzantium
Helena’s story and her basilica have always been fascinating to past and contemporary travellers. Peter Paul Ruebens, the Dutch master, visited the church in 1602 and painted panels to decorate the church.
There is a curious contemporary story of trouble in the running of this Basilica and its attached Cistercian monastery. After years of curious stories, the Vatican closed down the monastery in 2011 after a ‘visitation’ to check out the problems. According to a Vatican spokesman, “an inquiry found evidence of liturgical and financial irregularities as well as lifestyles that were probably not in keeping with that of a monk.” According to Il Messaggero, Simone Fioraso, an abbot described as a “flamboyant former Milan fashion designer”, “transformed the church, renovating its crumbling interior and opening a hotel, holding regular concerts, a televised bible-reading marathon and regularly attracting celebrity visitors with an unconventional approach.” The character involved sounds like he has some similarity to the hucksters that greeted St Helena when she visited Jerusalem back in the fourth century.
Getting to the Basilica of the Holy Cross of Jerusalem is very easy via the Metro. You can get out at San Giovanni metro station and get to both our sixth Pilgrim Church as well as St John Lateran from this station. If you wanted to throw in another Roman Church of some importance, visit Saint Clements and spend some time gazing on the early mosaics in this fabulous place. You could do this by walking from Manzoni metro. However if you like a stroll, the walk from St John Lateran to San Clemente is very pleasant.
7. St Sebastian Outside the Walls
On the 1575 Jubilee Pilgrim map, the trip to St Sebastian Outside the Walls shows the pilgrims trailing through St Sebastian’s Gate out into a desert landscape where, apart from the Jubilee Church, the area is littered with the ruins of ancient Rome. While our destination church was rebuilt after this diagram was made, the remnants of Ancient Rome are still there and that is what makes a visit to San Sebastiano so interesting.
If St Peters was the starting point of our Jubilee Pilgrim Journey, we know that San Sebastiano is the most distant destination and just by getting there, we realise that St Philip Neri’s seven church walk in one day would have been punishing for even the fittest individual. For baby boomers travelling there today, getting to San Sebastiano can be done by a combination of using the Metro, getting out at Arco di Travatino and then catching a taxi to the church. Another way would be to catch your taxi to the start of the Appian Way and walk down the old cobble-stoned Roman highway. It is a long walk but one full of interest and history. However, a common method of catching all the sights on the journey to St Sebastian outside the Walls is to hire a bike or join a commercial bike tour that comes in this direction. For a modern tourist, visiting San Sebastiano would just be one part of a visit to the Appian Way Regional Park; coming this way you cannot avoid the marvel of the catacombs, the Appian Way as well as the Aqueducts that still stride across the landscape, attempting after 2000 years to bring precious water to Rome.
In a way, our pilgrim church would not be out this way but for the catacombs.
The catacombs wouldn’t be out here but for the geological idiosyncrasy of this area of Rome, the tufo volcanic rock that is easy to dig out but the surrounds still remain structurally sound.
Romans of the second and third century would not be wanting to dig catacombs in the tufo but for the Roman custom of forbidding the burial of bodies within the walls of Rome. Cremation was the usual method of disposing of bodies in Ancient Rome. With the rise of Christianity, the belief that it was better to await the resurrection by keeping the body intact, meant burial in graves outside the city.
So there is a logic to the early ‘tradition’ that the beginnings of a place of worship on the site of San Sebastiano occurred when early Roman Christians brought the bodies of the apostles Peter and Paul out here to be buried. Although the bodies of the apostles were removed in later centuries to churches inside the walls, areas outside the walls became riddled with over fifty separate catacomb complexes and many Christian martyrs were buried there. In the case of our destination today, a fourth century church was built over the catacombs where a third century martyr, Saint Sebastian, was buried.
One idiosyncrasy that some travellers pick up is an interest in a particular saint and his or her imagery. Mine is Saint Sebastian due to the excessive cruelty of the depictions of his death. If I come across an image of Saint Sebastian, I have to take a photo. My favourite is one I came across in San Gimignano where Benozzo Gozzoli depicts a particularly sadistic crowd of Roman archers who use the sainted martyr as a pin cushion as he calmly watches on, presumably suggesting that they do their worst. (Martyrs apparently were prone to ridicule their persecutors such as in Lawrence’s quip about “ being done on one side”). I suspect counting the number of arrows used in a painting of a martyr is not a sign of sound mental health but the San Gimignano ‘Sebastian’ must be getting close to a record number of arrows used on the one martyr. However, the problem with this story is that its historicity is less than dubious. There is apparently another tradition that holds that he recovered (!)
One of the beliefs about the use of Saints relics is that by absorbing something of a saint’s body or spirit, this could heal you of physical ailments. Sebastian’s cranium was apparently given to a Benedictine Abbey in Germany in the 10th century where it was encased in silver and used to drink the wine from during the celebration of mass on his feast day. The afterlife of a martyr is a difficult one.
The pilgrim church that celebrates the original tomb of Saint Sebastian has had the usual number of catastrophes and rebuildings that is the lot of Roman Pilgrim Churches. For example, the church on this site was destroyed by the invading Saracens in the early ninth century and was rededicated a number of times over the centuries. Our old friend and patron of Bernini, Cardinal Scipione Borghese, is responsible for the current church when it was rebuilt in the early 17th century.
If I were to recommend a way of visiting Saint Sebastian outside the Walls, my favourite would be to do it by bike. It will be a long day but if you are reasonably fit and take plenty of water and sustenance, it will be a highlight of any visit to Rome. The tour I completed began near the colosseum and took us past some of the great sights of Rome.
- The Baths of Caracalla.
- The Aurelian Walls and St Sebastian’s gate.
- The Appian Way.
- Saint Callisto Catacombs is a regular stop for those wishing to see the catacombs rather than waiting for the one under San Sebastiano Church.
- San Sebastiano extra Murales.
- The park of the Aqueducts.
- Our ride back was through the Caffarella Park and it was amazing to find such a green open space so close to the heart of Rome.
- We continued home through Porta San Sebastiano and past the awe inspiring Baths of Caracalla.
Two minor details of little importance.
A. Tiberina Isola. I have been using the 1575 image of the Jubilee Pilgrim Churches map as a guide for this article and I couldn’t help but be drawn to other details on the map that have little to do with this itinerary. For example, it shows that section of Rome around the small island in the Tiber River. In the 1575 image it shows the pilgrims happily marching over the bridge slightly down river of the tip of the island, on their way to visit St Pauls or St John Lateran. If you look for this same bridge today, all you will find is a picturesque ruin of an ancient bridge that has succumbed over the centuries to the power of the Tiber River in flood. Today it is commonly known as Ponte Rotto (Ruined Bridge) and it has had a long Roman history with many names. It has been a crucial crossing point over the Tiber since the third century; it was even the spot where the annoyed Romans threw the beheaded corpse of the Roman Emperor Elagabulus into the Tiber in 221CE. His lifestyle (he had divorced five wives) and his sexual proclivities had brought the fury of the Praetorian Guards down upon him.
B. The Missing Obelisk: Earlier in this article I noted that there was meant to be over 40 obelisks in Ancient Rome and a significant number of them have not seen the light of modern times. One of these ‘missing’ obelisks was meant to be in the middle of Tiberina Isola associated with the Temple of Asclepius that was one of the original uses of the island. The obelisk was meant to encourage the idea that the island looked like a masted boat. Certainly the ‘mast’ was gone by 1575 from the Jubilee Pilgrimage map but an etching shown above from around 1561 still shows the obelisk. What happened to it? Perhaps it simply got ‘demasted’ and was thrown into the Tiber to mingle with the remains of the Emperor Elagabulus.