My first encounter with the idea of people going on tours to visit famous religious sites arose when I was forced to read/decipher Geoffrey Chaucer’s book, Canterbury Tales, in a history of English Literature course back in the early 70s. It was almost as indecipherable as the Latin we were forced to translate back in 3rd year Latin classes when I was 13. Canterbury Tales told the story of English pilgrims visiting the tomb of Thomas a Becket in Canterbury in the late 14th century. Little did I know that the pilgrimage to Canterbury had nothing on the pilgrimage to Rome that had started back in 1299 when life in Europe was so desperate due to wars and pestilence that the most sensible thing was to visit Rome and pray for relief. When rumours started to spread that a visit to Rome could gain you extraordinary remission for your sins in this world, the rush began. Presumably the thinking was that life was so bad in the current world, why not at least set ourselves up for a comfortable ride in the next!
It was the Jubilee Year structure that started the mass medieval pilgrimages to Rome. In the early centuries of the Middle Ages, the Popes struggled for a while at how often a Jubilee Year was to be held and how many Churches in Rome needed to be visited and over how many days, in order to gain the appropriate number of indulgences. The Basilicas of St Peters and St Pauls Extra Murales were the first two that needed to be compulsorily visited. By 1390, the Pope had upped the ante for those wishing a Roman Jubilee Indulgence by adding another two churches to the list they needed to visit, St John Lateran and the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. In the fifteenth century, the waiting time was reduced for penitents by the Jubilee Year being held every 25 years and so vast crowds arrived in Rome for the four jubilees of that century. It was the 1450 Jubilee where nearly 200 people were trampled to death by the overcrowding on the Bridge Sant’Angelo as pilgrims made their way up on the last leg towards the old St Peters.
The 1575 Jubilee Pilgrimage Map of Rome
The other three Pilgrim Churches were added when in 1547 Philip Neri got into the habit of gathering friends and pilgrims early in the morning and visiting seven churches around Rome, the four basilicas and three minor basilicas, starting with St Peters and ending at Santa Maria Maggiore. The three minor basilicas added to the route were the Basilica of St Lawrence extra Murales, the Basilica of the Holy Cross of Jerusalem and St Sebastian Outside the Walls. The Sanctuary of Divine Love replaced the Church of St Sebastian on the list in 2000 as directed by Pope John Paul II. Saint Philip Neri (as he was justifiably nominated after his death) founded an order called the ‘Most Holy Trinity of Pilgrims and Convalescents’ in 1548. The purpose of his group was to look after the thousands of poor pilgrims who descended on Rome during the Jubilee year.
Since those days, pilgrimages to Rome during the Jubilee Year have been well set up so there is little chance of being crushed to death on the Bridge of Angels as you attempt to reach the first destination of your pilgrimage, St Peters. Religious pilgrims still come to Rome today to receive the blessings of a visit to all seven pilgrim churches, no longer walking but generally on bus tours. But other visitors can use the structure of the Seven Pilgrimages itinerary and receive just as many personal rewards for a job well done. All these churches are fascinating to visit but it’s probably not a good idea to do it all in one day; its possible on a tight schedule and using your own car, but like all life experiences, rushed tours quickly lose their enjoyment. By allowing reasonable times for each visit it also means that you can enjoy the other interesting aspects of the neighbourhood where the pilgrim church is located. If you have already been to Rome, you have probably visited St Peters so your journey is already down to six destinations. Like all these itineraries, you can start at any point and by using your own car, a taxi, the bus or the Metro, wandering around Rome to visit the Pilgrim churches is a great way to get a better understanding of the eternal city.
The map above illustrates St Peter Neri’s itinerary. It gives you a sense of the distances between the churches but is in no way a recommendation for a modern traveller’s journey.
- The Basilica of St Peters.
See material in TOURING ROME WITH BERNINI…Part 1
- St Pauls Extra Murales
Most of us know something about Paul of Tarsus; perhaps we have ‘fallen off a donkey on the Road to Damascus’ or at least used the phrase at some key point in our life. The mysterious apostle has affected all of us in one way or another due to his out of proportion influence on the direction of Western civilization. We know he tramped along the dusty roads of the Roman Empire through Asia Minor and Greece and, according to the ‘Acts of the Apostles’, ended up in Rome for at least two years of his life waiting for his trial (around 60CE). Unfortunately, the ‘Acts’ is unfinished. There are no ‘written’ records of his death. Christians had come to Rome before Paul and were a convenient scapegoat for the Emperor Nero who blamed them for the Great fire of Rome in 64 CE. There are many traditions of Paul’s martyr’s death in Rome, the only thing we can say for certain is that Constantine I believed he knew where St Paul’s grave was and built the first St Paul’s church over the site. The current altar is said to be built over the grave of the apostle (just the torso, the head is meant to be in St John Lateran) and the Vatican allowed archaeologists to investigate and they found a marble coffin with the words ‘Paul Apostle Martyr’ on it. Radiocarbon dating of the contents indicated that the bone fragments were from the first or second century.
I visited St Pauls Outside the Walls in 2004. My second cousin, Br Peter Fogarty (CFC) was leading our small tour group and assisted our travel using the Roman Buses. I recollect we visited St John Lateran and then caught a bus to St Pauls Outside the Walls. We actually had to change buses at the striking Porta San Paolo Gate in the Aurelian Walls where I was amazed at the sight of the Pyramid of Cestius, just beside the Gate. When I returned to this same spot 10 years later, I saw the pyramid and remembered that St Pauls was only a short bus ride away. The artist who drew the 1575 Jubilee map of the Seven Churches helpfully illustrates the gate and the pyramid that leads to the Basilica of St Pauls just outside the walls of Rome.
There is much to see on a trip to St Pauls extra Murales. It is a beautiful church that has had a long life with lots of trials and sorrows. It was pillaged by Saracen Invaders in the ninth century. It was almost completely destroyed by earthquakes in the mid 14th century. Even a workman repairing the roof in the 18th century managed to set it on fire. However there is still much to inspect and admire about the building itself and its attached beautiful cloister.
Note the heads of the Popes that line the walls above the cloister of St Pauls.
Brief Interlude: Roman Basilicas and Obelisks
If you have already done some touring around Rome before attempting the Seven Pilgrim Churches, you will have noticed the curious presence of Egyptian Obelisks in front of the major Basilicas. The obelisk in front of St Peters, for example, is a classic Egyptian one, brought to Rome by the Emperor Caligula in 37 CE. He set it up in his velodrome and while the rest of his athletic creation disappeared from around it, the Vatican Obelisk ‘stood tall’ with the passage of nearly 2000 years. The other 40 or so obelisks brought to Rome by Emperors didn’t remain standing after the fall of the empire.
Given that our next pilgrim church stop is St John Lateran, let us not casually pass by the obelisk that is standing proudly, almost alone, in the main square in front of this old church. It has had quite the journey and holds a couple of records. It is the tallest obelisk in Rome and is the largest Egyptian obelisk in the world (455 tons). It came to Rome in 357 CE to decorate the spina of the famous Circus Maximus.
There is always a temptation to visit a famous Roman site such as the Circus Maximus assuming that it will look like a first century hippodrome. It is just over the hill from the Forum and it has its own Metro stop. However, what the modern visitor sees is a ‘pretend’ version of Circus Maximus; like so many other places in central Rome it sits well above the layer of the old Roman remains. It was tarted up in the 1930s and shaped to look a bit like the forum. However, if we use our imagination, we can imagine the two obelisks at the centre of Circus Maximus, toppling over and breaking apart with the collapse of the Roman Empire (eg. The invasion of the Visigoths in 410 CE). The one we are interested in was already 2000 years old when it fell over. It lay buried for another 1500 years when it was discovered again in 1587, dug up, and placed by Pope Sixtus V’s architect/Engineer in front of St John Lateran where it still stands today. (Its fellow buried obelisk was similarly dug up and erected in Piazza del Popolo.) When arriving to visit St John Lateran, don’t pass by 3500 years of history without having a considered look at this structure, thrusting into sky and only vaguely recalling its original purpose of celebrating the Egyptian Sun God Ra.
The Jubilee Pilgrimage Map of 1599 now showing the obelisks in front of St Peters and St John Lateran that weren’t on the 1575 map . By this time there was probably an obelisk at the back of Santa Maria Maggiore.
3. St John Lateran
When you approach the basilica of St John Lateran (perhaps after getting out of the Metro at San Giovanni), even before you cross the road in front of the broad piazza in front of the Church, you will see a group of statues. From a distance you will suspect they are meant to be medieval penitents on a Seven Churchs Jubilee Pilgrimage. A closer look will show they celebrate a much more famous event in the long history of John Lateran. What we have here is ‘Il Poverello’, Francis of Assisi, arriving to meet Pope Innocent III in 1209 to seek approval for his wandering order of preachers.
From here we can cross the road, give the obelisk a friendly rub and head on in to the gorgeous St John Lateran, or to give it its full name, ‘The Cathedral of the Most Holy Saviour and of Saints John the Baptist and the Evangelist in the Lateran’. Given the prominence that is given to St Peters as the home of the Pope and its amazing architecture etc, we could be forgiven for presuming that St Peters is the oldest church in Rome. Not so. The original Lateran Palace was built over a Roman fort, the remains of which lie directly below the nave of the current church. The palace came into the hands of Constantine I who passed it on to the Pope at the beginning of the fourth century. It remained the home of the Popes in Rome until Clement V moved the Papacy to Avignon in 1309. So for a 1000 years, this basilica and associated palace was the home of the Popes; St Peters has only done 600 years in the job.
There is much to see and experience inside St John Lateran, far too much to cover in this article. Let me mention two to start you off.
A. Note the baldacin (canopy) over the high altar. The heads of St Peter and Paul are said to be in a reliquary that sits at the top of this structure. However I suspect nobody has dared to check recently as there is an appalling story of Napoleonic troops at the end of the 18th Century playing soccer with skulls found near the high altar.
The relic that is enclosed within the altar itself holds the old wooden altar taken from the original St Peters when it was rebuilt.
B. Have a good look at the mosaic that decorates the apse of this cathedral. The face of Jesus (the ‘Pantocrator’) is believed to be as old as the church and so it has survived fires, earthquakes and tasteless renovations for the last 1600 years. Apart from the usual admiring saints, the smallest figure in the apse mosaic is Pope Nicholas IV (1227-1292), the first Franciscan Pope. As Pope, he took the opportunity to renovate the apse, inserting himself and St Francis into the mosaic with Mary and John the Baptist. We passed the memorial on the way to this basilica that commemorated Francis’s arrival at St John Lateran in 1205; little did he know that 80 years later, the Pope would be one of his brothers and would be putting Francis’s portrait into the apse of the premier church of Christendom. I suspect a little bit of rolling in his grave would have been St Francis’s response.
- Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore
Our fourth church to visit on the Seven Churches Jubilee Pilgrimage tour is the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore (St Mary Major); I have put our Churches in order of importance rather than in the ‘visitation’ order used on the map of our tour early in this article. Unlike most of the seven churches we visit, we can approach this Basilica from any direction, not just the front. If we walk up the Esquiline Hill (one of the seven hills of Rome) from the forum, the first thing that catches our eye is the obelisk that was set up in 1587 in Piazza dell’Esquilino. It doesn’t appear on our 1599 map of St Mary Major, perhaps the artist hadn’t noticed that Pope Sixtus V (the great ‘obelisk mover’) had moved it there a few years before his map was produced. This obelisk has a different story of origin than the obelisks we have encountered so far. Although it came from Egypt, it has no hieroglyphics and was originally set up by Augustus in front of his massive Mausoleum near the Tiber.
There were in fact two obelisks set up in front of the Mausoleum of Augustus. Like its brother, the second obelisk had been broken into pieces and sank into the flood soil of the Tiber. It was rescued from oblivion and reassembled on the highest of the seven hills of Rome, the Quirinal Hill.
Henry James, the great American novelist visited this church on his European tour in the late nineteenth century. Here is a section of his commentary on Santa Maria Maggiore.
The first day of my stay in Rome under the old dispensation I spent in wandering at random through the city, with accident for my valet-de-place. It served me to perfection and introduced me to the best things; among others to an immediate happy relation with Santa Maria Maggiore. First impressions, memorable impressions, are generally irrecoverable; they often leave one the wiser, but they rarely return in the same form. I remember, of my coming uninformed and unprepared into the place of worship and of curiosity that I have named, only that I sat for half an hour on the edge of the base of one of the marble columns of the beautiful nave and enjoyed a perfect revel of – what shall I call it? – taste, intelligence, fancy, perceptive emotion? The place proved so endlessly suggestive that perception became a throbbing confusion of images, and I departed with a sense of knowing a good deal that it is not set down in Murray.
Santa Maria Maggiore is one of the oldest churches in Rome. There was a church in situ as early as 352 but the first phase of building the current church began around 432. One of the things to inspect here are its fabulous mosaics, considered to be the oldest representations of Mary. The Council of Ephesus had occurred in 431 CE so implementing some of the theology of this Church Council was perhaps part of the plan of this church’s early fathers. It was the Council of Ephesus that decided that Mary was the mother of God and so ‘Mariology’ became an important aspect of Church teaching.
Two of the historical characters that have come up regularly in my Roman travels are buried in this church. The first is Pope Sixtus V. History has painted this counter-reformation Pope as…“On the negative side, he could be impulsive, obstinate, severe, and autocratic. On the positive side, he was open to large ideas and threw himself into his undertakings with great energy and determination.” (Wikipedia) Unlike so many other Popes, he did not empty the papal treasury. What he did do was recognise the value of obelisks and ensured that three major ones were rescued from the mud of history and placed in prime positions around Rome. Unfortunately, like Mussolini, he believed in the old saying, “you have to break a few eggs to make an omelette”; he removed two old churches when placing his obelisk at the back of Santa Maria Maggiore.
My other favourite character who is buried in Santa Maria Maggiore is our old friend Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Like Sixtus V, his impact on the Rome we visit in the new Millennium is extraordinary.