Since we saw the chapel of Ss Primus and Felician in the basilica of St Stephen on the Caelian Hill in Rome yesterday, today we have a look at the basilica itself. This is the only round church built in Rome in ancient times, and is therefore often called “Santo Stefano Rotondo” in Italian, “round St Stephen’s.” (The Pantheon was often called “Santa Maria Rotonda”, but was not, of course, built as a church.) First constructed in the mid-5th century, and dedicated by Pope St Simplicius, who ruled from 468 to 483, the design was inspired by the church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. Both churches originally consisted of a rotunda with three concentric ambulatory rings around the center, although the subsequent vicissitudes of history have changed them both very considerably.
About 50 years before the Roman church was built, the relics of its patron Saint were discovered in a village outside Jerusalem, and pieces of them sent to many different places. St Augustine knew of at least three of them in North Africa, and it seems likely that Rome must have had at least one. If this was indeed the case, it would likely have been kept here. The church also sits close to a large property owned by a family called the Valerii, who had various ties to Jerusalem, and may well have financed the building of it.
(A plan of the church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem as it was in the 7th century, copied from a description of that era into a manuscript of the mid-9th century. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
In its original form, the outer ambulatory was over 215 feet across; for comparison, this is a bit wider than the ancient basilica of St Peter. The central part was surrounded by twenty-two columns, and there were formerly twenty-two corresponding windows in the tambour of the dome. Unfortunately, the building was allowed to fall into serious disrepair in the early Middle Ages; as part of a restoration done in the 12th century, the outer ambulatory was torn down, and 14 of the windows in the tambour were closed up. This also entailed the loss of four side chapels which extended from the middle to the outer ambulatory, forming a Greek cross within the circle.
In the later 16th century, Pope Gregory XIII (1572-85) commissioned the painters Niccolò Cicignani (generally known by the nickname Pomarancio) and Antonio Tempesta to cover the interior walls with a series of 34 frescoed panels of martyrdoms of the early years of Christianity. These generally have at least three scenes in them, with one prominent in the foreground, and two or more in the background. In the pedantic manner of its era, each part of each scene has a large letter painted next to it, which corresponds to a legend given beneath in both Latin and Italian.
Many of these are extremely vivid in giving the details of the tortures which the martyrs suffered, and have long been not only the church’s best-known feature, but also its least liked. However, they are not merely an indulgence in the grotesque for its own sake. During the Counter-Reformation, the Catholic Church was very concerned to show that its teachings were in continuity with those of the early Church, which had inherited them from Christ through the Apostles and their immediate successors. This is what the martyrs, the “witnesses”, attest to, from the very first, St Stephen, to whom the church is dedicated, up to our own times. The gruesome details of their sufferings are shown to convey the importance of the truth to which the Saints of all ages witness, whether by the shedding of their blood or by the holiness of their lives, and to impress the tremendous seriousness of that fact on men of all nations, including Protestants who might visit the church. The inscriptions are therefore given also in Latin, so that all educated persons of the would be able to read them, and know exactly what the martyrs had undergone for the sake of their witness. From the Catholic point of view, it makes no sense that God would give the martyrs the grace to witness to the Church’s teachings for so many years, only to then allow it all to be corrupted by falsehoods, as the early Protestants claimed had happened.