The Lenten station church in Rome today is a basilica on the Caelian Hill dedicated to two martyrs named John and Paul, brothers killed for their Christian faith by the Emperor Julian the Apostate, who reigned from 361-63. They are said to have been military officers under Constantine, and then to have served in the household of his daughter, Constantia, who at her death left them her large fortune with which to take care of the poor. When Julian, the son of Constantine’s half-brother, came to the throne, they refused to attend him at the court because of his apostasy from the Faith. The emperor would have used this as a pretext to seize the money left by Constantia, but granted them ten days to reconsider; the two Saints therefore gave all the money away for its intended purpose. Terentian, the captain of Julian’s bodyguard, came to their house, bearing a statue of Jove and the Emperor’s promise that they would be greatly honored if they would worship it; otherwise, they would be immediately killed. On their refusal, they were beheaded at once, and buried within their own house on the Caelian hill, directly across from the imperial residence on the Palatine.

Not long after, Julian was slain during a military campaign against Rome’s ancient enemy, Persia, a campaign which he had instigated and in which he apparently believed the pagan gods would grant him victory as a vindication of his “revival” of their worship. His successor Jovian converted the Saints’ house into a church, and many possessed persons were healed there, including the son of Terentian; the latter became a Christian and wrote the passion of the Martyrs. Scholars of hagiography do not regard the details of this traditional account as historically reliable, but there can be no reasonable doubt that devotion to Ss John and Paul is extremely ancient.

The basilica was completely rebuilt in the late 11th century, and rather unfortunately refashioned in the 18th, in which period it was given to the Passionist Order. The order’s founder, St Paul of the Cross, had a brother named Giovanni Battista (John the Baptist), to whom he was very close, and who was instrumental in helping him found it. Pope Clement XIV (1769-74) gave the basilica to St Paul to be the order’s first Roman house in remembrance of his beloved brother, since the martyrs John and Paul were also brothers.

In 1887, the rector of the basilica, Fr Germanus of St Stanislaus (his religious name), was inspired by the story given above to go looking for the remains of the martyr’s house, and possibly their original tomb, under his church. What he discovered went beyond his wildest expectations: including the spaces discovered by archeologists working after him, there are more than 20 different environments, 13 of which preserve remains of ancient frescoes. Visitors to the site today may well find it puzzling to understand since it consists of parts of at least two different buildings of the early 2nd century, as well as part of a street. Sometime in the early 3rd century, these were incorporated into a single very large, and richly decorated house. The frescoes were preserved in the rooms when they were transformed into foundations for the Christian basilica built on top of them.

The Confessio, where Ss John and Paul were originally buried, together with three other martyrs named Crispus, Crispinian, and Benedicta, whose relationship to them is not at all clear. (Image from Wikimedia Commons by NatyssCC BY-SA 4.0)

nymphaeum, part of one of the 2nd-century buildings. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons by Lalupa)

A room decorated with very high-quality frescoes, painted to imitate the mosaic of inlaid marble. This would be from the 3rd-century transformation of the buildings into a single large house. (Image from Wikimedia Commons by NatyssCC BY-SA 4.0)

The room of the praying figure (orans – not shown here) is another painted environment from the 3rd century transformation of the earlier buildings. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons by Lalupa)