Basilica di San Damaso Papa is a lost 4th century funerary basilica and (later) shrine somewhere in the Complesso Callistiano between the Via Appia Antica and the Via Ardeatina. (See Catacombe di San Callisto.)

The dedication, once the pope had been canonised, was to Pope St Damasus I.

History Edit

Foundation Edit

Pope St Damasus reigned from 366 to 384. He had a great devotion to the martyrs of Rome in the era of persecutions, especially to those who suffered in the liquidation of the Church's leadership when Pope St Sixtus II was killed. (These included St Lawrence - perhaps because the pope's mother's name was Laurentia.) This veneration led him to commission much remodelling work in the catacombs containing known martyrs, in order to facilitate the access of pilgrims and to provide fitting shrines. For these shrines he composed metrical verses in Latin, which he had inscribed on marble slabs and affixed to the shrines concerned. Some of these survive, although in a fragmentary state, and others were transcribed before their loss. The name of the epigraphist who carved these slabs has survived -it was Furius Dionysius Philocalus. His work is immediately recognisable.

In fact this pope is considered to have been the progenitor of the great Roman suburban pilgrimage circuit, which surrounded Rome from his time until its abandonment and destruction in the 9th century.

In the city, he founded the basilica of San Lorenzo in Damaso on the site of his house, and this was the first church in the locality (the bend of the Tiber). It was to become the mother of many smaller churches in the early Middle Ages.

At the Catacombe di San Callisto he remodelled the famous Crypt of the Popes, where he enshrined several of his predecessors including Pope St Sixtus II. For the latter he provided an epigraph, found in fragments. The last couple of lines of this is autobiographical:

Hic fateor Damasus volui mea condere membra, sed cineres timui sanctos vexare piorum.

(" I, Damasus, assert that I wished to lay my limbs here, but I feared to annoy the sacred remains of the pious.")

What he did instead was to erect a funerary basilica for himself, his mother and his sister (this is mentioned in the Liber Pontificalis). This became a shrine to him once he was recognised as a saint, and so joined the pilgrimage circuit himself.

Oblivion Edit

The Itinerarium Salisburgense of the 7th century has this:

Et dimittis viam Appiam et pervenies ad s. Marcum papam et martyrem, postea ad s. Damasum papam et martyrem via Ardeatina, et ibi in altera ecclesia invenies duos diaconos et martyres Marcum et Marcellianum fratres germanos cuius corpus quescit sursum sub magno altare.

This indicates that the basilica was near both the Catacomba di Balbina (Basilica di San Marco Papa) and the Catacomba di Basileo (Basilica dei Santi Marco e Marcelliano). The former is tentatively identified with the Basilica Anonima della Via Ardeatina. The entry seems to place the basilica in the same immediate location (ibi) as the latter, somewhere north-west of the present San Tarcisio a Via Appia. But its site has never been located.

The relics of the saint were eventually transferred to under the main altar of San Lorenzo in Damaso, where they remain.

Epigraphs Edit

Preservation Edit

The only survivals of the basilica are the epitaphs of the three known tombs, of the pope himself as well as of his sister Irene and his mother Laurentia. He composed all three himself.

The first two are lost, but fortunately were transcribed in the early Middle Ages and the text survived in manuscript.

The third, to his mother, was not transcribed and so for centuries his mother's name was unknown. However, in 1902 some digging operations by the Trappist monks of San Tarcisio, in the vicinity of their monastery, found most of her epitaph. Very oddly, this was in the form of a piece of rubble bearing mortar in which an impress of the epitaph was fixed. A very small portion of the original tablet survived, stuck to it. So the tablet had been scavenged for a building project of some kind, but the edifice concerned had in turn been demolished and its rubble scattered. The location of the find was hence not much help in discerning the location of the original basilica

Pope's epitaph Edit

Pope St Damasus's own epitaph:

Qui gradiens pelagi fluctus compressit amaros, vivere qui prestat morientia semina terrae, solvere qui potuit letalia vincula morti, post tenebras fratrem post tertia lumina solis ad superos iterum Marthae donare sorori post cineres Damasum faciet quia surgere credo.

("He who, walking [on them], restrained the ill-natured waves of the sea, who presents alive the dying seeds of the earth, who is able to unloose the lethal chains of death by giving a brother to Martha [his] sister [when] he [returned] again to the upper regions after three [periods of] darkness and light of the sun, I believe will make Damasus rise from his remains.")

Irene's epitaph Edit

The pope's sister's epitaph:

Hoc tumulo sacrata Deo nunc membra quiescunt. Hic soror est Damasi, nomen si quaeres, Irene. Voverat haec sese Christo cum vita maneret, virginis ut meritum sanctus pudor ipse probaret. Bis denas hiemes necdum compleverat aetas. Egregios mores vitae praecesserat aetas. Propositum mentis pietas veneranda puellae magnificos fructus dederat melioribus annis. Te germana soror nostri tunc testis amoris, cum fugeret mundum dederat mihi pignus honestum. Quam sibi cum raperet melior cum regia caeli, non timui mortem, caelos quod libera adiret, sed dolui, fateor, consortia perdere vitae. Nunc veniente deo nostri reminiscere virgo ut tua per Dominum praestet mihi facula lumen.

("In this tomb now rest limbs consecrated to God. Here is the sister of Damasus; if you are looking for her name, it is Irene. This one vowed herself to Christ as long as life remained in her, so that holy modesty itself might test the worth of the virgin. Her time had not yet finished two times ten winters. Her time had preceded the notable habits of life. The purpose of the mind, the venerable piety of the girl had given splendid fruits beyond those of greater years. You, twin sister, then were a witness to our love, since when she abandoned the world she had given me a virtuous pledge. For since she grabbed for herself the better palace of heaven, I do not fear death, as she has gone free to heaven, but I have mourned, I confess, the loss of companionship of life. Now, when God comes {in judgment] remember, O virgin, that your torch may give me light through the Lord").

Laurentia's epitaph Edit

The epitaph of the pope's mother was not entirely preserved, but the dimensions of the tablet were. So, by counting the letter spaces, a fair idea of the missing portion has been obtained.

In the following, bold shows the fragment of tablet that survived, while underlined text is a hypothetical reconstruction.

Hic Damasi mater posuit, Laurentia membra quae fuit in terris centum minus octo per annos, sexaginta deo vixit post foedora sancta, progenie quarta vidit quae laeta nepotes.

("Here the mother of Damasus, Laurentia, put her limbs, who was on earth for a hundred years minus eight, she lived to God for sixty after holy matrimony, who rejoicing saw her offspring to four generations.")

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