San Biagio della Pagnotta is a heavily restored 11th century (?) national church. It is a small edifice at the north end of the Via Giulia, at number 64 in the rione Ponte. Pictures of the church at Wikimedia Commons are here.
Historically, the veneration of St Blaise has been very popular in both Eastern and Western Christendom, but not much is historically known about him except that he was a bishop who was martyred in the first years of 4th century in that part of historical Armenia ruled by the Roman Empire. His city was Sebaste, now Sivas in Turkey. Two unhistorical assertions in his legend helped to extend his popularity, one that he miraculously extracted a fish-bone from the throat of a choking child and the other that he was martyred by having his body torn with a wool-comb (an implement with sharp teeth, used to prepare wool for spinning). The first made him the patron for diseases of the throat, and the second that of the manufacture and trade in woollen cloth.
The church was there long before the Via Giulia was created, and is of ancient but unknown origin. The first documentary reference is of 1072, during the papacy of Alexander II, when it was rebuilt as the church of a small Benedictine monastery. Back then its name was San Biagio Cantu Secuta, which has many documented variations and seems to refer to a sandbank accumulating on the inside of the bend of the Tiber.
In 1186 it had become dependent on the parish church of San Lorenzo in Damaso, and had the alternative name of San Biagio in Olivo (presumably somebody had planted an olive tree next to it).
The present appellation of Pagnotta was first recorded in the 14th century, and refers to a monastery dole. Loaves of bread were blessed and given to local poor people on 3 February, the feast day of St Blaise.
The monastery had failed in the Middle Ages during the great collapse of Benedictine observance beginning in the 13th century, and Pope Nicholas V (1397-1455) put the church under the authority of the Cardinal-bishop of the Ruthenians.
Nowadays this term usually refers to those Ukrainians living south-west of the Carpathians, in what used to be Imperial Hungary, but back then it was the Latin term for any of the Russics (Russians, Bielorussians and Ukrainians), especially those living in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania . The bishop was responsible for those of the Byzantine rite who had been reconciled to the Catholic Church.
A little over a century later, the church came under the care of the Vatican Chapter in 1559. This was one way of coping with redundant churches in the locality at the time, as the Ruthenians had moved operations to Santi Sergio e Bacco.
The Chapter established it as a parish church, but there have always been many churches in the area and so it remained rather redundant. However, in 1592 the Confraternita della Santissima Vergine Maria del Suffragio was founded here in order to make intercession for the souls in Purgatory. This confraternity attracted a sufficient number of members to be able to build their own church just down the street at Santa Maria del Suffragio, which they did in 1669.
The church was remodelled in 1730, with a new façade (it seems unclear how much old fabric remains in the building). The Nolli map of 1748 lists it as fully parochial.
In 1832 the interior was gutted and re-ordered, and the Romanesque bell-tower demolished.
A major re-ordering of the parishes of the Centro Storico took place in 1824, under the bull Super Universam issued by Pope Leo XII. This suppressed the parish attached to the church.
Finally, in 1856, the church was made an Armenian national church, dependent on the former Armenian college at Santa Maria Egiziaca. This was especially because of its dedication to an Armenian saint.
Since then, it has been served by Armenian Catholic priests. The liturgy of the Armenian rite is used, which is one of the ancient rites of the Catholic church and which is officially of the same dignity as the Latin rite. Despite being one of the Eastern rites, it differs significantly from the Byzantine rites by, for example, having no iconostasis and using unleavened bread in the Eucharist.
The Armenian Catholic Church is in full communion with the Holy Father, but is identical in its worship to the Armenian national church with its headquarters at Etchmiadzin in Armenia.
This is a small rectangular building, with an integral semi-circular apse taking the whole width of the aisleless nave.
The 1730 façade was by Giovanni Antonio Perfetti, and features four gigantic derivative Composite pilasters on very high plinths and supporting an entablature which has a Latin dedicatory inscription on its frieze. The acanthus leaves on the capitals are stylized. The inner pair of pilasters is brought forward slightly, which means that the entablature and the ogee-curved pediment above it are both stepped vertically. The pediment is decorated with three flaming urn finials.
The entrance has a rather geometrically elaborate Baroque doorcase supporting a raised false pediment formed from two volutes with small spirals facing each other, rather like fighting caterpillars. Above this is the main feature of the façade, a fresco of St Blaise performing the miracle of the fish-bone. This has an elaborately decorated frame, with an acanthus-and-palm-leaf device below and a scalloped tablet above which bears an inscription in the Armenian alphabet. Owing to the narrowness of the street this is not easy to view, and binoculars are useful.
In between the pairs of pilasters to either side are two pairs of windows, the upper pair rectangular and the lower capsule-shaped.
Those expecting an exotic Oriental church interior will be disappointed. The style is restrained neo-Baroque by Antonio Navone, with Corinthian nave pilasters in yellow stone supporting a deep vertically stepped entablature immediately below the flat ceiling. The latter is decorated in shallow stucco relief, with a sunburst motif around the dove of the Holy Spirit within a Baroque frame surrounded by panels showing sprays of vegetation.
The triumphal arch of the apse is narrower than the apse itself, and is supported by a pair of white marble Ionic columns in the round. Above the arch on either side is a pair of stucco putti, and on the ceiling immediately above is an Armenian inscription.
The apse is at a higher level than the nave, and is approached by steps. Note the red curtains which can be drawn closed to isolate the apse; this is the equivalent of the iconostasis in the Armenian rite and is closed during the secret part of the Eucharist. Behind the high altar, which is identical in style to a Latin one and has a tabernacle, there is a painting showing St Blaise and the fish-bone miracle again.
On the left hand side of the nave is a version from 1671 of the icon of Our Lady of Grace. Also in the church is a fresco of the Blessed Sacrament Adored by Angels by Pietro da Cortona, and a reliquary containing the throat (larynx?) of St Blaise.
Access and liturgy
The misleading notice affixed to the front door states that the church is open from Monday and
Wednesday at 7:30, and Saturday at 18:30, for the Mass in the Armenian rite.
Vespers is advertised at 16:30.
However, in 2011 the church was being found closed at these times. On a visit in October 2012, Mass in the Armenian rite was being celebrated on a Sunday mid-morning, with a fair-sized congregation. Apparently this starts at 11:00.
Those interested in visiting might prefer to check beforehand with the Armenian college at San Nicola da Tolentino agli Orti Sallustiani, which is the main Armenian national church.
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