San Pellegrino in Vaticano is a 9th century church, heavily restored, in Via del Pellegrino to the north of St Peter’s and next to the offices of the Osservatore Romano newspaper. This is in in Vatican City. There is an English Wikipedia page here.

The dedication is now taken as being to St Peregrine of Auxerre (there is some doubt as to its original dedication).

This is the church of the Vatican Gendarmerie.

History[edit | edit source]

Origins[edit | edit source]

The church and an attached pilgrim hospice dates back to the 8th century at least, since Pope Leo III, who died in 816, is described in the Liber Pontificalis as having given it a silver lamp. The actual foundation date is unknown, but the late 8th century is a good guess.

At this period, the area around St Peter's was colonized by several expatriate groups which included monastics from the eastern Mediterranean as well as four schola of Germanic barbarians. The Schola Francorum was to the south of St Peter's, and the the Schola Langobardorum for the Lombards at the lost church of San Giustino was to the north of the basilica (the site is under the north colonnade of the piazza of the basilica). The church of Sancti Peregrini was to the north of the latter.

According to a later tradition, Charlemagne also donated the relics of St Peregrine of Auxerre in the same period (hence the dedication). If the tradition associating the church with Auxerre is correct, then the foundation of a pilgrims' hospice here might have been by Burgundians as distinct from the Franks on the other side of the basilica, but this has no documentary support.

In the 816 reference, the church is called Sancti Peregrini in Naumachia which probably recalls an artificial lake in which mock naval battles could have been held. This naumachia (the word is Greek) was allegedly traced in 18th century excavations to the north-west of Castel Sant'Angelo, but the interpretation of the evidence is not regarded as altogether conclusive. In fact, the name of the church is one of the better pieces of evidence for its existence here.

Middle ages[edit | edit source]

Pope Paschal I (817-24) is recorded as having donated the complex to the basilica of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, which he had rebuilt. This indicates that something went badly wrong with the original setup, and that the hospice was now being used as a source of income.

Pope Leo IX (1049-54) then donated the complex to the monastery of Sancti Stephani Majoris, the ancestor of the present church of Santo Stefano degli Abissini. At this stage the monastery (as well as others locally) was providing personnel for the performance of liturgical celebrations in St Peter's, so the pope was subsidizing the choirs of the basilica.

In the 13th century, after the monasteries around St Peter's had failed, the church here was put under the charge of the Chapter of St Peter's.

In the 14th century, it is thought that the apse was provided with a new fresco containing fragments of the original 9th century one (this hypothesis is on stylistic grounds).

The Chapter paid for a restoration in 1590, when a new façade was provided and the floor raised over a crypt.

The hospice for French pilgrims continued to function in the Middle Ages, and pilgrims who died in Rome were buried in a cemetery adjacent.

Swiss Guards[edit | edit source]

In 1648, the Swiss Guards lost their burial rights at Santa Maria della Pietà in Camposanto as a consequence of the Treaty of Westphalia -such rights were restricted to deceased subjects of the Holy Roman Empire, which by then did not include Switzerland. So, in 1653 the Swiss Guards were given the right of burial in the cemetery here.

The hospice was closed down, and the Swiss Guards obtained full possession of the church in 1658 by means of an arrangement set up by Johann Rudolf Pfyffer von Altishofen, their Commander (who had died in the previous year and was buried here). This meant that they could use the crypt as well as the cemetery for burials. There was an immediate restoration, with a new façade and entrance range provided.

However they already had a dedicated place of worship built for them in 1568, Santi Martino e Sebastiano degli Svizzeri, and so only seem to have been interested in this church as a mortuary chapel.

Modern times[edit | edit source]

Perhaps inevitably, during the 18th century the church fell into disrepair.

Fortunately Anton de Waal, the famous archaeologist and church historian, took an interest. He was priest-in-charge of Santa Maria della Pietà in Camposanto, which he also saved from ruin. Here he undertook a restoration in 1888, when he found evidence of frescoes of the 9th century, as well as of others of the 13th and 14th centuries which include a depiction of Our Lady.

However, the Swiss Guards seem to have preferred worshipping in Santi Martino e Sebastiano degli Svizzeri and so San Pellegrino was rather lacking a role for most of the 20th century after it was restored in 1913. Perhaps as a result, it was made the chapel of the Gendarmerie and the fire-fighters of Vatican City in 1977, after another restoration in the previous year.

Exterior[edit | edit source]

Layout and fabric[edit | edit source]

The little church has a single nave of four bays with parallel side walls, but with the front wall noticeably skew -the left hand side wall is longer than the right. The sanctuary is a semi-circular apse, slightly narrower than the nave. In front of the nave is attached a 17th century entrance bay, consisting of a passage flanked by a pair of approximately square custodians' chambers.

The main body of the church is early 9th century fabric. The lower courses of the left hand side wall and the apse are in large travertine limestone blocks, most likely salvaged from an ancient building. The right hand side wall is on an ancient wall foundation. The rest of the fabric is in re-used ancient bricks. The nave used to have four small windows on each side, apparently.

Façade[edit | edit source]

The simple late 17th century single-storey façade has a pair of doubletted Doric pilasters, supporting a matching entablature crowned by a triangular pediment.

The single entrance has a marble molded doorcase with a floating cornice above. Above that in turn is a large round-headed niche with an arc cornice, containing a 19th century depiction of the patron saint in majolica tiles. He is depicted holding a scroll with the inscription Nulla mihi patria nisi Christus, nec nomen aliud quam Christianus ("There is no homeland for me except Christ, and no name except Christian").

Interior[edit | edit source]

Layout[edit | edit source]

There is a small nave with a tiny apse, the latter containing the ancient fresco remnants discovered in the 19th century. There are no external chapels, and only one side altar.

Nave[edit | edit source]

The walls of the nave are rendered in a pinkish plaster, except for the fresco work on them. To the right is a collection of wall-memorials and epigraph tablets recording restorations, including the one overseen Johann Rudolf Pfyffer von Altishofen who had obtained the church for the Swiss Guards. This particular tablet is topped by the Commander's shield. His memorial is on the opposite wall.

The right hand side wall then has an altar dedicated to St Nicholas von Flüe, patron of Switzerland. The aedicule, in white, has a pair of Composite columns with incurved volutes, which support a segmental pediment having a recessed central section. A pair of putti sits on the ends of the pediment, and the tympanum contains an odd blank Baroque tablet with curlicues and leaf-sprays as well as a head with an ostrich-feather crown. The altarpiece depicts the saint.

Beyond the altar to the right are two modern icons in the Byzantine style, one showing St Michael the Archangel as the patron of the Gendarmerie and the other St Barbara and Pope St Leo IV. The former is holding the tower that is her attribute, as her legend describes her being locked in one by her psychotic father. The latter ends up being struck by lightning, hence she is a patron of fire-fighters in general. Pope St Leo built the Leonine Walls, and also allegedly stopped a fire in the Borgo by making the sign of the cross. Hence he is a special patron of Vatican fire-fighters.

The left hand side wall has two doorways of different sizes, and also has two illusionistic polychrome frescoes depicting the top halves of ornate Baroque doorways with a pair of columns each and split curlicued segmental pediments. These depictions do not match the placements of the present doors, and give the impression of not being in situ.

Also to the left is a very attractive early 15th century fresco of the Madonna and Child, sitting within an ornately canopied Gothic baldacchino and being venerated by angels. The text over her reads Armatura fortium Maria ("The armour of the strong, Mary"). This work used to be in the apse, but was removed to reveal the older fresco underneath. The octagonal baldacchino depicted is apparently based on the one then in Old St Peter's.

On the left hand side wall near the entrance is the impressive Baroque monument dated 1658 to Johann Rudolf Pfyffer von Altishofen. This has an epitaph tablet in white marble in the form of a rumpled cloth, within a frame in green and yellow marbles from behind which two winged skulls are peering at the sides. There is a little water stoup attached, in the form of a shell in black marble.

The counterfaçade is a delight to any student of heraldry, as it has frescoes of the full coats-of-arms of the Commanders of the Guards from 1517 to 1984 which are continued on the near end of the left hand side wall. Over the entrance door is a tablet recording the donation of the church to the Swiss Guards by the Chapter of St Peter's in 1658.

The attractive and unusual flat wooden ceiling has shallow coffers in chamfered squares. These are painted in blue, green and gold and each depicts a ribbon motif around a central rosette within a nested fake coffer of the same shape. There is a wall cornice charmingly frescoed with roses. This ceiling was installed in the 1671 restoration by the Swiss Guards.

The modern floor in red terracotta tiles contains tomb-slabs, and also the marble trapdoor to the burial crypt.

Two modern stained glass windows are high up in the side walls near the sanctuary.

Sanctuary[edit | edit source]

The little apse has a conch, and is very low as a result of the raising of the nave floor in 1590.

The conch has a fresco, possibly originally of the early 9th century, showing Christ the Pantocrator with four saints. The composition is continued on the wall containing the apse, where there are two panels flanking the apse with another two saints (SS Peter and Paul?). The spandrels above the conch have two tondi containing saints with written scrolls, probably two of the Evangelists.

It is thought that the work is mostly 14th century, although it has been claimed that the figure of Christ is an overpainted survival of an original 9th century work.

Between this fresco work and the ceiling are five coats-of-arms of popes associated with the church and the Swiss Guards. From left to right, they are of Pope Julius II who founded the Swiss Guards in 1506, Pope Paul III who re-established them in 1548, Blessed Pope Paul VI who had the church restored in 1976, Pope Alexander VII who gave the church to the Swiss Guards in 1658 and Pope St Pius X who had it restored in 1913.

Access and liturgy[edit | edit source]

After being usually kept locked for the latter part of the 20th century, the church is apparently now usually open in the mornings and can be visited by those with permission to be in this part of Vatican City.

Msgr Giulio Viviani, in charge of the handover of the church to the Gendarmerie in 1977, was on record as hoping that pilgrims would be allowed to visit the church. But security issues have stymied this, and Vatican City is now operated as a gated community with access by permission only.

There is no access to casual visitors, not even to view the exterior. You need a pass before the Swiss Guard on duty at the gate by Sant'Anna dei Palafrenieri will let you through. Don't bother asking -he has his orders.

The priest in charge is the chaplain of the Gendarmerie, and he also says Mass for the Swiss Guards here once a month.

Bibliography[edit | edit source]

The Vatican publishers have brought out a booklet on the church:

Viviani, Giulio: La Cappella di San Pellegrino nella Città del Vaticano. Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2010.

External links[edit | edit source]

Italian Wikipedia page

Interactive Nolli Map Website

Info.roma web-page

Blog photo of exterior

Article in Osservatore Romano

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