Sant' Anastasia is a minor basilica, originally of the 4th century but heavily remodelled several times, which is located at Piazza di Sant'Anastasia in the rione Campitelli. Pictures of the church at Wikimedia Commons are here. There is an English Wikipedia page here.
The dedication is to the martyr St Anastasia.
Ancient Roman remainsEdit
The church was originally formed out of an ancient Roman building on the site, remains of which survive beneath it. Archaeological investigations have revealed a fairly clear chronology.
The original Republican urban layout, revealed in strata around the church's apse, was abandoned completely in the mid 1st century AD. This was almost certainly the result of the enormous fire which destroyed about a third of the city in the reign of the emperor Nero, and which started near here at the east end of the adjacent Circus Maximus. The rebuilding here provided an urban block or insula with a narrow street on each side, parallel to the axis of the circus. The later church kept this orientation.
The ground floor of the insula had shops or tabernae on both side streets, and these apparently continued to function even after the church was founded in the 4th century. As businesses they almost certainly catered for the crowds flocking to the sporting events at the circus, since the starting gates for the races were very close by. These shops were fronted by an arcade on pillars of peperino blocks.
The insula was restored several times before the church was founded, especially during the reign of Domitian when the circus was rebuilt on a slightly larger scale and there was a knock-on effect here. The pillars mentioned were clad in brick in the process. There was another restoration in the early 4th century.
There has been a suspicion for centuries that here or hereabouts was the Lupercal, or the original cave where Romulus and Remus as babies were suckled by the famous she-wolf. In 2007 archaeologists reported finding a decorated cave under the Domus Livia on the Palatine, and claimed this as the shrine. This is disputed, and the matter awaits excavation as the cave is still inaccessible. The question as regards the church is whether its location here was originally a riposte to the pagan shrine, and this is unanswerable.
The history of St Anastasia is problematic, since very little is known about her. The revised Roman martyrology confines itself to the two fairly certain historical facts, that she was martyred in the persecution of the emperor Diocletian, and that this happened at the city of Sirmium which one of the imperial capitals of the later Roman Empire. It is now a place called Sremska Mitrovica in Serbia. According to Theodore Lector, an early 6th century historian at Constantinople , her relics were taken to that city and enshrined in a church called the Anastasis which was then dedicated to her. This name means "resurrection", and the name Anastasia hence means "resurrection girl".
The Roman legend attached to her is, quite simply, fictional. It links her with St Chrysogonus, whose basilica is in Trastevere (San Crisogono), and alleges that she was a Roman patrician maiden whose family home was on the site of the church. The last assertion is demonstrably false from the archaeological evidence, and one wonders how the writer of the legend could imagine that a rich family would have a residence right next to a major sporting venue.
The cult of the saint in Rome became popular in the mid 5th century, and was probably encouraged by the Greek imperial officials and merchants from Constantinople who were resident either on the Palatine or in the area next to the river quays known as the Forum Boarium. The devotion to her became such that her name was introduced into the canon of the Mass around the end of the century.
Her relics were transferred to Zadar in Croatia at the end of the 8th century, and they are now in the cathedral dedicated to her there.
Foundation of the churchEdit
The first church was built here in the early 4th century and was one of the original parish churches, the tituli, of palaeochristian Rome. It was the only one to have been sited at the ancient centres of power and pagan cult located at the Forum and on the Palatine, but there are no historical details preserved concerning its foundation. Its original patron was possibly a woman called Anastasia, and hence it came to be known as the titulus Anastasiae. Anastasia, the half-sister of the emperor Constantine, has been identified with this personage but without evidence.
An alternative theory concerning the name is that the church was originally called the Anastasis, after the great rotunda built over the Holy Sepulchre or the tomb of Christ at Jerusalem by Constantine. Whatever, the dedication to St Anastasia of Sirmium only happened over a century after the church's foundation, towards the end of the 5th century.
The first documentary evidence of the church depends on the collection of epigraphs transcribed by Pietro Sabino in the 15th century. He copied one that used to be in the church, but was lost in a later restoration. According to this, Pope St Hilary (461-468) commissioned a mosaic for the apse to replace a fresco which had itself been commissioned by Pope St Damasus (366-383). Sabino immediately followed this epigraph with another one in his collection, which read that Longinianus, the Praefectus urbi or emperor's representative from the year 403, had constructed a "fountain" in "the church". Very unfortunately, Sabino did not specifically note this epigraph as belonging to Sant'Anastasia, so there remains a doubt about its provenance. It is important nevertheless, because it is the first circumstantial indication of a baptistery at a titular church.
Later legend associated St Jerome with the church at the beginning of the 5th century, again without evidence. Also, Pope Leo the Great gave an important sermon against Eutyches here in about 450, just before the condemnation of Monophysitism at the council of Chalcedon in the following year.
Early middle agesEdit
The next mention of the church is as the Titulus Anastasiae in the surviving catalogue of the Roman Synod held by Pope Symmachus in 499. By this time, it seems to have been the official church of the city governor or representative of the Eastern Roman ("Byzantine") empire who resided on the Palatine in the old imperial palace. The subsequent mention is in the so-called Itinerario Salisburgense, which is a pilgrimage itinerary of the mid 7th century. The entry reads: Basilica quae appellatur Sanctae Anastasiae ubi cruces servantur que portantur per stationes ("The basilica called St Anastasiae where the crosses which are carried at the [Lenten] stations are kept").
Sabino also noted an epitaph to one Plato who died in 686, and was the father of Pope John VII (705 -707), who provided the monument.
Pope St Leo III (795–816) ordered a major restoration, which apparently involved enlarging the church, and Pope Gregory IV (827–844) continued the work. It is thought that the present layout of a central nave with aisles might have been as a result of this remodelling (but see next section).
Appearance of early churchEdit
Certainly in the later Middle Ages the church had a nave with side aisles, but this does not seem to have been its original layout. The archaeological evidence indicates that the original 4th century place of worship was in the second storey of the insula on the site, and was created by knocking through interior walls. The layout involved a nave without aisles, a transept which protruded either side of the nave and a semi-circular apse. The present transept and apse preserves some of the fabric of this 4th century edifice. It seems that the nave did not have a frontage, but was shorter than that of the present church and did not reach the main street façade of the insula. Further, the shops on the ground floor below continued to function. A little of the fabric of this first storey can be seen low down on the outside of the north wall of the transept.
It is not entirely certain when the aisles were added to the nave, but it seems to have happened during the restoration by Pope Leo (it used to be thought that it was done at the end of the 5th century). The left hand aisle was erected on existing ancient foundations, but the right hand one was built over the existing side street. The exterior wall of the latter aisle was supported on a series of arches on the other side of the street from the shop fronts, and it seems that these shops were still functioning at the time. It is unknown when they were abandoned, but the end of the 10th century is a good guess. The rising ground level eventually left them underground, but the church still had to be accessed by stairs until the 17th century.
Later middle agesEdit
At the beginning of the high Middle Ages this was the most important church in Rome after the four major basilicas, and the reason seems to have been its former imperial status as the church used by the representative of the emperor in Constantinople. Until the popes moved to Avignon in 1305 this was the church where the pope distributed the ashes on Ash Wednesday; he would then lead the procession barefoot to Santa Sabina in order to open the Lenten Stations there. This explains the entry in the tinerario Salisburgense quoted above, about the stational processional crosses being kept here. Santa Sabina is now the location of the Papal Mass on Ash Wednesday.
The church's status was not to last, and the reason was that it had nothing to offer the pilgrim. Unlike San Sebastiano fuori le Mura, Santa Croce in Gerusalemme or San Lorenzo fuori le Mura, all of which became pilgrimage basilicas, Sant'Anastasia had no relics to venerate. Further, it never became a monastery or convent church and so lacked powerful patrons apart from its cardinals. It is listed in the Catalogue of Turin in 1320 as a presbyterial title with six secular clerics forming a college, and it kept this status until the 19th century.
There was a major restoration in 1210 under Pope Innocent III, and this may have been when the former campanile was built. A marble epigraph, now lost but on record, commemorated this work: Anno Domini MCCX, pontificatus Domini Innocenti Tertii Papae, anno eius decimotertio, indictione quarta.In the 14th century, a lead box was allegedly discovered in the church containing the "Veil of Our Lady" woven in thread of different colours, and the "Mantle of St Joseph". These dubious relics were supposed to have been brought from the Holy Land by St Jerome, but may have been concocted in order to attract pilgrims to the church. They were enshrined in the chapel at the end of the right hand aisle, which is hence called the Chapel of the Relics. In the 1750s, the Bishop of Porphyrin authorized the creation of reliquaries containing tiny pieces of this veil, and authenticated them; the reliquaries are still extant.
An enamelled chalice allegedly used by St Jerome also used to be shown to visitors, and was still thus being venerated at the end of the 19th century.
There was another restoration under Pope Sixtus IV (1440-84).
Appearance of church in 16th centuryEdit
Depictons of the church survive from the 16th century, before it was radically remodelled. Van Heemskerck made an ink drawing of the panorama from across the river in about 1535, and this shows the basilica with an elevated entrance approached by a flight of stairs with low walls on either side. Above the single doorway is a large round-headed window, and above that is a triangular tympanum in the gable of the central nave. At the end of the right hand aisle is a tall campanile, having a large round-headed soundhole on each face of the bellchamber and a pyramidal spire on top. Part of the roof of the nave looks as if it has fallen in. The depiction seems accurate, with correct perspective.
A woodcut by Francino of 1595 is formulaic, with bad perspective, but shows some extra detail. The large window in the façade is shown to enclose an arcade with three Doric columns, over an entrance with a molded doorcase and projecting lintel. The aisle frontages are not part of the façade design; the left hand one is blank walling with a flat roof, and the right hand one is obscured by a lean-to. Unfortunately, the appearance of the campanile in this depiction is not reconcilable with that in the Heemskerck panorama, as it is shown at the end of the left hand aisle. Also, it is given a formulaic representation of a tall Romanesque campanile with arcaded storeys and a low pyramidal cap, suspiciously like that of the nearby surviving campanile of Santa Maria in Cosmedin.
The most noticeable addition in this 1595 representation is a massive sloping buttress supporting the façade on its left hand side, a demonstration of the need for the rebuilding that was about to take place.
The interior had arcades with thirty rather small antique columns of various rare coloured marbles (obviously pillaged from a high-status building in the vicinity, possibly the imperial palace), Cosmatesque floors and an open roof without a ceiling.
The façade was rebuilt with a portico between 1598 and 1618. The work involved bringing in a substantial amount of fill to raise the level of the piazza outside, burying the former staircase. The portico had an arcade of five arches on pillars in the front, and two on each side. Unfortunately, the church was struck by a tornado in 1634 and the new portico was flattened. (Tornados can happen in Rome, and there is a video on the external links below to prove it.)
The then side altar of the Holy Cross was dedicated to the Confraternity of the Cross and St Anastasia in 1615. The confraternity was a guild of tailors and coat-makers, but they did not remain here beyond the 18th century.
Urban VIII (1623–1644) ordered a second rebuilding of the façade in 1634, a work that took ten years. The architect was Luigi Arrigucci (1575-1647) who was from Florence and allegedly a pupil of Gian Lorenzo Bernini. The result has been called Berniniesque, but is really quite a plain piece of work.
The interior was then completely remodelled in the Baroque style, a project that was only completed in 1722. The architect was Carlo Gimach. This interesting Maltese architect was a convert from a Muslim Palestinian family, and this is his only major work at Rome.
A flat coffered ceiling was provided, and in order to bear its weight the original ancient columns of the arcade were replaced with more solid pillars. The columns were then re-used as decorative elements. The result completely conceals the antiquity of the church. The loss of the Cosmatesque flooring was a pity. The work was supervised and paid for by Cardinal Nuno da Cunha e Ataíde, who was from Portugal.
Further restorations occurred in the 19th century, under Popes Pius VII (1800–1823) and Pius IX (1846–1878). However by the end of that century the church was struggling to justify its existence pastorally, and it reached its low point in the first decade of the 20th century when it was noted as only being open for an hour on Sunday morning.
The church was restored in the early 1960's by Cardinal James Francis McIntyre, and a tablet in the floor of the nave recounts the fact. He obtained the money from the people of his diocese, Los Angeles in the USA. Unfortunately, serious serious structural problems with the building then surfaced in about 1980 and the church had to be closed for twenty years for renovation. Apparently the edifice was shifting on its ancient and inadequate foundations, and the stresses induced caused the tiled floor of the sanctuary to erupt.
Perpetual adoration Edit
In 2001, the priest in charge Alberto Pacini instituted Perpetual Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament at the church. This means that the church is open 24 hours a day, since someone must always be present in adoration. He was initially helped by a small community of the Daughters of Our Lady of the Eucharist, but other worshipping groups have assisted. Notably, the Benedictine foundation now at Norcia spent some time here in its early days. An expatriate group from Peru has a high profile here, and other expatriate groups from Ghana, Egypt, Philippines and the Cameroons have worshipped here. The fact that the church is not parochial has actually helped in this Eucharistic initiative, which has now become influential internationally.
This church is now one of those most spiritually active in the Centro Storico.
Our Lady, Untier of Knots Edit
The church is also the Roman centre of the devotion to Our Lady, Untier of Knots (Nostra Signora che Scioglie i Nodi) which is especially for those with problems in marriage and personal relationships. It originated in Augsburg, Germany, and Pope Francis actively propagated it in Argentina when he was still a cardinal.
Novenas to her began in this church in 2006, and a painting by Simone Valeriano was commissioned in 2012.
By tradition the first titular priest of the church was St Jerome (died 420), Doctor of the Church. However he was never actually a cardinal here, but was given the title posthumously in the 13th century.
The first cardinal priest actually on record was a German called Roger who held the title from 1206 to 1213. The penultimate titular priest was Godfried Daneels, Archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels, who was appointed in 1983 and died in 2019. He was replaced by Eugenio Dal Corso in the same year.
Layout and fabricEdit
The plan is rectangular, with an external semi-circular apse. A small external chapel has been added to each side, accessed by knocking a hole in the old side wall of each aisle. The nave and aisle roofs are pitched and tiled, and the transept has a separate roof attaching to the nave roof in the form of a T. The apse roof is also pitched and tiled, in six sectors.
Although there is no proper set of convent buildings, domestic edifices hug the church on its right hand side and on either side of the apse. However, if you go up the left hand side you can see fabric from the 4th century church in the left hand end of the transept, sitting on ancient brickwork of the original insula in the lowest courses. The 4th century fabric also exists in the apse and right hand end of the transept.
Note that the left hand nave aisle has three separate roofs of different pitches, which looks messy but is not meant to be seen. The wall of the main nave above the aisle shows evidence of eleven small double-arched windows together with brickwork from the 9th century restoration.
There is also an interesting blocked round-headed window with two-light Gothic tracery. This is a relic of the 15th century restoration.
One oddity is that the transept projects slightly beyond the aisle on the right hand side, but ends slightly within the line of the exterior aisle wall on the left hand side.
The two-storey façade is in pink brick with architectural details in limestone. The first storey has a stone plinth, and has two pairs of Doric pilasters flanking the single entrance. Another pair is at the shallow corners of the central nave frontage, where the aisle frontages are recessed slightly, and this pair is doubletted at the corners. A third pair is partly hidden behind the two identical campanili, which are attached to the end frontages of the façade. Four large blank recessed panels with narrow border frames are in between the pilasters.
The pilasters support an entablature with a brick architrave which is molded, a blank stone frieze (an inscription would probably have been intended here), and a projecting cornice which, unusually, is tiled to its edge including in front of the second storey. The aisle rooflines are horizontal between the main nave frontage and the campanili.
The entrance has a molded Baroque doorcase with a raised segmental pediment over, and in between the two is now a tablet bearing the word adoremus (let us adore).
The second storey has a pair of Ionic pilasters either side of a large rectangular window, and another doubletted pair at the corners. The capitals of these pilasters are swagged. The window has a Baroque pediment formed of a pair of incurved curlicues flanking a scallop shell. These pilasters do not support an entablature, but only a cornice and pediment which are dentillated. In the tympanum of the pediment is a relief coat-of-arms decorated with swags, ribbons and cornucopias. The central finial on the pediment is a wire cross, but there are two pairs of tall flaming torch finials flanking it.
The campanili are an extension of the design of the first storey. Each has a Doric pilaster on each corner, supporting an extension of the entablature. Above this is a kiosk on a plinth; the plinth has eight little club-shaped buttresses, and the brick kiosk is formed of four large arches with little Doric springers, all within a cuboidal frame topped by a low ogee cupola with a cross finial. Only the right hand campanile has bells.
You can find carved bees on the stonework, which are a reminder that Pope Urban VIII was of the Barberini family.
Layout and fabricEdit
On entering the single main doorway, you find yourself in a little loggia separated from the main body of the church by a pair of pillars and with a pair of entrances. This forms the first bay of the church structurally. Then comes a second bay flanked by the walls of the two sacristies. These were added in the 18th century restoration, and take up the bottom ends of the aisles. The one on the right is a long narrow room with its own small exit behind the campanile, while the one on the left has two separate rooms with separate roofs (a former exit here has been blocked).
The nave arcades have an odd design. There are six pillars on each side, but four of these are in pairs and flank rectangular apertures instead of arches. So you have a series of rectangle, arch, rectangle, arch, rectangle, arch, rectangle on each side. Each pillar has a marble column from the original basilica attached to its inner side, which has an Ionic capital supporting nothing but an incurved vertical volute.
Another pair of antique columns support the triumphal arch into the transept, and a further pair the arch of the apse. The last of the total of fourteen columns are on the inner side of the entrance pillars. This means that sixteen columns from the old basilica were expropriated for use elsewhere (but where?) in the 18th century remodelling.
The far ends of the aisles are walled off to create a pair of side chapels, and a pair of little external chapels open off the middle of the aisles.
The nave is dominated by the massive flat ceiling, coffered in a complicated Baroque design. There are three paintings. The two towards the ends are heraldic, one being the coat-of-arms of Pope Pius VII and the other, that of Pope Pius IX. The central picture is The Martyrdom of St Anastasia by Michelangelo Cerruti, one of his best works.
Over the triumphal arch is a large polychrome coat-of-arms of Cardinal Nuno da Cunha, supported by two flying angels in stucco.
The antique columns are worth inspecting, because they are not a matched set. Most are either of pavonazzetto marble (actually a breccia) from Phrygia in what is now Turkey, or cipollino marble from Euboea in Greece. These columns are either fluted or ribbed. Some are of polished grey granite. The pavonazzetto ("peacock") ones have multi-coloured blotches, and the cipollino ones have grey and pale green streaks.
The chapel at the end of the right hand aisle is known as the Chapel of the Relics, and dates from the 17th century. The paintings here of the lives of St Charles Borromeo and St Philip Neri are by Lazzaro Baldi. There is an almost perished fresco of Christ on the external side wall just outside.
The external chapel off the left hand aisle is dedicated to St George, and has an altarpiece showing SS George and Publius by Etienne Parrocel who was a French painter working in Rome. St Publius is an obscure figure; he features in the legend of St Anastasia as her husband, but is not listed in the revised Roman martyrology.
The chapel at the end of the left hand aisle is dedicated to St Jerome, but is now used for the Perpetual Adoration. The aisle may be curtained off in front of this chapel to protect the privacy of the adorers, and visitors should not intrude. The altar is ancient, and the small altarpiece featuring the saint is attributed to Domenichino. The baldachino is in the style of the Cosmati. On the walls are pictures of St Anastasia and St Gregory the Great, as well as another one of St Jerome. St Gregory features because there is a tradition that he as well as St Jerome celebrated Mass at this altar, and distributed ashes on Ash Wednesday here.
The painting of Our Lady, Untier of Knots is also here.
Outside the chapel is a monument to the Bavarian Cardinal Karl August von Reisach, 1870.
Transept and apseEdit
The high altar was designed by Onorio Longhi, and the altarpiece showing The Nativity of Christ is another work by Baldi. Beneath the altar is a recumbent marble statue of St Anastasia by Ercole Ferrata, clearly influenced by Bernini's sculpture of Ludovica Albertoni at San Francesco a Ripa. Ferrata died before it was finished, and the work was completed by Francesco Aprile. The chair behind the high altar bears the arms of Cardinal McIntyre. In front of the altar is a purple (marble?) disc rather shabbily executed St Benedict's Cross motif in yellow. The ceiling above the sanctuary is decorated with an image of The Lamb of God surrounded by the Symbols of the Four Evangelists.
The fresco of St Anastasia in Glory above the altar is also by Baldi. In the apse are monuments to Francesco Maria Febei, 1680 to the right, and Pier Paolo Febei 1649 to the left. Both are by Giovanni Tommaso Ripoli, including the bronze busts.
In the right hand end of the transept is an altar dedicated to St Turibius, a Spanish priest and bishop of Lima in Peru. Turibius baptized St Rose of Lima and St Martin de Porres, two of the most popular saints of South America. Because of this altar, there is a tradition that the Peruvian ambassador assists at Mass on the first Sunday of May. The altar has a pair of columns in red breccia, and an altarpiece of the saint by Francesco Trevisani. Here also is a monument to Cardinal Johann Casimir von Häffelin, 1827.
In the left hand end of the transept is an altar dedicated to Our Lady of the Rosary, with two columns of rare yellow alabaster. The altarpiece is by Baldi again, and he took his inspiration from the famous painting by Domenichino at Santa Sabina. (As of March 2019, the altarpiece hangs from the wall to the right of the altar, with bare brick visible behind the altar and tabernacle where the altarpiece should be.) Here is a monument to Cardinal Angelo Mai, 1857, with an epigraph composed by himself. He was one of the most outstanding palaeographers of his period. The sculptor was Giovanni Battista Benzoni.
A warningEditThis church has one of the most striking of the notices that Roman churches tend to display, in order to discourage improperly dressed people from visiting. Please take this notice seriously, as you will be challenged if you ignore it.
The church has two sacristies, one at each near end of the aisles. The main one is at the start of the left hand aisle. It contains an altar with an altarpiece of Saint Anastasia which is a copy of one by Vittore Carpaccio. The walls have representations of some of the more notable cardinals of the church.
Underneath the church are the ruins of an ancient portico from the 1st century AD, as well as the ruins of a group of eleven shops on the ground floor of the former insula (multi-storied dwelling) which used to occupy the church site. These have been excavated, and can be walked around. However, no arrangements seem to be in place to allow visitors to view. The right hand aisle is over a narrow ancient side street which used to give access to the shops under the central nave.
Mass is celebrated daily at 18:00, preceded by the Rosary at 17:30.
The Rosary has also been recited in honour of Our Lady, Untier of Knots on Saturdays at 14:30.
Lauds is celebrated daily at 7:30.
In 2017, a Mass for the Ghana community was advertised on Sundays at 10:30.
The anciently established feast-day of St Anastasia is on 25 December. She was celebrated on this date before it became the date of Christmas.
Since the time of Pope Leo the Great (440-461) the church has been the stational church for the second Mass of Christmas, which is celebrated at dawn on Christmas Day. It has become the tradition for students from several Roman seminary colleges to take part in this celebration.
As of March 2019, the so-called Mantle of St Joseph is displayed for veneration for some time on the Feast of St Joseph (19th March.) In 2019, the relic was displayed at Mass at 19:00, and veneration continued until 21:00.