Sant'Antonio Abate all'Esquilino, nicknamed the Russian Church, is a 15th century former hospital and convent church which is now the Russian national church in Rome. The location is at Via Carlo Alberto 2 in the rione Esquilino, but the postal address is Via Carlo Catteneo 2 which is round the corner. Pictures of the church at Wikimedia Commons are here.
The dedication is to St Anthony of Egypt.
The liturgies in this church are according to the Byzantine rite. The church is considered to be part of the Russian Greek Catholic Church, but the two historic exarchates of this Eastern Catholic Church have not yet (2016) been reconstituted. As a result, its worshipping communities are under the authority of local ordinaries and so this church is dependent on the parish church of Santi Vito e Modesto.
The origin of the church lies in the foundation of a hospital on the site by Cardinal Pietro Capocci, who arranged the details in his will of 1259. Construction started in the following year, and was completed in 1266. The new hospital was to specialize in the treatment of sufferers of what was called "St Anthony's Fire". This was a serious skin disease which in Italy is usually taken to have been herpes zoster or shingles, but in this case is most likely to have been ergotism. This is an extremely unpleasant and dangerous form of fungus poisoning caused by eating bread made from damp grain infected with ergot, and skin eruptions are only one of the symptoms. The fact that the hospital was also intended to help with sufferers of podagria helps to confirm this. Podagria is "debility of the feet" (described by Galen -it is not a modern medical condition), and sufferers of ergotism are liable to contract gangrene of the toes.
Armellini transcribed the foundation inscription surviving over the church portal in 1891: D[omnus] Petrus Capoccius, cardinalis, mandavit construi hospitale in loco isto et D[omni] Otho Tusculanus, episcopus, et Iohannes Caietanus, cardinalis, exequutores eius fieri fecerunt pro anima D[omni] Petri Capocci.
Cardinal John later became Pope Nicholas III. The inscription is still there, but very difficult to read without a pair of binoculars or a telephoto lens.
The site of the hospital was immediately south-east of a 5th century church, Sant'Andrea Catabarbara. This, with its attached monastery, belonged then to Santa Maria Maggiore and was apparently defunct as a working institution. The new hospital may have used the old church initially, but a new one was built on the present site in 1308. Until then, the hospital had the title of Sant'Andrea in Piscinula.
The entrance portal, a rare example in Rome of Lombardic Romanesque, is considered to be a work of the Vassaletto family. It has managed to survive all later restorations. If it was finished in 1308 it is very late for the family, but might have been part of the original hospital project. Was a new church built in 1265, and rebuilt in 1308 because of some construction failure?
The old church of Sant'Andrea eventually fell out of use by the 17th century, and was noted as ruinous in 1686. The site was incorporated into the domestic buildings of the hospital and the later convent.
There is a brief reference to a church of St Anthony near the Lateran made in the biography of St Francis of Assisi, written by St Bonaventure. St Francis and his early companions visited this place while at Rome, but it is doubtful that it was an ancestor of this church.
The rebuilding, and the change of dedication, was a result of the hospital being granted to the Canons Regular of St Anthony of Vienne. The remote origin of this congregation was near the city of Vienne in France, at a place now called Saint-Antoine-L'Abbaye. There, a purported set of relics of St Anthony was enshrined in a Benedictine abbey in the 11th century (where the relics came from seems unclear, but according to his story the saint was buried in secret and so they were certainly fraudulent). A nobleman called Gaston de Valloire had his son cured of ergotism by the relics in about 1095, and so he founded a brotherhood to nurse sufferers of the disease at the abbey. As a result ergotism became known as "St Anthony's Fire", although other countries outside France called more minor skin conditions by this name.
The brotherhood was formalized as a monastic order in 1218, and adopted the Rule of St Augustine in 1248. In 1297 they were made Canons Regular, which meant that members had to be priests. In 1308, as mentioned, they took over the hospital at Sant'Andrea and made it their headquarters at Rome.
The church was rebuilt in 1481 by Cardinal Costanzo Guglielmi, during the papacy of Sixtus IV. By then the canons had become noted for their nursing of suffers of bubonic plague, and also for their medical expertise. As a result, they had the privilege of giving medical services to the papal household.
There was another restoration beginning in 1583, when Domenico Fontana built a domed side-chapel with the assistance of Carlo Maderno. A fresco cycle featuring St Anthony was also executed by Giovanni Battista Lombardelli and Il Pomerancio, and fragments of this survive.
The church was mostly rebuilt in the first quarter of the 18th century, in the Baroque style. The anonymous architect was of the school of Alessandro Galilei. This was the swan-song of the order, because it was already in terminal decay and was united with the Knights of Malta in 1777. The latter were not interested in the church and hospital, which had lost its rationale since ergotism had become very rare.
A convent of Camaldolese nuns was founded at Santa Maria della Concezione alla Lungara in 1722, dependent on the Camaldolese monastery of San Gregorio Magno al Celio (not the monastery just to the north at San Leonardo dei Camaldolesi, which belonged to a separate Camaldolese congregation). But the site was very cramped, so in 1778 the community moved to the old hospital after a short stay at San Lorenzo in Panisperna.
They remained here until they were expropriated by the Italian government in 1871. As a result, in 1877 the church was closed to worship, and the nuns opened a new convent at Sant'Antonio Abate all'Aventino in the following year.
The church was deconsecrated, and used as a storage facility for a military hospital which then occupied the old convent. As a result, the artwork including the frescoes was very badly damaged.
Blessing of animalsEdit
From at least 1492, a ceremony known as the Blessing of the Animals took place here on St Anthony's feast day, 17 January, since he is a patron of animals. It used to be the case that farm animals were brought along, in the days when much of the land inside the city walls was still open farmland, and up to fairly recently horses were much in evidence. The service was so popular in the early 19th century that, in 1831, the Diocese threatened priests of other churches with suspension if they copied it.
The street outside the church has always been wide, and so there was not much of a problem with the gathering before the invention of motor traffic. However, in the early 20th century the ceremony became dangerous and so in 1932 it was moved to the piazza outside Sant'Eusebio. Nowadays it concerns pets.
Former layout and appearanceEdit
Before the late 19th century, the street was at the level of the entrance but was then lowered so that the church looks as if it is on a crypt. In the process, the so-called Colonna dell'Abiura in front of the church entrance was removed. This memorial had been erected in 1596 to commemorate the conversion of King Henri IV of France (he had been a Protestant before ascending the throne), and was a thin tapering shaft in the form of a cannon on a plinth with a cross on top. This was re-erected in the side court of the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, where it may be found.
The hospital buildings used mostly to be on the left hand side of the church. A large courtyard was on the other side of the church's left hand nave wall, with a small entrance block on the street and the main block facing it on the other side of the court. A third large block continued the street frontage from the other side of a small kitchen court, almost as far as the façade of Santa Maria Maggiore. A fourth, small block hugged the church on the right hand side of its façade.
The hospital had extensive gardens, reaching as far north as the present Via Principe Amedeo.
The old façade featured the mediaeval arched portal, which stood pround of the domestic façades on each side and above which was a horizontal walkway with an iron railing. Above this in turn was the end of the central nave, which had a large round-headed window, a pair of flanking Ionic pilasters and a crowning triangular pediment containing a small oculus.
The little dome of the Fontana chapel could be seen peeping over the hospital block to the right of the façade. It was hemispherical, in lead with eight ribs, and rested on a high octagonal drum with a large rectangular window on each face. There was a tall lantern with its own little cupola.
The remote ancestry of the present Russian College rests, oddly, in the process that led to the canonization of St Teresa of Lisieux by Pope Pius XI in 1923. The cause was so popular that an appeal to pay for it was vastly oversubscribed. The pope suggested that the excess funds be used to found a college to train missionaries to work in Russia, and so the Pontificium Collegium Russicum Sanctae Teresiae a Iesu Infante was founded under the saint's patronage. The church of Sant'Antonio was withdrawn from the Latin rite, and granted to the nascent college in order that Russian liturgies in the Byzantine rite could be celebrated there.
Under the Lateran Pacts of 1929, the Holy See was granted the freehold (although not the sovereignty) of the old hospital site. This was immediately cleared except for the church, and a massive complex was begun which incorporated the church as part of the architectural whole. The Russian College is the block to the right of the church, and the Pontifical Oriental Institute is to the left.
In 1932, as work progressed, the façade of the church was rebuilt and incorporated into the larger frontage of the two institutions. The architect of this was Antonio Muñoz, famous (or notorious) for his anti-Baroque mediaevalizing restorations of old churches in Rome. The interior of the church was converted to the use of the Byzantine rite by the insertion of iconostases into the main apse and the three chapels. The icon-painter responsible for most of the icons was Grigor Petrovich Maltsev.
Unfortunately, the exterior dome of the chapel by Fontana was destroyed in the building process. The interior dome was weatherproofed and is now completely surrounded by higher buildings.
The only period, before the collapse of the Soviet Union, during which the Russian government tolerated Byzantine rite Catholics was between the 1905 reforms and the October Revolution. It was only after the former date that Russians of the Byzantine rite in Russia became Catholics, in small numbers.
In 1929, when the college was founded, it was becoming clear just how determined the Soviet government was to suppress every last trace of the Catholic church of the Byzantine rite in any territory under its control. This policy continued until 1991. As a result of this, the college never performed its intended function of providing missionaries for Russia. Rather, it served the Russian diaspora -but most Byzantine-rite Slav Catholics are Ukrainian, and so the college's outreach has always been limited. However, the liturgy in the church has been performed exactly according to the requirements of the Byzantine rite in Russia.
Especially since the Balamand Agreement of 1993, the Catholic church has abandoned the wish to seek conversion of individual Russian Orthodox believers and so the college has lost its original reason for existence. It is presently administered by Jesuits, but its future depends on a decision by the Holy See on the structure of the Russian Greek Catholic Church.
The problem is that, in 1993, Pope John Paul II was hoping for an imminent restoration of communion between Catholics and Orthodox. There now seems little prospect of that now, and the Catholic church cannot turn away those Byzantine-rite Orthodox Russians who freely wish to enter communion with it.
Layout and fabricEdit
Apart from the façade, the church is now completely embedded in the surrounding complex of two colleges, except for its roof and the ends of the transept.
There is a nave of three bays, with aisles separated by arcades. Then comes a transept, with its own transverse pitched roof. At the far corners of this is a pair of side chapels with apses. The presbyterium is the width of the central nave, with one bay followed by a deep semi-circular apse. The campanile is completely hidden from the street; it is an unobtrusive slab on the right hand end of the transept, and has two arched bell-openings below its own tiled gable.
The Fontana chapel is off the second bay of the right hand aisle. It is rectangular, with a dome and a small rectangular apse.
Apart from the mediaeval portal, the travertine façade is modern although the central portion below the pediment corresponds to the outline of the previous one. Because of the lowering of the street, the entrance is approached via two transverse staircases with iron railings.
The portal is described as Lombard Romanesque; the English would call it Norman, and it would look not out of place in an 11th century church there. It is a large arch with four broad moldings (from inside out, dished, rolled, ribbed, ribbed), and these are supported by two pilasters and two columns on each side. Above the arch is a little tiled pitch, which Muñoz used to replace the original wide balcony or walkway, and below the edge of this you can see the original foundation inscription in a single line.
Above the pitch, the original width of the façade is marked by the slightly protruding zone topped by a small triangular pediment with an oculus in its tympanum. There is a large round window with a raised dished frame above the portal, and below the pediment is an inscription commemorating Pope Pius XI. Muñoz added the blank zones on either side, leading to the frontages of the side aisles which have a round-headed window each. A right-angled triangle is inserted on top of each, giving the impression that the aisles behind have pitched roofs -which they obviously don't, as they have domestic accommodation on top of them as anyone can see. However, this was how mediaeval church façades were built; Muñoz was an erudite architectural historian, but as an architect he was a talentless ideologue.
The interior is mostly the result of the renovation in about 1730, and is in a rather pallid late Baroque style with little figurative ornament and no colour. The three nave bays have arcades separated by pillars bearing tripletted Corinthian pilasters from which spring transverse arches dividing the ceiling barrel vault. The sections of vault thus divided are intruded into by large lunettes which used to open out into windows over the arcades, but these are now blocked. In between each pair of lunettes on the crown of the vault is a large "animal skin" coffering panel surrounded by four triangular and two segmental panels. The paintwork is white(ish), with highlights picked out in dark grey.
The left hand nave aisle has the Raspyatye, an icon of the Crucifixion where the dead are commemorated, and further along there is the Sepulchre which is the symbolic tomb in which Christ's shroud is placed during the Triduum.
The aisles show the damaged fresco cycle of the Life of St Anthony by Giovanni Battista Lombardi (ca. 1540-1592). On the third arcade pillar on the left is an old icon from Russia in the Fedorovskaya style; an image of another example of this is here. It was painted in 1743, and came to the church from the Russian expatriate community in Manchuria.
The left hand aisle has some fragments of what is thought to have been the baldacchino or ciborium of the main altar of the 9th century church of Sant'Andrea.
The central transept vault has diagonal cross ribs, with a rosette from which a chandelier hangs. The rosette motif is repeated at the crowns of the arcade intradoses, which spring from Doric pilasters.
The side chapel to the left is dedicated to SS Cyril and Methodius, and that to the right to SS Peter and Paul. Byzantine-rite churches usually contain only one altar, as the rite does not have a tradition of attaching chapels to its churches containing separate altars. This was because it always had the practice of several priests being able to celebrate at one Mass, whereas the Latin rite dropped this practice in the early Middle Ages in favour of each Mass being said by one priest. So, the two chapels here are, in effect, separate small churches with their own iconostases. In a Byzantine rite monastery, they would be separate buildings.
The stucco decoration in the sanctuary and apse vaults is richer, although still monochrome. The sanctuary bay has a heraldic device bounded by two transverse arches with rosetted square coffering panels, and the apse has another diagonal rib vault with three lunettes, the side two of which have windows and the back one an icon aedicule with a little triangular pediment.
The beautiful iconostasis imitates one in a 19th century Russian church, and those familar with Eastern iconography may notice that the icons are in a more naturalistic style than is now usual. Russian iconography tended to evolve away from the pure Byzantine style from the 18th century onwards, and the so-called "St Petersburg" style of naturalistic icon painting was very influential until the downfall of the Tsar. The iconostasis is a solid screen, as is correct (many Byzantine-rite Catholic churches have some sort of open screen instead). Our Lady is to the right, St John the Baptist is to the left, the Last Supper is over the central door (the so-called "Royal Door", and a second storey of saints is to either side.
If the Royal Door is open, you can see the main altar in the apse with an altarpiece of the Crucifixion by Giovanni Odazzi. Byzantine-rite altars do not usually have altarpieces; this one is a reminder that the church used to be of the Latin rite. In the aedicule above the altar is an icon of Our Lady of Wisdom, which symbolically represents her pregnant with the Creator of the Universe in her womb.
Chapel of St TeresaEdit
The external domed chapel is now dedicated to St Teresa of Liseux, and the iconostasis contains an icon of her. The drum of the dome has four fresco panels by Nicolo Circignani, known as Il Pomarancio (ca. 1520-1596).
In 2017, the church was advertised as open:
Weekdays 10:30 to 12:30, Saturdays 10:30 to 12:30, 17:45 to 20:00;
Sundays 9:30 to 12:00.
On Saturday evenings, Solemn Vespers is sung at 18:00.
On Sundays it is possible to attend the Divine Liturgy (the Byzantine-rite name for the Mass), which is sung in Church Slavonic at 10:00. The Russian church has never used modern Russian in its liturgies.
Liturgies at other times, including feast-days, are "as advertised" which apparently involves a notice displayed at the entrance of the church at the above times.
S. Andrea Cata Barbara e S. Antonio Abbate sull'Esquilino, by Ragna Enking. Roma, Marietti, 1964. (Chiesa di Roma Illustrate, no. 83)
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