Santa Brigida a Campo de'Fiori is an 18th century convent church which is also the national church of Sweden. Despite its name, it is at Piazza Farnese 96 in the rione Regola. Pictures of the church at Wikimedia Commons are here. There is an English Wikipedia page here.
The dedication is to St Bridget of Sweden, one of the patron saints of Europe.
St Bridget's hospice and convent
St Bridget (Birgitta Birgersdotter in Swedish) was a Swedish noblewoman who founded the monastic Order of the Holy Saviour at Vadstena in Sweden after she was widowed in 1344. To obtain papal approval of her new foundation, usually known as the Bridgettines after her, she journeyed to Rome in 1350 with one of her daughters, St Catherine of Sweden. They settled there until St Bridget's death in 1373, and the pair of them became well-known and highly regarded religious personalities in the city. St Bridget was an intense visionary with a hatred of sinful behaviour and corruption, but was also very charitable.
To aid her expatriate countrymen and pilgrims she founded a hospice in a private house originally owned by a noble lady called Francesca Papazurri, who became a close friend of St Bridget during the Holy Year of 1350. It was at that time known as the Palatium Magnum, "The Grand Palace". St Bridget lived there for 19 years, and her rooms have been preserved in the present building.
It was noticed that St Bridget had few problems from the men of the city when out and about, being a short and dumpy brunette of the sort who are plentiful locally. St Catherine, however, was a tall bionda and so had difficulties with Roman men making obscene suggestions. (Modern Romans, despite beliefs to the contrary, are better behaved than their mediaeval ancestors -and very few of them can ask for sex in Latin.)
After St Bridget's death, the palazzo was donated to the Bridgettine order's mother house in Vadstena. The first little church or house-chapel here was dedicated to St Bridget during the pontificate of Boniface IX (1389-1404) after she was canonized in 1391. Her relics were not enshrined here, but were at San Lorenzo in Panisperna until they were taken to Vadstena. (It may be noted that Bridget was never a nun of her own order, despite being the foundress).
A new church was built in 1513 by Peder Månsson. He was a Bridgettine monk of Vadstena (the order had been founded for both monks and nuns originally), and in 1507 had been sent to Rome to recover the property of the hospice. Apparently, the institution had fallen into decay and its premises seized by squatters. He succeeded in the task, with difficulty. In 1524 he was made bishop of Västerås in Sweden, and was an unavailing opponent of Lutheran Protestantism.
Reformation and after
In the 16th century, the Reformation brought radical changes. Lutheranism was made the official religion of Sweden in 1536, and the Catholic Church was destroyed in the country by the simple expedient of the government's confiscating the land of anyone loyal to it.
As a result, the hospice at Rome became a refuge for Swedish Catholics who chose exile rather than conversion in the early 16th century. Among those who lived here in this period was Johannes Magnus (1488-1544), the last acting Catholic Archbishop of Uppsala and Primate of Sweden. His brother, a canon of Uppsala called Olaus Magnus and another powerful opponent of the new religion, came as a fellow exile to Rome in 1537 and was made Bishop of Uppsala by Pope Paul III (1534-1549). He took up residence in the old hospice, which became his palazzo.
Olaus Magnus set up a printing press in the house, and published the revelations of St Bridget in 1557. He died in the same year, and the direct Swedish connection was lost.
The complex was then granted to the Convertite di Santa Maddalena by Pope Pius IV. This was a congregation of Franciscan nuns dedicated to the reform of prostitutes, and they were here until 1589. The property was then put in the care of King Sigismund III Vasa of Poland.
Meanwhile, the mother house of Vadstena functioned under Protestant authority, but with a Catholic ethos, until 1575 when it was allowed to function again as a fully Catholic monastery by King John III (1569-92). It even made a formal vow of allegiance to the Pope in 1580. The reason for this Catholic resurgence was that the king had married a Catholic Pole, Catherine Jagiełło. King John's successor was King Sigismund III who was already the Catholic king of Poland, but he was deposed in a Protestant reaction in 1594 and the monastery finally suppressed in the following year.
The final loss of the Bridgettine presence in Sweden left the convent at Rome in the possession of the kings of Poland, and was locally put under the authority of a cardinal protector. The Bridgettine order survived, however, mostly in Poland as well as in Portugal, Bavaria and Austria.
Both convent and church were restored in 1614, with a new façade designed by Francesco Peparelli. However, this early Baroque work did not last long because the church and convent were rebuilt at the beginning of the next century by Pope Clement XI (1700-1721). The project had started in 1695 before he became pope, and was overseen by Pietro Giacomo Patriarca. It involved the provision of the present façade, which was begun in 1705.
Congregation of Holy Cross
The disturbances of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars almost destroyed the Bridgettine order. The convent in Rome was suppressed by the French occupiers, and was left empty after the restoration of Papal government in 1815.
In 1828, Pope Leo XII gave the convent and church to the Canons of Santa Maria in Trastevere. They did not have the means to restore it, and did not have any use for it. So they leased it to the Congregation of Holy Cross, a French missionary congregation, in 1855. They restored the church, and also the rooms of St Bridget in the convent, in 1857-1858. The rooms of St Bridget were painted by the French Jewish artist Jacques Émile Édouard Brandon (1831-1897).
The Congregation of Holy Cross moved out in 1889 (and are now at Via Framura 85 in the suburb of Primavalle).
The next owner was a community of Polish Discalced Carmelite nuns. This order of nuns had been re-established in Poland in the 19th century with the help of Belgian communities, and the leading proponent was Mother Jadwiga-of-St-John-of-the Cross Wielhorska (her name can be found in an abridged form in English as "Hedwig of the Cross", and in Italian as Edwiga della Croce). A Polish noblewoman from a wealthy family, she had entered the Carmel at Carcassonne in France in 1857, but after profession went home to found a Carmel at Posen in Prussia (now Poznań). This community was expelled by the Prussians in 1875, and found a refuge in Cracow where it survives after many tribulations.
The Roman outreach was an initiative of Abbess Jadwiga. She purchased the church and convent in 1889 and arranged for another restoration by Raffaele Ingami, with much of the funding coming from her personal fortune. Most of the present interior decoration is as a result of this. The very odd-looking campanile was erected in 1894. The Carmelites were here until 1930, when the complex was finally returned to the Bridgettine Order.
The present Bridgettines are the re-founded Swedish congregation (there are other branches of the Order, comprising a Spanish congregation and four independent monasteries, and these are separately administered). This congregation was the result of the work of St Elisabeth Hesselblad, who was a Swedish convert nicknamed "The Second St Bridget". She founded her congregation in 1911, with special charisms of guest hospitality and ecumenical outreach, and its first base in Rome was at Santa Brigida delle Suore Brigidine off the Via Nomentana.
After 1930, the old convent became the Generalate or international headquarters of the congregation with the Nomentana convent acting as a focus of the guest apostolate, which it still is (2016).
The paintings in the church were restored for the Bridgittine jubilee of 1991, when the sisters celebrated the eightieth birthday of their congregation.
Rather alarmingly there are now only three Bridgettine sisters based in Rome, responsible for the two convents plus a third at Via Cassia 2040 in the Diocese of Porto Santa Rufina (the latter is a "Centre of Spirituality"). The Superior General is Sister Tekla Famiglietti (the media refer to her as "Mother", but the Diocese does not). She and one other are Italian, while the third is from Kerala in India -no Swedes.
The surrounding area has changed a lot since the foundation of the church. It is still known as Santa Brigida a Campo de'Fiori by the Diocese but, since the construction of the other buildings around the Piazza Farnese, the name Campo de'Fiori is most often used only for the nearby square rather than the whole neighbourhood.
The third church (if it can be called that architecturally) dedicated to the saint in Rome is parochial, and is in shop premises on the ground floor of an apartment block in Ottavia. Don't bother. See Santa Brigida di Svezia.
Layout and fabric
The little church is an integral part of the convent, which has ranges on both sides (the major wing is to the left). It is on a rectangular plan, with a nave of three bays having a pair of side chapels flanking the third bay. The presbyterium is a rectangular apse.
The campanile is a red brick tower, added in 1894 when the convent was also extended by building on top of the church's apse. It is inserted into the complex just to the left of the apse, and is the only part of the church fabric apart from the façade that is visible. The bell chamber is a kiosk with a large arch on each face, and is decorated with horizontally stripes in red and white at the corners; the arch archivolts are similarly treated. There is a further top storey in the same style, but with a little arcade of three narrow arches on each face. Above this on each face is a gable with a sound-hole in the form of a Greek cross, and then comes the pyramidal lead spire which is topped by a gilded cross and ball finial.
The façade was constructed by Andrea Fucigna in 1705, in a late Baroque style with hints of the future neo-Classical. Minor changes, such as to the shapes of the windows, were made in the 19th century restorations and the composition is now rendered in white.
There is a single storey, dominated by a pair of gigantic Composite columns at the corners. The single entrance has a Baroque doorcase, with a pair of hanging and tasselled ribbed dwarf pilasters attached to the sides at the upper corners. The lintel has an inscription in Gothic lettering, which refers to the rebuilding of the church in the early 16th century. Over this is a slightly oversized segmental pediment with the sections over the pilasters brought forward (a design feature repeated in the upper part of the façade).
In the centre of the façade is an enormous oculus or round window, which contains stained glass showing the Dove of the Holy Spirit in a complicated glory.
The pair of gigantic columns support an entablature and triangular pediment, both of which are stepped vertically so that the portions over the column capitals are brought forward. The frieze of the entablature has a simple dedicatory inscription: In honorem S[anctae] Birgittae d[edicata]. The cornice and pediment gable have modillions pointing downwards in both cases, and the tympanum of the pediment has a lunette window containing stained glass showing the monogram of Ave Maria.
The façade continues above the pediment, as there is a connecting corridor running between the two wings of the convent which passes over it. You can see a row of six little round windows, an in the middle of these is the heraldic emblem of Pope Clement XI which is a star over three stylized mountains. To either side of these windows are sculptures of St Brigid and her daughter St Catherine, standing on high plinths. These are by Andrea Fucigna.
Layout and fabric
The interior is richly decorated, with much colour, but a lot of the decoration is 19th century.
On entering, you find yourself in a small low-roofed lobby. This has a balustraded gallery above it, roofed by a cupola decorated in blue with golden stars and with the Dove of the Holy Spirit in the centre. The nave itself is very small, with a domed apse as a presbyterium. There is a chapel on each side of the nave in a shallow arched niche.
In the entrance lobby are two doors. The one on the right leads to the external Chapel of St Richard Reynolds (actually within the convent), and the one on the left to the main sacristy. Both of these were provided in 1894.
There are two marble holy water stoups just inside the entrance. On the right-hand one you can see the lily of the Farnese family, placed here when Odoardo Cardinal Farnese was the protector of the convent, 1601-1626. The one on the left hand side has the arms of the Carmelite Order. Another example of a protector's heraldry can be seen on a marble bowl in the sacristy through the door just to the left; here, it comprises the arms of Virgino Cardinal Orsini.
The Glory of St Bridget in the barrel-vaulted ceiling was painted by Biagio Puccini in the years 1709-1711. It is thought that Puccini was inspired by The Triumph of the Name of Jesus by Baciccio in the Gesù, which was executed at the end of the 17th century. The coat-of-arms of Pope Clement XI features twice.
On the right-hand side of the nave is the cenotaph of Nils Karlsson Bielke (died 1765) by Tommaso Righi. He was a descendant of one of St Bridget's brothers and, after converting to Catholicism, lived in exile in Rome where he was made a senator. His actual place of burial is unknown. Here a portrait medallion of the deceased is on top of a sarcophagus, with putti having a real struggle with some heavy drapery around it -great fun.
Then on the right-hand side is the Chapel of Our Lady. The painting by Virginio Monti, depicting Our Lady and the Holy Child in a classical landscape scene, was executed in the 19th century. It is a copy of a lost original by Annibale Carraci. In the tympanum above is a triangle adored by putti as a symbol of the Trinity.
Opposite this altar is the Chapel of St Catherine of Sweden, which was redecorated by the Carmelites in 1894. The painting, made in that year, is by Eugenio Cisterna, a pupil of Virginio Monti. It originally depicted St Bridget and St Teresa of Avila but, when the church was given to the Bridgittine Sisters in 1930, the figure of St Teresa was altered to represent St Catherine. This was done by the simple expedient of giving her the characteristic headgear of a Bridgettine nun. In the tondo above is St Joseph with the Child Jesus.
There are three recently discovered memorial plaques in the church, which are not in their original positions. Two of them, one by the entrance to the Chapel of St Richard and one by the sacristy door, must have been in Bridget's room, and the third was probably placed on the façade until the new church was built in the 16th century.
The rectangular apse has a little elliptical dome on pendentives, which shows the Dove of the Holy Spirit on a blue background with golden stars (matching the gallery dome at the other end of the church). The 19th century altar echoes the design of the façade, and has two gigantic free-standing marble Composite columns with gilded bronze capitals; the columns themselves are also embellished with bronze appliqué work. These support a vertically stepped pediment, and the tympanum of this contains a painting of God the Father. The altarpiece is a large crucifix, a copy of one before which St Bridget was accustomed to pray and receive visions.
The arched space over the altar, between the pendentives, has a representation of the Holy Face of St Veronica, flanked by two little stained glass windows depicting the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
Chapel of St Richard
The external chapel was built in 1894 in a Neo-Gothic style by Raffaele Ingami as part of the major restoration by the Carmelite nuns. It is dedicated to an English Bridgittine monk, St Richard Reynolds, who was martyred in London in 1535. He is considered to be one of the most important saints of the order.
Before the Reformation there was only one Bridgettine monastery in England, Syon Abbey near RIchmond in (what is now) metropolitan London. It was founded by King Henry V in 1415, as a double monastery of monks and nuns, and was a centre of religious excellence at a time when monastic life in England was in some decay. The church here, completed after 1442, was enormous. The community rejected the Reformation, and St Richard was barbarously executed on the personal order of King Henry VIII as part of his campaign of terror. The community survived in exile, and is now a small monastery of nuns in Devon.
The chapel here was originally dedicated to Our Lady of Sorrows, and an inscription from this period has been preserved on the altar. On the walls are eight paintings of scenes from the life of the Blessed Virgin, executed by Eugenio Cisterna. The stained glass is German, by one F. X. Zettier.
The church crypt is now the Swedish Lutheran "Church of St Catherine", which was dedicated in 1972 as part of the ecumenical outreach of the nuns. It is now administered by the national "Church of Sweden" as part of its expatriate ministry. There are 70 seats, and Lutheran services are held on Sundays and Thursdays.
Scandinavian Lutherans especially like stark simplicity in the interiors of their places of worship, but even they might find the low-ceilinged, white-painted underground Lutherbunker rather oppressive. There is no architectural or artistic interest here.
The convent was restored or rebuilt on the orders of Pope Clement XI (1700-1721), at the same time as the church. Since then, only minor changes have been made to the exterior. This is attractive, with rusticated ashlar stonework in two colours (white below, yellow above). The ground-floor windows are arched.
If you look at the piazza frontage as a whole, you will see that it is almost, but not quite, symmetrical. The church façade is in the middle, with the two wings of the convent on either side. The left hand corner has quoins, but the right hand one does not and here there is an arched entrance instead of a window. This used to lead through to the convent courtyard.
It has been possible to visit the rooms of St Bridget and her daughter St Catherine in the convent. The rooms contain relics of the two saints, and are decorated with paintings from the lives of the saints. Altars dedicated to St Bridget and St Catherine have been installed in their respective rooms.
The existence of these rooms suggest that some of the original mediaeval fabric was preserved when the convent was rebuilt in the 18th century -unless the furnishings and fittings were simply transferred.
You can stay at the convent, which now amounts to a small hotel run by the nuns. There are 20 double rooms. See "External links" for a review.
Opening times are liable to change, and also to depend what is going on at the convent.
The church has been recently advertised as open between 6:30 and 17:30, except for Wednesdays and Saturdays when it is closed. (A lunchtime closure is also very likely.)
Mass times are also liable to change, especially in July and August.
According to the Diocese (May 2019), Mass is celebrated at 17:30 Saturday, and 7:30, 10:30 and 17:30 on Sunday. On the first Sunday of the month there is a Mass in Swedish at 9:30.
The best experience of the church can be had if you go to sung Vespers. This depends on a sufficient number of nuns (who can sing!) to make a choir.
St Bridget is celebrated with solemnity on 23 July, St Catherine on 22 March, St Elizabeth on 4 June and St Richard on 4 May.
|Argentina | Armenia I | Armenia II | Belgium | Canada | Croatia | Denmark | Ethiopia I | Ethiopia II | France | Germany | Greece | Hungary | Ireland I | Ireland II | Italy/Calabria | Italy/Camerino | Italy/Lombardy | Italy/Lucca | The Lebanon | Mexico | The Netherlands | Norway | The Philippines | Poland | Portugal | Romania | Russia | Spain | Sweden | Syria | Ukraine I | Ukraine II | Ukraine III | United Kingdom | United States|