Santa Croce in Gerusalemme is a heavily restored palaeo-Christian parish and titular church at Piazza di Santa Croce in Gerusalemme 12 in the rione Esquilino, just south of the Porta Maggiore and about as far east as you can get within the walls of Rome. Pictures of the church at Wikimedia Commons are here. There is an English Wikipedia page here.
Despite its present appearance as a Baroque church, structurally the edifice is not just a palaeo-Christian basilica but also one of the select few ancient Roman buildings never to have been in ruins. It was originally part of the Sessorian Palace, probably begun by Septimus Severus and completed by the mad emperor Elagabalus between the years 180 and 211. Some scholars dispute this, because the hypothesis depends on reading Sessorium for Sesterium in Plutarch, the origin of the story. However, other hints in the written sources have allowed scholars to admit a consensus agreeing with the theory.
It was large complex of buildings, including the partially surviving Amphitheatrum Castrense to the west of the church as well as a race-track, the Circus Varianus to the south-east. It was mutilated when the Aurelian Wall was built through it in 275, cutting through the circus. However, the main layout survived to be a major residence of the emperor at Rome at the end of the 3rd century as a militarily more convenient alternative to the Palatine whenever he was in town (which was not often). The meaning of the name is unknown; it only appears in the form Sessorium at the start of the 6th century.
During the reign of the emperor Constantine, the palace was by tradition the Roman residence of his widowed mother St Helena. He declared her to be Augusta Imperatrix with a rôle in government, and hence the complex was an important public institution. She was the de facto ruler at Rome in the emperor's usual absence, and died and was buried there. (The mausoleum is at Santi Marcellino e Pietro ad Duas Lauros.)
She visited Jerusalem to re-establish the Christian holy places in 326, and by tradition there found the relics of Christ's Passion including the True Cross. The latter she left in Jerusalem, where it was venerated for centuries, but splinters from it and other items she brought back to Rome and put on display at the palace. This was the motivation for the foundation of the church. Unfortunately no contemporary author mentions these events, although relics of the True Cross were certainly circulating in the West by the year 348.
There are no contemporary documents describing the foundation of the church. The first reference is from the year 501, and reads Hierusalem basilica Sessoriani palatii, demonstrating that the official name of the church back then was simply "Jerusalem".
The entry in the Liber Pontificalis, written by Anastasius Bibliothecarius as part of his biography of Pope St Sylvester I, describes how the church was founded by Constantine. It is from later in the 6th century, when the name Basilica Heleniana was also in use, and reads; Eodem tempore fecit Constantinus Augustus Basilicam in palatio Sessoriano, ubi etiam de ligno Sanctae Crucis Domini Nostri posuit, et auro et gemmis conclusit, ubi etiam et nomen Ecclesiae dedicavit, quae cognominatur usque in hodiernum diem Hierusalem (In the same period Constantine Augustus created a basilica in the Sessorian Palace, where a [part] of the wood of the cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ was put and enclosed with gold and jewels, where also the name of the church was given which is called Jerusalem to the present day).
The present name of Santa Croce was given to the church in the Middle Ages.
The church was to have been consecrated very soon after the sacred relics arrived in Rome; the year given by the passage partly quoted is 330. However, the building techniques used in the conversion indicate a date about twenty years later. A large aula or public assembly hall was appropriated, although most of the rest of the palace is known to have survived as an imperial residence until the early 6th century. If you go round the left hand side of the church, the brick wall you see belongs to this. There are other remnants visible in excavations beneath the church floor, which have led to tentative conclusions about the original form of the church.
The aula originally measured 36.5 by 21.8 metres, and was 22.2 metres high with a flat roof. There were no internal partitions or storeys, but there were open arcades in the long walls. Each of these had five arched openings, surmounted by a row of windows, and there were two rows of five superimposed windows in the short walls. The long wall facing north had larger openings, and this seems to have been the original entrance façade.
According to one interpretation, the arcades were blocked up and a large apse added in the original conversion. Another opinion puts the blocking in the later Middle Ages, as it seems to be higher in stratification than Constantininan material. The archeological evidence indicates some sort of passage or side aisle on the north side, and two corridors running round the back of the apse from each side to the Chapel of Helena. The documentary evidence supports the existence of arcades in the 8th century, which were possibly the original side arches still open. Uniquely for a Christian basilica, the main space was divided into three by transverse arcades in a way imitating the Basilica of Maxentius at the Forum. Each arcade had three arches, supported by columns which were probably those now extant in the church, and were to strengthen the walls rather than to support the roof as they didn't reach the latter.
Behind the apse on the right was a room which is now the Chapel of Helena, and this was probably the most sacred area of the complex. By tradition it was Helena's private parlour. The room to the left, the present Chapel of St Gregory, was probably also part of the layout although this is not clear. Behind the Chapel of Helena was another room with an apse, and the archaeologist found in this the remains of a basin or font in white marble. Hence this room is considered to have been a baptistery , which indicates that the complex functioned as a church from the beginning (something not to be automatically assumed).
By tradition the floor of the chapel of St Helena was packed with soil brought as ballast by ships from the Holy Land. This may have made the floor into a sacramental, whereby pilgrims would hope to receive a blessing by walking barefoot on it. An odd regulation prohibiting women entering the chapel survived the centuries to be noted as still in force in the late 19th century. This seems to have had a rather horrible motivation derived from the sacred nature of the floor, and the wish for women not to drip anything onto it from their genitals and hence defile it. Italian women didn't wear panties until the 20th century.
The actual liturgical functioning of the complex in the 4th century is by no means clear, although it is postualted that the relic of the True Cross was kept in the apse and the other relics in the Chapel of St Helena -or the other way round. Pilgrims would have circulated in a fixed, one-way route to venerate them, most likely into the Chapel of St Helena via one corridor, through to the Gregorian Chapel (if it existed then) and out into the basilica by the other corridor. Modern liturgical historians have been right to be wary of projecting back into the early 4th century what the Roman church did in later centuries, but there is an interesting theory that the form of the liturgy of the Triduum in the Roman rite originated here.
The church was restored by Pope Gregory II (715–731), who repaired the roof and arcades in 720 and by Pope Hadrian I (771–795) who did the same in 780. This indicates that the old building was having problems with stability.
The foundation of the adjacent monastery in the late 10th century (975?) is indicated by a surviving funerary inscription of Pope Benedict VII, and is confirmed by a documentary reference of 1003.
In 1003, Pope Sylvester II dropped dead while celebrating Mass in the church. This was regarded at the time as God's vengeance on some enormous sin and, since the popes of the period indulged in all the most obvious sins without harm, the rumour spread that he had been a black magician and a worshipper of Satan. According to the developed legend, his succubus (called Meridiana) told him that he would die if he ever said Mass in Jerusalem. He thought that she meant the city, and forgot about the name of the church. In the Middle Ages it was believed that the bones in his tomb at the Lateran would rattle about when the reigning Pope was about to die.
In 1049, the complex was given to the Benedictines of Monte Cassino, who dug out a crypt which has since been lost. By then, the area had become completely depopulated. However, the monastic community moved to San Sebastiano al Palatino in 1062, and the Canons Regular of San Frediano of Lucca were installed in the vacant monastery by Pope Alexander II.
The canons of the church had it rebuilt in the Romanesque style during the pontificate of Lucius II (1144–1145). This involved gutting the interior, while keeping the exterior walls which survive, and re-building the nave with aisles under one large pitched and tiled roof. If the wall arcades were still open, they were blocked up then. A tall campanile was attached to the façade, in front of the right hand aisle. It was now that the church was re-named Santa Croce. The floor level was raised, leaving the Chapel of Helena below ground level, and the Benedictine crypt destroyed. The interior walls were decorated with frescoes, but the rebuilding had left the building with a few small windows and the darkness inside was remarked upon.
While the papacy was based in Avignon, in the 14th century, the church was abandoned by the canons. The Babylonian Capitivity was the lowest point in Rome's entire history, and the population crashed to about 15000. The canons may have been driven out by the local petty nobility, who were terrorizing the citizens.
In 1370, a few years before the papacy returned to Rome, Pope Urban V handed the complex over to the Carthusians at Santa Lucia in Selci. They restored the church, especially during the periods when Pedro Gonzales de Mendoza and Bernardino Lòpez de Carvajal were titulars, respectively in 1484–1493 and 1495–1523. The walls on either side of the sanctuary were provided with new ogival windows to throw some light on the main altar.
During the renovations ordered by Cardinal Mendoza in 1492, a niche was allegedly discovered in the conch of the apse which was blocked by a brick having Titulus Crucis stamped on it. Behind this was a lead box containing the inscription placed on the box by Pilate, one of the nails and a large splinter of the True Cross.
The Carthusian monks set about building their monastery behind the church next to the city wall, with a large cloister surrounded by their cells. The north-western wall of this was in line with the back walls of the Chapels of Helena and Gregory, while the south-western range ran as far as the old city wall. Some foundations of the latter range have been excavated, and are visible. The rest of the Carthusian complex has vanished (the cloister is on the Nolli map of 1748).
In 1561, the Carthusians were transferred to Santa Maria degli Angeli, and Lombard Cistercians from the congregation of San Bernardo were installed, giving up the church of San Saba in exchange. They seem then to have turned the amphitheatre into a garden, which survives. They also demolished the Carthusian monastery behind the church, and built their own between the church and amphitheatre.
In 1590, the holy relics were transferred from the Chapel of Helena to a little room built on top of the chapel roof and accessed via the monastery. This seems to have had two motivations; firstly, the chapel was suffering from damp, which made it a poor place to keep the relics. The second worry was security. However this arrangement made access to the relics difficult for pilgrims, and they were then only exposed for veneration on special occasions.
Depictions of the church during this period survive. The campanile had one more storey than it has now. There was a narthex running the length of the façade, with an open loggia below and a set of rooms above and a sloping tiled roof. The loggia had a set of Ionic columns supporting a trabeation rather than an arcade, and the ceiling was painted. The nave frontage had an oculus, and in the gable were the blocked remnants of three smaller oculi, the middle one being larger. The rather haphazard monastery buildings were to the right, and a covered passageway running the length of the church was to the left. This seems to have been the means of access to the relics for pilgrims before they were moved from the Chapel of Helena.
Pope Benedict XIV had the entire complex re-done in the Baroque style between 1741 and 1744. The architects were Domenico Gregorini and Pietro Passalacqua; they remodelled the church interior and added a spectacular entrance vestibule. Owing to the late period in which this work was done, it has been called the "Swan-Song of the Baroque at Rome". The monastery was rebuilt around a rectangular cloister, and a separate building was provided to the left of the church for symmetry in the façade.
The roads that Pope Sixtus V had planned in the early 16th century, linking Santa Maria Maggiore, San Giovanni in Laterano and this church, were finally completed at this time. There was a straight line of road from the former, visible in the present street plan. However, there was no direct access from the city centre. To get to it from there, one went down the Via Labicana and past what is now the Manzoni metro station. There was no direct road then between the church and the Lateran, only an ancient footpath which passed hermitages inserted into the old walls (one of these survives, Santa Margherita in Prigione). The present road was provided only in the late 19th century. The reason for this was because the area between the two basilicas was a large paddock of grass, with formal gardens running the length of the old city walls.
The view of the church from the Lateran before 1870 was famous. A British pilgrim called Mrs Hemans wrote just before that year: "Few Roman churches are set within so impressive a picture as Santa Croce, approached on every side through those solitudes of vineyards and gardens, quiet roads and long avenues of trees, that occupy such an immense expanse within the walls of Rome. The scene from the Lateran, looking towards this basilica across the level grass, between lines of trees, with the distance of Campagna and the mountains, the castellated walls, the arcades of the Claudian aqueduct, amid gardens and groves, is more than beautiful".
After 1870, what happened to the area was horrid. The monastery building was confiscated by the Italian government, and turned into an army barracks. However, the Cistercians were able to remain in possession of the church and a few rooms adjacent. The area was quickly covered in urban development in the next thirty years and, as a result, the present parish was canonically erected in 1906. The monks managed to recover use of the monastery to administer this, but running a parish is not in the Cistercian tradition and this was to cause trouble.
Complaints about the inaccessibility of the holy relics to pilgrims were numerous, and as a result a completely new chapel was built in the 1930's to display them, to the left of the church on the site of the former sacristy.
Disgrace of the monasteryEdit
The last years of the 20th century were disastrous for the monastery, which fell into moral, spiritual and financial degeneracy. The community had a completely unsuitable person, Simone Fioraso, as its abbot from 2005 until he was deposed in 2009. He had a high profile as a media personality and a socialite, with many contacts among rich people -especially with a group called the "Friends of Santa Croce". After his deposition, an Apostolic Visitation was held in response to continued serious complaints. As a result of this, the monastery was forcibly closed in 2011 and the twenty monks dispersed. The church and parish were handed over to diocesan clergy.
The full text of the Visitation report has not been released to the public, and apparently the findings are so scandalous that it will be kept secret. The following has been asserted in various sources:
There were rumours of homosexual activity among the brethren, which seem to be supported by a hint in the final visitation summary. More specifically, junior monks were allegedly exploited as servants and male prostitutes by the seniors in exchange for luxury items. The abbot himself allegedly kept a mistress.
The monastic community had completely lost its monastic charism, and the monks were living a profligate lifestyle involving extensive social contacts with high-status people. Part of the monastery had been converted into a luxury hotel, the Domus Sessoriana, and this was being used as a venue for celebrity parties (Madonna being the most famous name involved) which the monks attended.
The monastery had accumulated serious debts, and an unexplained shortfall of seven million euros was uncovered in their accounts. This seems to have been fraudulently appropriated, although no report of any criminal investigation has been made to date (2013).
Liturgical abuses were occurring in the church. The media at the time took this to refer to rather notorious dances around the main altar by a former strip-club pole-dancer named Anna Nobili, who had taken religious vows. However, the term usually refers to the celebration of Mass in a way which renders it sacramentally invalid, or to a contemptuous recital of the Divine Office. Nobili has been attempting to present modern dance (as an art-form) as a vehicle of liturgical expression, and her association with this monastery certainly damaged her reputation. (For those interested, her website is here.)
Rather wild rumours that black magic rituals had been held, involving profanation of the Blessed Sacrament, have also circulated verbally.
The first cardinal priest of this church was recorded in 1140.
The church is set back from the main road, beyond some rather scruffy grass which is sometimes the venue for protests and demonstrations. To the right are the main monastery buildings, and to the left is attached an isolated residential block put up for the sake of architectural symmetry.
The 18th century façade itself is false, as it is mostly a screen for the ellipitical atrium behind which has a much lower saucer-domed roof. The shape of this atrium was a clever adaptation to make room for the surviving mediaeval campanile, which is attached to the actual frontage of the church on the right hand side and hence fits in to the gap between the ellipse and the rectangle of the basilica proper.
The campanile has three storeys now above the roofline (it used to have four), and is a fine edifice in unusually crisp brown brick. Each face of each storey used to have an arcade of four narrow arches, but many of these have been blocked and one face has an unusual one-handed clock (no minute hand). The storeys are separated by projecting dentillate cornices, and coloured ceramic platters have been inset as decoration below these. The top storey facing the street has a statue of St Helena in a niche with a little gabled aedicule .
The church itself has a rather short nave, with aisles all covered by a single pitched and tiled roof. The presbyterium has a very unusual transverse roof which has a single pitch, sloping down to the external semi-circular apse. Behind the apse are the chapels of Helena and Gregory, partly underground, and beyond the far left corner is the modern Relic Chapel.
If you walk around the church, it is still possible to see the original Roman masonry in some places. This is especially the case for the left hand nave wall. You can also see the excavated ruins of part of the ancient palace, beyond the church. This is now part of the Complesso Archeologico del Sessorio, which focuses on the ancient remains of the palace and which is open to individuals at 11:00 on the first and third Saturdays of the month.
After the suppression of the monastery, presumably access to the monks' garden in the amphitheatre is now covered by the above arrangement.
The Cistercians have always had a tradition of growing their own food, and used the entire space within the ellipse of the amphitheatre as a vegetable garden with fruit and olive trees. It amounts to 8000 square metres and has paths running along the axes of the ellipse, meeting at a water cistern. In recent times aromatic herbs were grown for a liqueur called crocino ("little cross") which the monks sold in their shop. This is now defunct.
The garden fell into disrepair in the mid 20th century, but had an expensive makeover in 2004 by the noted landscape gardener Paolo Pejrone. The produce was also sold in the shop as organic home-grown fruit and vegetables, but unfortunately a few years later it was discovered that the monks were buying the produce from wholesalers and pretending that it was their own. This was one of the indications that they had lost their integrity, and were heading for suppression.
The late Baroque style of the façade verges on the Rococo. It is of a single storey, and the central section is bowed so as to match the curved wall of the atrium. To each side there are short wings, projecting diagonally. A set of six Composite pilasters, on very tall plinths, support an entablature which has an inscription on its frieze commemorating the restoration by Pope Benedict XIV. These pilasters are playfully multiplied into bunches or squeezed into angles, and the central pair has a segmental pediment above the entablature. The façade is crowned by a balustrade, but above the pediment is a trapezoidal screen with curving sides and top, and this bears a pair of sculpted angels venerating the wire cross finial. To each side on the balustrade there are three statues of saints, six in all -the four Evangelists and, on the outer corners, Helena and Constantine (the last is not recognized as a saint by the Catholic church, although he is venerated by the Orthodox).
The main entrance is an enormous arched portal, with a pair of Ionic columns in the round. Above it is a window which at first sight is elliptical, but is actually a stretched circle. The main portal is flanked by a pair of side portals beyond the inner pair of pilasters, and these are rectangular. Above them is a pair of windows shaped like the floorplan of an apsidal basilica -a clever touch. The portals have wrought iron gates.
The oval atrium from 1741-1744 has a domed vault and an ambulatory. Its original colour scheme was reconstructed recently, and is effectively simple in pale orange and white. The architects were clearly influenced by Borromini. The shallow interior dome is coffered to give a rayed effect, focusing on the oculus which contains a numinum (cloud motif, indicating spiritual mystery) set in contrasting blue.
By the entrance, you can see the funerary inscription of Pope Benedict VII (974–983). It's a metrical inscription in seventeen verses, inserted into the wall. An interesting piece of information that it gives is that he founded a monastery and also gathered monks for it, who would both sing praises to God "night and day" and do charitable works for poor people. It is not known what sort of monks these were; the traditional assertion that they were Benedictines is not to be trusted.
Behind the right hand curving wall as one enters the atrium is the campanile. There used to be a little chapel of the Crucifix on the matching spot behind the left hand wall, but this was demolished when the atrium was built. A fresco of the Crucifixion dated to about 1370, in the style of Giotto, was rescued and was displayed in the monastery museum before the suppression.
The short nave has wide side aisles, with three side-chapels (actually, just altars in niches) on each side. The nave and aisles are separated by six enormous rectangular Baroque pillars connected by trabeations (there are no arcades), not including the piers of the triumphal arch. The trabeations between the pillars are supported by pairs of ancient pink granite Corinthian columns from Aswan in Egypt. There are eight of these in total, and they are the only parts of the ancient church which are still are visible. Six other columns are allegedly entombed inside the pillars. The granite columns are spolia, and may have been taken for the palace from an earlier building. The hardness of the stone, and the distance it had to be transported, made it immensely prestigious in ancient Rome.
The ceiling is a false vault, since it is made of wood. It is decorated with a painting of Our Lady Presenting St Helena and Constantine to the Trinity, executed by Corrado Giaquinto in 1744. The insertion of this wooden ceiling in the 18th century fortuitously preserved the upper parts of the 12th century fresco cycles that used to decorate the nave walls. These were discovered completely by accident by workmen surveying the state of the roof in 1913, but had to wait until 1968 for proper examination and conservation. Above the triumphal arch are remnants of an ornate depiction of the Lamb of God, whereas the nave walls have lines of medallions depicting Old Testament characters. The left hand nave wall is thought to be executed by Roman painters, and the right hand one by Venetians; the hands of two artists are distinguishable in the latter. None of any of this is visible from the body of the church.
The marble holy water stoups have carved fishes swimming about in them, a proof that the Baroque style has a genuine sense of humour.
There used to be an external chapel to the right as you start going down the staircase to the Chapel of Helena, but this is now the sacristy after the old one became the Relic Chapel.
The description is anticlockwise, from the near right hand aisle.
The first chapel on the right is dedicated to St Caesarius, and the altarpiece is an 18th century copy of St Bernard Extracting a Tooth of St Caesarius from the Reliquary by Giovanni Bonatti. The odd story behind the painting is that St Bernard was allowed to handle the sealed box containing the relics of St Caesarius, and miraculously managed to extract a tooth from it as a relic for his own abbey.
The second chapel on the right is dedicated to St Bernard, and has an altarpiece which is a copy of a work by Carlo Maratta. The subject is St Bernard Induces Antipope Victor IV to Submit to Pope Innocent II'.
The third chapel on the right is dedicated to St Robert of Molesmes , and has an altarpiece by Giovan Battista Vanni showing The Vision of the Mother of St Robert. The work shows the mother of the saint having a vision of Our Lady visiting her baby.
On the left hand side, the far chapel is dedicated to Pope St Sylvester, with an altarpiece by Luigi Garzi depicting Pope St Sylvester Shows a Picture of St Peter to the Emperor Constantine.
The central one is dedicated to the Crucifix. The Skull of Adam, a 16th century ivory which used to decorate the base of this, was stolen in 2003 -perhaps sold by one of the renegade monks.
The near chapel on the left is dedicated to St Thomas the Apostle, and the altarpiece by Giuseppe Passeri shows him inserting his finger in Christ's side. The finger concerned is one of the holy relics.
The painting in the sanctuary vault is another work by Corrado Giaquinto, the Apparition of the Cross on the Day of Judgement.
The baldacchino over the high altar is from the 18th century renovation, when its apparently exquisite mediaeval predecessor was destroyed. However, this is a spectacular artwork in its own right. Four Ionic columns in pavonazzetto marble are on the corners of a square, and support curved strips of marble forming open segmental pediments. These in turn support a large, ornate gilded bronze crown. Below the high altar is an urn described as "green basalt" (serpentine ?), containing the relics of the martyrs SS Caesarius and Anastasius.
In the centre of the apse behind the altar, against the wall, is the tomb of Cardinal Quiñones, who died in 1540. This is an unusual place for a tomb, and it is even more strange that a tabernacle for the Blessed Sacrament is incorporated into its design. The artist was Jacopo Sansovino, and he produced a fine piece of Renaissance sculpture. The tabernacle is in a little propylaeum with porphyry columns, and this is flanked by statues of SS Peter and Paul.
The apse has a 15th century fresco depicting a series of scenes featuring the legend of the recovery of the True Cross at Jerusalem. This has traditionally been attributed to Pinturicchio, but it is now thought that it is the work of Antoniazzo Romano about 1492. Antoniazzo had assisted Pinturicchio, Signorelli and Melozzo da Forlì while they worked in Rome. From left to right, it reads: Helena discovers three crosses; she identifies the right one by means of a miraculous cure; the True Cross is venerated in triumph; its return to Jerusalem after being captured by the Persian Sassanid Empire.
Above this fresco cycle is a depiction by the same artist of Christ in Glory, seated on the clouds within a mandorla. Its quality is such that it used to be ascribed to Giotto.
Chapel of St HelenaEdit
This used to be the holiest part of the complex when the church was first consecrated. It is entered via a shallow flight of stairs at the end of the right hand aisle, which features a long epigraph in Spanish tilework of the 16th century describing the 15th century rediscovery of some of the holy relics. The chapel itself used to be at ground level, but is now almost two metres below. It was decorated with mosaics by Emperor Valentinian III (425-455), his mother Galla Placidia and his sister Honoria. No trace of these remain.
These mosaics were replaced by Baldassare Peruzzi in the 16th century with a mosaic of Christ giving a blessing, flanked by the Evangelists. It is thought that the original design of this was by Melozzo da Forlì in about 1480, and that Francesco Zucchi restored it in the early 18th century. On the sides are four scenes from the Crucifixion, and also featured are SS Peter and Paul, St Sylvester, St Helen and Cardinal Carvajal.
The statue of St Helena in the chapel is an ancient copy of the Vatican Juno Sospita, and was discovered at Ostia. The sculpture of the pagan goddess has been adapted by replacing the head and hands, and adding a Cross.
The Chapel of the Pietà, also known as the Gregorian Chapel, was re-ordered between 1495 and 1520. It was commissioned by Cardinal López de Carvajal, titular of the church, as a mirror image of the Chapel of St Helena which it is joined to. You saw a mosaic representation of the Cardinal in the Chapel of St Helena.
The marble relief of the Pietà to the right of the altar of St Gregory the Great, depicting the dead Christ on the Blessed Virgin's lap, was added in 1628-1629. The Vision of St Gregory (see below) was painted on the vault in 1630 by Girolamo Nanni and Francesco Nappi. The subject is the liberation of souls from Purgatory through the prayers of the faithful and the intercession of saints. St Gregory the Great, in papal robes, and St Bernard of Clairvaux, with his abbot's mitre, can be seen kneeling in the middle section. The other saints are St Benedict of Nursia, standing behind St Gregory, and St Robert of Molesme, standing behind St Bernard. St Benedict was the founder of the Benedictines, of which the Cistercians were originally a reform movement, St Robert was the original founder of the first Cistercian abbey and St Bernard was the most famous Cistercian of the Middle Ages. Above them are the Apostles, St John the Baptist and the Blessed Virgin Mary. At the top is the Holy Trinity, to whom their prayers are directed.
At the altar of St Gregory, as from 1574, is a famous reliquary, shaped as a triptych with a silver frame Photo. There are some 200 relics in it, and in the centre is a 13th or 14th century mosaic of the Imago pietatis, the suffering Christ. Ten enamels were added to the silver frame, and seven of these are preserved. The work was probably commissioned by Raimondo del Balzo, who went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1380, and was donated to the church in 1386. A few years later, it was said that the image of Christ on the reliquary was the same as that seen by Pope St Gregory the Great in a vision. The inscription Fuit Sancti Gregorii Magni Papae was probably added to the tympanum of the reliquary at this time. Then, an inscription was engraved in 1495 by Israel van Meckenem below the image, stating that the image is a copy of the one St Gregory had painted after his vision. There is no mention of such a vision in the biographies of St Gregory, and it is thought that it is a myth that originated in this church.
The altar has a special privilege. According to the Decree on Purgatory of 1536, passed by the Council of Trent, the freeing of souls from Purgatory is linked to the celebration of the Eucharist. Specifically if the Eucharist is celebrated at certain altars, including this one and the high altar at San Gregorio Magno al Celio, the soul is granted a plenary indulgence by the personal intercession of St Gregory.
The Chapel of the Passion RelicsEdit
The Passion Relics were transferred to a new chapel in 1930. This made it much easier for the faithful to venerate them. You will find the entrance to the chapel vestibule and access corridor near the end of the left aisle, and inside there is a leaflet available in several languages which explains what you will see. You may go round the altar to see the relics more clearly. The relics kept here are:
- Two thorns from the crown of thorns. The plant they come from has allegedly not been identified, although they look as if they came from an acacia. They are consistent with other thorn relics; the crown itself (lacking thorns) is traditionally at the Sainte Chapelle in Paris.
- A nail from the Crucifixion. The nail is of Roman type. There are many churches where such nails are venerated, since filings were supposedly taken from the true nails and embedded in copies to make relics of a lower class. Some of these were presented as true nails from the Crucifixion rather than copies, but it is safe to say that the one kept here is among those most likely to be truly one of the original nails.
- The Titulus, part of the Title of the Cross originally bearing the words "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews". It was found on 1 February 1492, built into the wall of the basilica behind a mosaic that was being repaired. The brick which covered it was inscribed TITULUS CRUCIS - it can be seen in the outer relic chapel, together with a reconstruction of the whole Title. The relic was unknown at the time, but there are sources indicating that such a relic was venerated in the courtyard on Calvary in Jerusalem. The pilgrim Aetheria (c. 385) mentions this, as does the pilgrim Antonius of Piacenza two centuries later. St Helena is said to have divided the relic into three parts, giving one to Constantine, keeping one in Jerusalem and sending the last to Rome. The latter relic was allegedly hidden in the wall c. 455, when the clergy needed to protect it from the attacking Vandals. It is unknown why it was left there, and forgotten, until 1492, but it might simply be because the cleric responsible for hiding it was killed or displaced during the sack of the city. However, the workmen allegedly found it in a lead coffer sealed by Cardinal Gerardus, later Pope Lucius II, and this contradicts the Vandal story. It is said to have been in quite good condition at the time of discovery, but Bosio wrote 60 or 70 years later that the red paint on the letters had faded and that worms had eaten away the words 'Jesus' and 'Judaeorum'. The words are cut from the right to the left, leading some scholars to believe they were cut by a Hebrew used to writing in that direction. It does seem unlikely that a medieval forger would do such a thing.
- Three splinters of the True Cross -one of these was allegedly in the lead box described above.
- Part of the cross of the good thief.
- Fragments from the Pillar of the Scourging (the original pillar is traditionally at Santa Prassede), Christ's Tomb and his Crib. These are in one reliquary.
- The finger that St Thomas placed in Christ's side.
There is also displayed a copy of the Shroud of Turin, useful because the original is rarely on display.
At the foot of the rising corridor leading to the chapel is the tomb of Antonietta Meo, a six-year-old Roman girl who died of cancer in 1937 after displaying an amazingly mature life of prayer. The process hopefully leading to her canonization is ongoing.
The church is open:
Mondays to Saturdays from 7:00 to 12:45, and from 15:30 to 19:30;
Sundays and Solemnities 7:30 to 12:45, and 15:30 to 19:30.
The church is not much visited by mainstream tourists, but does get a lot of pilgrimage tour groups.
The bus routes passing the church are:
3 (actually a tram); from Ostiense station via Colosseo (east side). Goes on to San Lorenzo fuori le Mura.
571; from Ospedale di Santo Sprito along the Corso Vittorio Emanuele, past Piazza Venezia and Colosseo (metro). Weekdays only.
649; From Tiburtina and Termini train stations.
Mass is celebrated (according to this page):
Weekdays 8:00, 19:00;
Sundays 8:00, 10:00, 11:30, 19:00.
Visitors cannot access the chapels of St Helena and the Relics during the celebration of Mass, which may take at least an hour each time.
The church was included in the 7th century pilgrims' itinerary of Roman churches, and later became a Jubilee basilica. St Philip Neri included it in his list of seven churches that should be visited by pilgrims, and a plenary indulgence used to be attached to anyone who visited all seven in one day. You can now gain the indulgence by visiting one of the seven, albeit only once a year.
It is the station church on the fourth Sunday of Lent, when the relics are exposed for veneration, and on Good Friday when the Liturgy of the Passion and the Solemn Veneration of the Cross in the afternoon is preceded by a papal procession from the Lateran.
The titular feast of this church the Exaltation of the Cross on 14 September. Another major feast, the Discovery of the Cross, used to be celebrated on 3 May and this was the only day when women were allowed into the Chapel of Helena until the early 20th century. However, this feast was suppressed in the Roman Calendar in 1970 and is no longer kept.
"Sacred Destinations" web-page (with photos of relics)
"Domus Sessoriana" website (has good gallery)
|The Seven Churches|
|San Pietro in Vaticano | San Paolo fuori le Mura | San Giovanni in Laterano | Santa Maria Maggiore | Santa Croce in Gerusalemme | San Lorenzo fuori le Mura | San Sebastiano fuori le Mura|