Santa Passera is a late 13th century church incorporating older fabric at Via di Santa Passera 1, just off the Via della Magliana in the Portuense quarter and near the river Tiber. Pictures of the church at Wikimedia Commons are here. There is an English Wikipedia page here.
The dedication is famously to a saint who never existed. Nowadays, a dedication to SS Cyrus and John is assumed.
The present church has three storeys. The mediaeval building is on a lower church or crypt dating from the late 7th century (?), which itself is over a hypogaeum of the 3rd century.
The church is now subsidiary to the parish of Santo Volto di Gesù, which is responsible for access and liturgy.
According to the Roman tradition, the locality was the place where relics of SS Cyrus and John were delivered by boat after being transferred from Alexandria in Egypt. These two had been Egyptian martyrs of the early 4th century, according to their story a physician and a soldier. Their original shrine seems to have been where they were martyred, at Alexandria. However, the relics were described as being transferred to the nearby city of Menouthis by St Cyril of Alexandria about a century after their martyrdom.
The developed Roman legend appears in written form about 1200. According to it, two monks called Grimwald and Arnulf took the relics away in 407 to save them from a threatened "Saracen" invasion. Firstly they arrived at Trastevere, and lodged in the house of a rich widow called Theodora. Warned in a dream, they then went down the Via Portuensis and founded a little oratory on the present site where the relics were enshrined.
The story is anachronistic (Germanic names, Saracens before Muhammed was born), and the plot-line fits a 7th century milieu better. It also looks as if two legends were conflated, one involving a Trastevere location and the other, the site of this church.
The site of the church is actually on the ancient Via Campana (the present Via della Magliana), which was a loop of the Via Portuensis (the present Via Portuense) that followed the river. Some scholars argue that the latter was a late antique replacement of the former.
The lowest level of the present edifice is a hypogeum of the 3rd century, which must have had a superstructure. The second or crypt level contains re-used ancient building material, which might have come from this. There is a travertine limestone column drum, and a panel in Cipollino marble which must have belonged to a high-status building. The two alternatives for what the original building here was, are either a very expensive tomb or a small temple.
See Sant'Urbano alla Caffarella for a clearer example of a temple with a hypogeum being converted into a church.
Foundation of churchEdit
There has been some difficulty with the dating of the second stratum, the present crypt or "lower church". A foundation date is often quoted as being 5th century, based on the legend of the transfer of relics already mentioned, but this seems much too early.
There is an alleged reference to the church in the Life of Pope St Gregory the Great by John the Deacon, but this work dates from the 9th century.
If the legend has some basis in reality, then the transfer would most likely have happened in the 7th century with the Muslim conquest of Egypt. Alexandria fell in 641, and perhaps the relics were removed from Menouthis then. (They need not have been taken immediately to Rome, of course.) This hints at a foundation of the church in the latter part of the century, which is corroborated by the depiction of the saints in the fresco cycles ordered by Pope John VII (705-7) for Santa Maria Antiqua.
The witness given by the surviving fabric is not conclusive, but the evidence of the surviving fresco fragments gives the 8th century as the latest possible date for the church's foundation, involving the re-use of the hypogeum as the saints' shrine.
The so-called Epigraph of Theodotus, dated 755, has a list of the saints' relics at the church of Sant'Angelo in Pescheria. This includes relics of SS Cyrus and John, so it seems that not all of them were enshrined at Santa Passera. The bits that weren't are claimed to have been the heads, and a further claim is made that these relics are now at the Michaelskirche at Munich in Germany.
Closure of shrine Edit
The relics were apparently brought into the city in the 9th century, when the city authorities had lost control of the countryside and the Tiber was liable to be used by marauding pirates. In the 17th century, this set of relics was allegedly sent to Naples and are now in the church of Gesù Nuovo there.
However, doubt was already expressed in that century as to whether they were genuine, and it was claimed that the original relics were still in situ.
Churches of Sant'Abbaciro Edit
The dedication to Passera is to a non-existent saint, and it is clear from the documentation that the word is a corruption of Abba Cyrus via the form ba-sir. Abba is a Coptic word referring to a monastic elder or holy man, and was the remote ancestor of the later word “abbot”.
The monastic term abba was already familiar in Christian circles at Rome from the mid 4th century, as stories about Egyptian monks began to circulate in the city. However, St Cyrus was not a monk and this has led to speculation that the arrival of his and St John's relics at Rome was also marked by the migration of refugee Coptic monks who popularised their cult under the name Abba Cyrus. The existence and influence of these monks in Rome from the 7th century until about the 10th is certain, although there were malicious efforts being made to conceal their presence in the historical record from the 11th century.
Four churches dedicated to Cyrus were founded in Rome in this period, coinciding with a massive but undocumented building programme which filled the built-up area with small parish churches. The sources begin by referring to these as [ecclesia] sancti Abbacyri, but interestingly the sources witness to the mutation of the name of one of them to something resembling Passera. The modern Italian is Sant'Abbaciro.
Sant'Abbaciro ad Elephantum Edit
The first in alphabetical order of the four was named after a once famous statue of a bronze elephant in the south end of the ancient city's Forum Holitorium. It appears in records for the 9th and 10th centuries only, firstly under Pope Gregory IV (827-44) as dedicated to beati Abbacyri et Archangeli. This odd dedication seems to be because the church was dependent on Sant'Angelo in Pescheria, as is clear in later sources.
Scholars have tried to identify the church with later edifices having different dedications known to exist in the area in mediaeval times, but this is a hopeless enterprise. The location is also vague -north of the present Via della Misericordia is a good guess for the elephant statue itself.
Sant'Abbaciro al Celio Edit
This church was part of a monastic establishment near Santo Stefano Rotondo al Celio. A reference for the reign of Pope Leo III (795-816) has the suffix in xenodochio Valeriorum, which indicates that some sort of accommodation for strangers had been set up in the former town house of the patrician Valerii falmily. This is usually described as being for pilgrims, but might well have been for refugees -xenodochium is Greek. The house of the Valerii was on the ancient Via Celemontana, which is plausibly but not conclusively identified with the present Via di Santo Stefano Rotondo.
The establishment apparently did not survive into the new millennium. Beware of confusion with Sant'Erasmo al Celio, another monastery on the same hill. For example, Armellini writing in 1891 conflated them.
Sant'Abbaciro de Militiis Edit
The last church dedicated to SS Cyrus and John to survive within the city walls was located next to the ruins of the Market of Trajan. It appears in 1130 as a dependency of Santi Apostoli, located on the Via Biberatica, and in the next century received the suffix de Urbe (presumably to distinguish it from the rural Santa Passera). In 1289 it was referred to with the appellation de Militiis, presumably owing to its proximity to the Torre delle Milizie, and this has caused confusion with San Salvatore delle Milizie.
In the 16th century we begin to find the nickname San Pacera.
The loss of this church was rather late, and is unrecorded. The last reference of any sort is in a papal bull of Sixtus V (1585-90).
The site is fairly confidently located beneath the present Palazzo del Gallo di Roccagiovine which is on the east side of the Piazza Foro Traiano. However, an alternative suggestion has been to locate it a little to the south-east, where mediaeval masonry is apparently detectable in between the Market and the Forum of Trajan (look for yourself; the writer is sceptical).
Sant'Abbaciro in Trastevere Edit
The church dedicated to SS Cyrus and John in Trastevere featured in the legend of the arrival of their relics in Rome. According to this, the monks carrying them first lodged at the house of a rich widow in Trastevere called Theodora, before taking them back out of the city as a result of a dream.
A hospital allegedly founded by Theodora existed in Trastevere in the Middle Ages, and had a church dedicated to the two saints attached to it. This was possibly another monastic foundation of the 8th century, and the interesting thing about the convoluted and unconvincing arrival legend is that it might have been written by someone attached to this establishment in order to boost its prestige.
The church vanishes from the historical record after the 15th century.
The only clue to the actual location seems to be a note made by Fioravante Martinelli: Fu ritrovata una porta di marmo, nel cui architrave era scritto a lettere maiuscole DOMUS SANCTORUM CYRI ET IOANNIS. This marble door-case was apparently part of the fabric of the monastic establishment attached to the church of San Benedetto a Piscincula when he wrote in the 17th century, although it has been long lost since. It provides a hint that the church dedicated to SS Cyrus and John in Trastevere was somewhere on the present Via dei Salumi east of the junction with the Via Anicia. (One needs to bear in mind that such door-cases were recyclable, and might have been brought to this location from elsewhere as salvage.)
Meanwhile, the old church at Santa Passsera was probably abandoned in the 9th century, but cannot have fallen into complete ruin for very long (if at all) because of the surviving frescoes. Its first appearance in documented history was when it was listed at the start of the 11th century as owned by the monastery of San Ciriaco in Via Lata.
This abbey used to occupy what is now the east end of the Piazza del Collegio Romano, and was a very important Benedictine monastery in the Middle Ages. It was also known as San Ciriaco de Camilliano, or Santi Ciriaco e Niccolò because it incorporated an older church called San Niccolò de Pinea. It was founded for monks in the 10th century, but by the 13th century was inhabited by nuns.
The old church at Santa Passera was turned into a crypt by the nunnery in the late 13th or early 14th century, when the present church was built over it. The latter was smaller in floor area, and the space left over was utilised for a priest's house. Apparently, the motivation for this rebuilding was because a hamlet of tufa quarry workers had been established in the vicinity.
It may be noted here that there is doubt about the date of construction of this new church, because the interior was frescoed around the same period. The fresco project involved the blocking of a window in the apse, which seems very unlikely if the project was part of the original building campaign. (However, it was possible that somebody offered to pay for the frescoes just after the church was finished.) Hence, a revisionist opinion seeks to date this later church to the 9th century or a little earlier. It seems that it would be very hard to confirm or deny this hypothesis on the evidence available.
Much of the fresco work survives, and interestingly it includes two depictions of St Praxedis. The original dedication had been forgotten by those in charge of its execution, and Passera was taken to refer to this saint whose church is Santa Prassede.
Unfortunately, in the 15th century the nuns had become grossly degenerate. As a result, the nunnery was suppressed as a disgrace by a papal decree of Eugene IV in 1435. Its privileges and property were transferred to Santa Maria in Via Lata, including Santa Passera. From then on the latter functioned as a distant dependency of this church, administered by the college of secular priests in charge of it.
Restorations and relic-hunts Edit
The college ordered regular restorations, and their records show that these occurred twice in the 16th century and three times in the 17th. Unfortunately, these involved some bad overpaintings of the 14th century frescoes.
Also, scholarship had re-established that Passera referred to SS Cyrus and John. As a result, the college of priests at Santa Maria in Via Lata attended together the festal celebrations organised on their feast-day of 31 January.
The first 17th century restoration, in 1608, involved a determined attempt to find the relics of the saint -which, obviously, someone had concluded were still in situ. Many bones were discovered, but nothing to demonstrate special status and Pope Paul V ordered that the investigation be halted and the bones re-interred.
Another search took place in 1706, but the bones discovered were not of interest and the conclusion of this campaign involved the hypogeum being filled with earth and the entrance sealed.
In 1891, an explosives factory in Monteverde blew up and caused extensive damage. The right hand wall of the church apparently was left unsafe, and so was dismantled and rebuilt. This entailed the destruction of its frescoes.
The hypogeum was re-discovered in 1904, and cleared out. At this stage the locality was still entirely rural. As suburban development began later in the century, the size of the church precluded its use as a parish place of worship so it was rather neglected for the next hundred years.
There has been a recent restoration, however (2009), which took care not to disturb the tatty appearance of the exterior. Two picturesque cypresses that were growing on the terrace had to be removed because their roots were causing damage.
The church is now dependent on the parish of Santo Volto di Gesù, but is not a subsidiary parish church. Rather, it is an independent Chiese rettoria which means that a priest is independently appointed. It just so happens that the priest concerned has been the parish priest since 2001.
Another parish church, Sacra Famiglia a Via Portuense, is close by and so the little church has no pastoral justification. In effect, it is being kept open as a historical monument.
Fabric of platformEdit
The little church is raised on a platform containing the crypt (the old church), and this platform extends in front to create an elevated patio. The hypogeum is actually below this patio, beneath the present ground level.
The approach is via a double transverse set of stairs leading to the patio, and in the revetting wall supporting the stairways is a separate entrance door for the crypt (not nowadays used). The pair of little rectangular windows flanking this portal also light the crypt.
These staircases incorporate re-used ancient stone slabs, some with traces of epigraphs. The left hand staircase has a longitudinal set of stairs at its lower end.
The platform and the church have a little two-storey priest's house attached to the rear three-quarters of the church's left hand side. In front of this, and flanking the patio, is a single-storey edifice which contains the present access to the lower storeys. This has been postulated as an original pilgrim's reception area.
The house has an interesting chimney, with a gabled tiled top incorporating a little triangular pediment.
7th century fabric? Edit
The staircase revetting wall and the outer left hand side wall (supporting the priest's house and reception wing) both have old fabric in their lower courses. These are survivals of the first church.
The material is re-used ancient brick, with irregular travertine fragments and also courses laid in travertine blocks. This is the ancient building technique of opus vittatum, which indicates that the first church was a high-status building and not just a rural oratory.
One opinion as regards the fabric suggests that the exposed remnants in the front revetting wall belong to a porch added to the church later than the main structure but still before the 9th century.
The left hand side wall has three large blocked arches, two in the priest's house and one in the reception wing. These are all in brick, with no imposts. What the original function of the structure here was is uncertain, although it looks like two separate open loggias joining at a slight angle.
Church's fabric Edit
The church itself is a simple rectangular edifice with a semi-circular apse, with much recycled ancient Roman brick used in its construction. The rectangle of the plan is not exact, as the left hand side wall is actually slightly diagonal and the interior narrows towards the apse.
The right hand side wall is just a tall blank surface. The left hand side wall is mostly hidden by the priest's house and reception wing, but the latter is low enough for the church to have a single round-headed window here. If you look at the left hand side wall of the church peeping above the single-pitched roof of the priest's house, you can see the brick archivolts of a row of arches. These are blocked windows, indicating that the second storey of the house was a later addition and is the youngest element in the complex.
These main external walls show evidence of patching, and the rendering is missing in places. This is obvious on the façade, and especially for the apse which has lost almost all of it. Here you can see a blocked double-arched window, with a small stone Corinthian column under a block impost. The cornice of the apse is supported by ten ancient carved marble corbels, which are not a matching set.
The main roof is gable-pitched and tiled, with a slight overhang all round including the gables (there is no cornice). The apse has its own almost flat tiled roof, and the priest's house and reception wing each have a single tiled pitch.
There is a simple campanile or bell-cote, gabled in brick with two bell-arches side by side. It is over the left hand side wall of the church.
When you go to the back of the church to look at the apse, don't miss two fragments of ancient carved marble friezes next to the little garden there.
The façade of the church itself has a wide single entrance portal with a double door, sheltered by a shallow rustic floating tiled canopy having a slight pitch. There is a round-headed window above this, which contains interesting geometric stone tracery featuring a cross and sunburst. This is claimed as perhaps 8th century, and, if not re-used, is evidence that the upper church was actually built then and not in the 14th century as usually thought. The window has the ghost of a pedimented frame, apparently added in the 18th century and removed in the 19th.
There is a pair of small blocked vertical rectangular windows flanking the porch roof, each of which has a horizontal rectangular recess below it of the same width. These four apertures had frames made up of lengths of ancient stone carved cornices, presumably from the 3rd century building that once stood here. This stonework has not survived at all well.
Finally, there is a single small round –headed window to the right of the entrance. This is the third of the trio of windows with which the church is provided.
The simple interior has an original mediaeval wooden truss roof, without a ceiling. The walls are structurally completely unadorned, including the apse and conch which join onto the far wall without any separately distinguished triumphal arch.
The ambience is rather dark, as the only windows are two in the façade and one in the left hand side wall. The only other portal is a single simple doorway into the priest's house further down the same wall. The left hand wall also shows evidence of two former round-headed windows, while the right hand wall is uninformative as it was rebuilt in the late 19th century.
Church frescoes Edit
The church was provided with a set of original 14th century frescoes, and much survives although in poor condition. The best is in the apse, with some on the left hand side wall and on the apse surround.
Above the apse arch is the Lamb of God with the symbols of the four Evangelists, hard to make out. On the sides of the arch are depictions of SS Cyrus and John, with below them SS Praxedis and Pudentiana, which have been well restored recently.
The conch of the apse has a decayed fresco of Christ flanked by (left to right) SS John the Baptist, Paul, Peter and John the Evangelist.
The apse wall fresco is better preserved. From left to right, it shows: St Anthony of Padua with a Franciscan nun client, an unidentifiable saint (James the Great?) with a layman client, St Michael conquering a dragon, the Madonna and Child and Christ flanked by SS Cyrus and John.
The dado of the apse wall is provided with a fresco of hanging curtains, which was a common decorative motif in early Roman churches. The actual wall curtains appeared to have been used for acoustic purposes as well as for cutting down draughts in winter.
The intrados and facing sides of the apse arch are decorated with grotesque motifs.
The left hand side wall has fresco two registers featuring figures of Eastern saints and doctors in a developed Byzantine style. The lower one has only one well-preserved panel, near the apse. It depicts, from left to right, SS John Chrysostom, Epiphanius of Salamis, Basil the Great, Gregory Nazianzen and Nicholas of Myra. The portraiture corresponds with the received Byzantine tradition -note especially St Basil, having a thin face with a long dark tapering beard. The other panels have perished beyond hope of identification.
The upper register seems to have featured scenes from the legend of the two saints, and likewise only the panel by the apse has survived.
The sanctuary furnishings repay attention, since they incorporate architectural fragments from the high-status ancient building which first occupied the site.
The mensa of the altar stands on a fragment of a red marble column, which in turn stands on a small platform raised by one step. This is paved in red brick like the rest of the floor, but is edged with ancient marble slabs. One of these has part of a pagan inscription. The minister's seat in the curve of the apse is made up of ancient marble blocks. The lectern or ambo to the left has a length of beaded marble cornice placed vertically, and the reader stands on a round limestone column impost. The tabernacle, on the right, is on a fragment of a cipollino marble column. It is in bronze, and features a fish with a basket of bread.
The crypt or lower church has its separate entrance through the door in the left hand external side frontage. There is no access from the church interior, and you will only get in here by means of a guided tour.
The tour guide may give you a revisionist dating of this structure. This article presumes a dating of around the time when the relics of the saints arrived in Rome, about 700 AD. However, a suggestion has been made that this edifice is actually a 2nd or 3rd century Roman mausoleum which was only converted into a church instead of having been built as one. The architectural features pointed out in support of this theory are mentioned below.
Once through the door, you will find yourself in a room with the entrance to the actual crypt on the far side. There is a step down.
The crypt consists of four rooms, arranged in line on the same axis as the church above. These consist of a main nave, an endonarthex, an exonarthex and a porch.
First there is a large longitudinal rectangular room, almost square with the entrance in the lower left hand corner. In the far wall is a rectangular apsidal niche, with a relieving archivolt in the brickwork of the wall above. This now only contains a column drum, but would have contained the altar when this was a church. The far wall of the niche is in neatly laid ancient bricks, and it has been pointed out that this looks like a blocking wall. If so, this was originally an entrance in its own right and hence the edifice was converted into a church, not built as one.
The room has a low, shallowly curved barrel vault in concrete. The ancient shuttering used, of thin poles and rope, has left its imprint. There are worries about the ability of anyone in the 8th century to build such a thing, although a lack of surviving evidence elsewhere is not evidence of lack.
However, a response is that an ancient high-status mausoleum would not have been left with its vault in a raw state but would have had it stuccoed decoratively. There seems no evidence that it was.
The sides of this niche preserve their plasterwork, and very faint traces of a pair of 9th century (?) frescoes. These depict two figures, one of them apparently bearded although they are so far gone that it is difficult to tell. The wall to the right of the niche has the equally faint remains of a fresco featuring five figures. Three are said to be dressed as bishops, one holding a scroll and another a book. The other two are a bearded man and a high-status woman.
This fresco is allegedly a palimpsest, with a small kneeling figure from an earlier layer apparently visible to the bottom left.
To be frank, you have to take the word of those who viewed the frescoes when they were in better condition than now. If they were not pointed out by the guide, you would never notice that they were there.
The second room is accessed through a short passage through a thick dividing wall. It is a transverse rectangle, not symmetrically arranged -the right hand arm is longer. This space is now used to store odd bits of carved stonework including a well-preserved high relief sculpture of The Deposition.
The next room is a longitudinal rectangle, and was the focus of pilgrimage attention when the relics of SS Cyrus and John were enshrined here. On the left hand side the floor is broken open in a void which reveals the hypogeum below, accessed by a narrow set of stairs and protected by modern iron railings.
This breach is not original, but notice another small aperture in the floor protected by a metal grille. This is a fenestella confessionis. The pilgrims would not have entered the hypogeum where the saints were enshrined, but would have entered by the portal visible further on, venerated the saints via this fenestella and then passed on into the main church before exiting by the side entrance. In other words, there would have been a one-way system (the direction of flow might have been the opposite to that just described, of course).
Finally, there is a small transverse rectangular porch up a step which contains the original doorway of the church visible in the revetting wall between the staircases outside. Those who argue for an ancient origin for the old church edifice admit that this structure must have been added later, and postulate an 8th century date for it.
A marble lintel over the portal between the porch and exonarthex has an inscription transcribed as:
Corpora Sancti Cyri renitent hic atque Joannis, quae quondam Romae dedit Alexandria Magna.
Down the stairs from the crypt is what looks like an ancient Roman tomb or hypogeum, thought to date from the 3rd century. It is either the oldest structure on the site, or (according to the revisionist hypothesis) was excavated after the mausoleum which is now the crypt was built.
It is excavated from the natural tufo rock, and is a small longitudinal rectangular barrel-vaulted chamber with stuccoed walls. The far end has had a blocking wall inserted, broken at the top. Other holes have been knocked in the walls and patched with ancient bricks, and these apparently are the results of relic-hunting in the 17th century.
Fragments of original fresco work survive, although deteriorating. Overall the plaster was washed in a cream colour, on which red lines were traced in geometric patterns and figurative details added. On the left hand wall is discernible an allegorical figure interpreted as Justice (she is holding scales), and also an athlete (boxer?) and a flying bird. The ceiling was done in blue, with eight-pointed stars. The wall by the stairs has a depiction of a sheep. All these are original, 3rd century.
Lost frescoes are a Madonna and Child with SS Cyrus and John, stolen in 1968, which was to the right, and SS Cyrus and Praxedis to the left. These would have been part of the same mediaeval scheme of decoration as the frescoes in the main church.
The church used to be advertised as open on weekdays, 9:00 to 13:00. However, online chatroom comments indicate that this has not been the case for some time, and it is perhaps safer to plan your visit at about half an hour before the start of Mass on Sunday.
The church is closed in July, August and September.
The easiest way to get there from the Centro Storico is to take the number 8 tram from Piazza Venezia to Trastevere train station, then bus 780 or 780. You need the Vicolo di Santa Passera stop. The church is on this narrow street, which runs between Via della Magliana and Via di Santa Passera.
Mass is celebrated on Sundays at 10:30 (parish website, July 2018), except in summer (July to September) when the church is closed.
The feast-day of SS Cyrus and John is 31 January.