Santo Stefano degli Abissini is an 18th century national church, incorporating 12th century fabric, at Largo Santo Stefano degli Abissini in Vatican City. Picture of the church on Wikimedia Commons here. There is an English Wikipedia page here.
The dedication is to St Stephen the Protomartyr.
The surname Abissini is cognate to the English "Abyssinian", and is an old word for "Ethiopian". It is now regarded as perjorative, and should not be used in reference to the country and its people.
The name "Ethiopian" anciently referred to what is now Nubia, and this includes its occurrence in Biblical texts. The composers of the 18th century epigraph over the entrance appreciated the distinction.
The liturgy is celebrated according to the Ethiopian rite which, together with the Coptic rite, derives from the ancient Alexandrian rite or "Liturgy of St Mark". This was used by the Christians in Egypt under the Roman Empire. The Ethiopian rite is sometimes called the Ge'ez rite, after the language used which is an ancestor of Amharic as spoken in Ethiopia.
The church is in the charge of the Ethiopian Catholic Church. This is one of the Eastern Catholic Churches in full communion with the Roman Catholic Church, and recognizing the Pope as head. It includes Ethiopian-rite Catholics in both Ethiopia and Eritrea, while the Orthodox (not in communion with Rome) have separate independent Churches in these two countries. These are the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church and the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, the former having a congregation in Rome worshipping at Santi Gioacchino e Anna ai Monti and the latter at San Salvatore in Campo.
There is a serious confusion in modern publications between this church and Santa Maria del Sole, an ancient circular temple which was originally called Santo Stefano when it became a church.
When the area was remodelled after Vatican City gained its independence in 1929, archaeological evidence was found in 1931 of mausolea under the church dating to the 2nd and 3rd centuries. When the famous necropolis under St Peter's was excavated later, it was noticed that the alignment of the street of mausolea then found actually aligned with those under this church. Hence, it is considered that the St Peter's necropolis extended at least as far as here and probably further.
There have been recent verbal remarks by Pietro Zander of the Fabbrica di San Pietro to the effect that the apse of the church is on the foundations of an ancient rotunda. Was this noticed in the 2008 restoration, which he supervised?
This church was originally founded as a monastery, according to tradition by Pope St Leo the Great in the mid 5th century. However, this is undocumented and almost certainly too early. Rather, it probably began as a foundation by expatriate Eastern monks in the late 7th to early 8th centuries, as Rome received many such refugees from Muslim conquest and Imperial iconoclasm in the Byzantine Empire at the time.
It is thought that the basilica of St Peter's stood alone before this, but that the influx led to several monasteries of Greek, Syrian and Armenian monks being founded on the Vatican by the 8th century. Their presence was maliciously airbrushed from Rome's historical awareness in the early Middle Ages as a result of the Great Schism , and unfortunately this still perverts the modern historical awareness.
From then on and into the early Middle Ages, the basilica was surrounded by a swarm of an amazing number of different churches and chapels, and sorting out which was which and where cannot now be a conclusive exercise. However, the monastery here seems to have initially been called Catagalla Patricia or Catabarba Patricia, although it is not completely certain that these were not separate establishments. The important thing about the names is the prefix Cata, which is Greek and indicates that the first monks here were of the Byzantine rite.
The first documentary reference derives from a synod held by Pope Gregory III in 732.
Pope Stephen III (sometimes given as II) (752-7) founded another monastery nearby dedicated to his patron, which became known as Sancti Stephani Minor -later the lost church of Santo Stefano degli Ungheresi. So, the monastery here became known as Sancti Stephani Major.
Pope Leo III (795-816) restored or rebuilt the church, part of the campaign of endowment of the Vatican by the emperor Charlemagne. This seems to have been a continuation of a campaign by Pope Adrian I, the previous pope.
Pope Paschal I (817-24) was abbot of the monastery under Leo III, and made it a diaconia when pope. A diaconia was a centre of the Church's charitable activities in the first millennium AD, and here would have catered for needy pilgrims.
Pope Leo IV (847-55) is credited with laying out the ancestor of the present building, and its earliest extant fabric is thought to be his. This would have been after the Arab raid on Rome laid waste the area of the Vatican.
The church is listed in the Regestum Sublacense of the 11th century, indicating that the monastery had become Benedictine by then.
The assertion that he also founded a monastery for Ethiopian monks next to it, was apparently first made by Francesco Maria Torrigio (1580-1650). This is no longer taken seriously by scholars -the date is much too early. Rather, it seems that the church was in the charge of the Chapter of St Peter's after the Benedictines had left towards the end of the century, and that Coptic monks from Egypt might have been here. (Benedictine monasticism in Rome had collapsed disgracefully in that period.)
Arrival of Ethiopians
In 1479, Pope Sixtus IV restored the complex and then assigned it to a small group of expatriate Ethiopian monks in the city in 1481. These were the first in the city, and had arrived in November of that year with Fra Giovanni Battista Brocchi, a Franciscan of the Holy Land originally from Imola. Back then, and until recently, the Abuna or head of the Ethiopian church was appointed by the Coptic patriarch of Alexandria in Egypt, and an Ethiopian embassy had travelled there to ask for this to take place. There they met some Franciscans, and six of the embassy went to Rome with Fra Giovanni Battista.
They did not remain in Rome for long, because they then accompanied a Franciscan expedition to Ethiopia in 1482, led by Fra Giovanni da Baffa. This was the first formal contact between the Roman Catholic Church and the Ethiopian kingdom, although regular interactions only began in the following century with the arrival of the Portuguese in the region.
The church was then known as Santo Stefano degli Indiani, or Santo Stefano dei Mori. The appellations "Indians" or "Moors" reflected the ignorance of almost everybody in Rome concerning Ethiopia at the time.
The idea was that the monastery should function as a hospice for Ethiopian pilgrims, but it is unlikely that any number turned up for the next few decades. This interest in Ethiopia was fuelled by the legends of Prester John, and the hope that the kingdom would become a powerful ally against the Muslims.
The liturgy celebrated here would have continued in the Roman rite.
The major contact between Ethiopia and the Roman Catholic Church began with the Ethiopia-Adal War, 1529-43. It turned out that Ethiopia was in serious danger of being overrun by Muslims instead of being in any way useful against them in Europe, and so the Portuguese helped out in the war. The Ethiopians were impressed by the power of firearms.
Jesuit missionaries arrived with the Portuguese, first visiting Ethiopia in 1557. Their efforts, initially fruitless, led to a temporary success under the Negus (Emperor) Susenyos, who became a Catholic in 1622. This would have been the high point of the Ethiopian presence at Santo Stefano.
Pope Gregory XV appointed the Portuguese Jesuit Alfonso Mendes as Abuna of the Ethiopian church, but unfortunately his policy was to convert the worship of the church to the Roman rite in Latin. This was idiotic, and despite the support of the Negus only caused massive unrest. When the Negus died in 1632, the project was doomed and Mendes was expelled in 1636 together with all foreign clergy.
That was the end of any official Ethiopian connection with Rome until the 19th century.
18th century rebuilding
The church and monastery would have been left in charge of the Chapter of St Peter's. Predictably, the complex fell into disrepair and so the church was rebuilt on the orders of Pope Clement XI (1700–1721) in 1706. The architect was Antonio Valeri (1648-1736).
Previously, the edifice had a basilical plan with a central nave, side aisles, transept and a sanctuary apse. There were no arcades, but the aisles were separated from the nave by trabeated colonnnades (a fragment of the right hand one is just inside the present entrance). A tower campanile was over the right hand aisle, behind the façade.
In the rebuilding, the church was reduced to a single un-aisled nave with the transept and apse. A small hospice was just to the north of the frontage.
The work was paid for by a rich priest called Silverio Campana, who erected a side altar to his patron Pope St Silverius. His feast-day was subsequently celebrated here on 20 June.
During the papacy of Clement XII (1730-40), some Ethiopian monks arrived in Rome and the pope allotted them the church and convent in 1731. Back then, it was still called Santo Stefano dei Mori.
Catholic missionary activity by Franciscan Capuchins and Lazarists resumed in Ethiopia in 1839. The Lazarist missionary Justin de Jacobis was made Vicar Apostolic for the country, and succeeded in establishing a Catholic presence. Included in his concerns was provision for the training of a native Catholic clergy, and this is seen as the beginning of the Ethiopian Catholic Church.
The convent and church served as a hospice for visiting Ethiopian pilgrims in this century. It is in this century that the name of San Stefano degli Abissini began to be used.
Foundation of college
The status of Ethiopian Catholics in Rome changed radically in 1919, with the arrival of the first seminarians from Ethiopia. This was the beginning of the present Pontifical Ethiopian College, which had its first home in the old hospice. This was restored for the purpose on the orders of Pope Benedict XV.
However, the college moved into purpose-built premises in the Vatican gardens to the north-west in 1930 -and, as a result, no longer uses the church for regular worship.
The new college was part of the massive programme of demolition and rebuilding that took place around this corner of Vatican City after it gained its independence through the Lateran Treaty of 1929. As regards the church, a major restoration or re-modelling was begun by Gustavo Giovannoni in 1927 for a year, and again from 1931 to 1933.
The work had mixed results. The neighbouring buildings to north and south, including the old hospice and the nearby church of Santa Marta in Vaticano, were demolished and partly replaced by the block of the Palazzo del Tribunale. The church was left isolated in a grassed area planted with trees, which are now mature.
The intervention in the interior was, very unfortunately, according to the then fashionable delusion of "returning" old churches to their imagined mediaeval appearance. This invariably involved destruction of Baroque fittings and artworks, and the scraping of walls to leave smooth plaster surfaces and bare brickwork. This is exactly what happened here. The result is ugly and boring.
Also, the floor was lowered by 1.2 metres after archaeological investigations under the church. To keep the discoveries accessible, three crypts were constructed under and flanking the nave which are still there. Unfortunately, poor attention was paid to the problem of drainage and they often flood.
The church was put in the charge of the Fabbrica di San Pietro, under which it remains.
The church has no pastoral function nowadays, and its status as an Ethiopian national church is rather a dead-letter. The expatriate Ethiopian Catholic community worships at San Tommaso in Parione.
In fact there are no regular litugical celebrations of any kind, although marriages are celebrated here (presumably for those working in the Vatican, especially the Fabbrica).
However there was a restoration in 2008 and the façade, which was scruffy, now looks neat and clean.
The church has a single nave, ending in a sanctuary transept with an apse which is a deep segment, not quite semi-circular
Nave and sanctuary are under a single T-shaped tiled roof. There is a small campanile or bellcote over the left hand nave side wall, halfway down, with a round-headed opening for a single bell below a tiled gable.
A pair of side chapels with lower roofs is tucked into the corners of the T.
If you look down the side of the church, you will see a pair of retaining walls paralleling the side walls, since the church is below the general ground level here. These modern walls are on the lines of the original side aisles of the 9th century church. The near length of the left hand wall, however, preserves original brickwork of that date. It is poor quality brick-laying, using scavenged ancient bricks.
Again, if you look at the lower courses of the walls of the transept and apse, you will see similar brickwork of the same date. This is good evidence that the 12th century rebuilding kept the footprint of the 9th century church.
The single-storey façade is in the late Baroque (tardobarocco) style of the early 18th century.
A pair of tripletted blind pilasters (no capitals) support an entablature, and a crowning triangular pediment. The entablature is brought forward over the pilasters as a pair of posts, and the pediment side angles are also brought forward. On the entablature frieze in between the posts is a simple dedicatory inscription -S. Stefano Protomartire. The tympanum of the pediment has the coat-of-arms of Pope Clement XI in stucco relief.
The 12th century carved marble doorcase was preserved in the rebuilding, and is decorated with vine-scrolls and the Lamb of God with the Cross in a relief on the lintel. The intricate carving on this is still crisp, hinting that the mediaeval church had a porch before the 18th century remodelling.
Above is a floating cornice, then a tablet with an inscription recording the 18th century rebuilding, and above that in turn is a horizontal rectangular window with a Baroque frame.
The inscription reads: Clemens XI P[ontifex] M[aximus], ecclesiam hanc Leone Magno Pont[ifice] Max[imo] cum monasterio exstructum, Aethiopis Abyssinis concessam, pluries instauratam, renovavit domosq[ue] contiguas et hortum funditus restituit et ornavit.
("Clement XI, Pope, restored this church which had been constructed by Pope Leo the Great with its monastery, then given to the Ethiopians [that is, Nubians] and Abyssinians [that is, Ethiopians] and several times put in order. He also rebuilt the adjacent houses and garden from the foundations and decorated them.")
Those familiar with the colourful and joyous religious art of the Ethiopians will be shocked if they get in here. The interior is no better than a barn, with bare walls painted pink. The only decoration is a frieze running round the interior below the roofline, which is decorated with a geometric motif featuring circles, rectangles and lozenges.
The nave has six bays, each having a round-headed window high up on each side. These windows have geometrical stone mullions called transennae -popular in Fascist restorations. The third and fourth bays are separated by a large transverse arch with a brick archivolt, springing from piers incorporated into the side walls and not distinguished in any way. Interestingly, this arch is not centred on the church's major axis but is displaced slightly to the left. This arch contains a rather crude set of spiked metal railings with a gate, which look as if the 20th century restorers wished to segregate the Ethiopian seminary students from any secular congregation.
The arch divides the nave roof interior into two zones, which are open with rafters. There are no ceilings.
There is large epigraph on a marble tablet over the entrance, recording the restoration that finished in 1933.
On the left hand side walls is an interesting collection of epigraph tablets moved here in that restoration. These include ones with texts in Amharic and Arabic.
Just beyond the arch on the right hand side, the wall shifts inwards slightly. This is significant to the layout of the 9th century church, since the corner thus created echoes the presence of an original square 9th century side portico at the end of the original aisle here. The remains of this are in one of the crypts.
The 20th century restorers discovered some ancient Corinthian columns from the mediaeval church embedded in the side walls, and these are now on display after the removal of the bits of the wall fabric that concealed them. They number seven in total:
On the right after entering, and before the arch, are four re-erected columns supporting an entablature fragment, and three of these were apparently previously in the sacristy. These are described as being of marmo lesbio, in other words from the island of Lesbos in Greece, and are fluted. The fourth column is unfluted, and looks as if it is of cipollino marble from Euboea also in Greece. It is tucked in next to the arch.
On the left are two columns, facing the further two of the four on the right.
Finally, a column is in the right hand wall angle beyond the arch (mentioned above).
The sanctuary is substantially raised above the confessio. Its furnishings are 20th century, using pre-existing bits. Also 20th century is the screen wall below the altar, facing the nave, in which fragments of 9th century plutei or marble screen-slabs were embedded.
The triumphal arch also has a brick archivolt, but here it is supported by a pair of ancient columns in cipollino marble. The right hand one has an Ionic capital, and the other Doric and these support molded imposts. The left hand impost is a re-used altar mensa. These columns were recorded as having been in the sacristy before the 20th century, and it is thought that they might have belonged in the arcades of the mediaeval church.
The roof is raftered without a ceiling, like the nave. The apse has three small round-headed windows.
There is now a baldacchino with four columns, supporting a canopy in a yellowish marble with four arches, a cornice and a pyramidal cap. This looks mediaeval, but again is 20th century using what look like three ancient columns in pavonazzetto marble and one in bigio antico (grey marble). There is an inscription below the canopy cornice which records the restoration under Pope Pius XI, including the year 1932.
The altar itself has two stone candlesticks in Cosmatesque style.
The mensa of the altar rests on an ancient cippus or cuboidal funerary memorial with the inscription: D[iis] m[anibus], M[arco] Iunio Sabiniano, fratres pientissimi [ejus monumentum hoc erexerunt] ("In the hands of the gods, to Marcus Iunius Sabianus his most dutiful brothers erected this memorial").
Next to the altar is a fenestella confessionis or peep-hole looking down into the relic chamber of the confessio.
A modern icon of St Stephen is now displayed on the screen wall below the altar.
Two side chapels are entered through arches in the far ends of the side walls, the portals being defended by iron gratings. Structurally these chapels are the near corners of the church's transept.
The right hand side chapel is dedicated to Pope St Silverius, a unique dedication in Rome. It was provided with an altarpiece of the pope by Biagio Puccini (1675-1731) in the 18th century rebuilding. Here is a marble torso sculpture of Pope Clement XI, over an epigraph tablet recording his restoration of the church.
The left hand chapel is dedicated to Our Lady. The most important work of art in the church is a fresco of the Madonna with Child in the Roman style from the 15th century. There is a wooden statue of the Madonna and Child on a plinth in the corner outside this chapel.
The sanctuary is raised over a devotional crypt or confessio, consisting of a semi-circular passage following the curve of the apse together with a short dead-end passage to a cross-shaped chamber under the sanctuary. The arms of the cross are occupied by shelves, and at the far end is a little relic chamber under the altar. The latter is witness to a relic or relics attracting the attention of pilgrims in the early mediaeval period, perhaps even as early as the 9th century.
The outer wall of the curved passage is in re-used ancient bricks, and contains three lamp niches. The right hand one of these is topped with a fragment of marble lintel bearing the inscription Temp[ore] Domn[i] Leoni[s] Qu[arti] ("In the time of the Lord Leo IV"). He was pope from 847 to 855, and this epigraph is taken as evidence that he built the church with the confessio.
The floor of the confessio is in re-used marble wall revetting slabs, and is also 9th century.
This confessio was cleared out in the 1920's.
At the far end of the right hand side of the nave is a set of stairs which lead down to the first of three crypts provided in the 1933 restoration in order to maintain access to the archaeological discoveries under the church.
The first is in a location corresponding to the far end of the right hand aisle of the 9th century church. The remains here are interpreted as a square loggia or entrance porch with four columns at the corners. It is dated to the 4th century, and its original function is unknown. When the 9th century church was built it was adapted as a side entrance, but seems already to have been re-modelled sometime in the previous two centuries.
The second crypt is below the far end of the nave, and contains fragments of walling dated to the 7th or 8th centuries. There is not enough of them to allow for easy interpretation.
The third crypt is where the left hand aisle of the 9th century church used to be. It contains the remains of a row of five 1st and 2nd century mausolea, the row running under the former aisle. When the 9th century church was built they were decapitated and filled with earth to provide a building platform.
There is no access to casual visitors, since the church is within Vatican City which is operated as a gated community for security reasons.
You may see the exterior if you join a guided tour to view the gardens.
You will only manage to get inside if you are invited as a guest to a wedding celebrated here. This would involve someone giving you a pass to show the Swiss Guards on entry into Vatican City.
Serious scholars who wish to view the interior will need to liase with the Vatican City security services in the first instance, well in advance.
There is nowadays no regular schedule of liturgical events at the church.
However, weddings are celebrated -mostly in the Roman rite, it seems.
Apart from celebrations at San Tommaso in Parione, the Ethiopic Eucharistic liturgy is celebrated at the Vatican Radio premises in Vatican City on the first Sunday of every month, and also on 9 January which is the feast of St Stephen in the Ethiopian calendar (note that this differs from the date of 26 December in the Roman rite).
"Dario Parisini" gallery (wedding photos, but good for interior)