The Basilica of the Santi Quattro Coronati

[Santa Maria sopra Minerva] [Santa Maria in Aracoeli]

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[Basilica of the Santi Quattro Coronati] The interior of Santi Quattro Coronati, commissioned by Pope Paschal II in the early twelfth century.

Four wonderful surprises recommend a visit to the Basilica of the Santi Quattro Coronati. Its isolated and reclusive location evokes the atmosphere of another age. The medieval cloister is (in the writer's opinion) the most serene and meditative spot in all of Rome. Significant -- sometimes startling -- historical events accompanied each phase of the basilica's construction. Finally, we encounter here a secret treasure -- a work of art which was also a cogent political statement for its time.




Setting
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stroll from the Colosseum to St. John in Lateran takes us through some of Rome's busiest markets and noisiest streets. Pursuing the same route (in the opposite direction) as that taken by the papal procession in times gone by, we sight what appears to be a medieval fortress emerging from the leafy heights of the Coelian Hill.

The approach to the church is on the Via dei Quercetti, the street of the oak trees, a reminder that in ancient Rome this was a site for the worship of woods and springs. Even today, the silent and remote setting recalls that the original church was built on the slopes of villas and vineyards. The country ambiance and fortress aspect of the Basilica of Santo Quattro Coronati are unique in Rome and transport any visitor to another time and place.

[Basilica of the Santi Quattro Coronati]The steep Via dei Santi Quattro passes high thick walls and embattled towers supported by buttresses. Above this mass looms the truncated bell-tower (ninth-twelfth centuries, historians differ), which clearly served as a defensive structure. In the late Middle Ages the monastery was sometimes used as a refuge for Popes escaping conspiracies and conflicts in the nearby Lateran Palace, and as a protected hospice for important visitors to the papal court.

Residents of the area recount a strange legend concerning this street. A certain ninth-century Englishwoman named Joan, beautiful, brilliantly educated and promiscuous, supposedly managed to have herself elected as Pope John VIII succeeding to Leo IV in 855. According the folk tale, Joan-John gave birth on her way to be crowned Pope in the Lateran, and was killed by the angry populace halfway up the Via dei Quattro Santi. For that reason, it is said, the papal cavalcade always made a detour at one point on the street. ("Don't write about the Papessa Giovanna," I was warned by the nuns of Santi Quattro Coronati. "It's all nonsense!").


Historical Singularities
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he folk tale of Papessa Giovanna is only one of the surprising tidbits accompanying the history of Santi Quattro Coronati. The very name of the basilica has been a source of confusion and controversy. The church is dedicated to "Four Crowned Saints," that is, four Roman soldiers (according to tradition, Severus, Severinus, Victorinus and Carpophorus) who received the crown of martyrdom under Diocletian (284-305) for refusing to sacrifice to the pagan god Asclepius. Five centuries later, the martyrs' relics were brought from a cemetery outside Rome and interred in the basilica along with the relics of five other martyrs from the same period, five sculptors (Claudius, Nicostratus, Castor, Sempronianus and Simplicius) from Pannonia (modern Hungary), who were martyred for refusing to sculpt a statue of the same god Asclepius. Later on, some researchers claimed that the interred saints represented a completely different group of unnamed martyrs from faraway Albano.

[Basilica of the Santi Quattro Coronati] Regardless of this hagiographical mix-up, the basilica of the Four Crowned Saints blithely and triumphantly continues to honor all nine of its supposed patrons. Behind the apse, seven panels tell the story of the sculptor saints; four frescoes narrate the scourging and burial of the soldier martyrs; and an extravagant painting of "The Glory of All the Saints in Heaven" spreads across the apsidal dome (all works from the early seventeenth century).

The martyrs' legends are dear to the life of the church. Different versions are found throughout the basilica complex: on the church walls, in side chapels, and in entrance lunettes and architraves. In 1570 the stonecutters' guild acquired the basilica's famous Chapel of St. Sylvester, and even today these marmorari meet there every November 8 to celebrate the feast of their patron saints.


More History
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pparently the original church of the Santi Quattro Coronati was built in the fourth century by Pope Melchiades (311-314), who dedicated it to the four martyred soldiers. (For several centuries the church was also referred to as the titulus Aemilianae, referrinq to the earlv Christian family who owned the original property and allowed its use for worship and assembly.) In the ninth-century, Pope Leo IV (847-855) collected the relics of all nine saints here and had the church completely restored and enlarged.

[Basilica of the Santi Quattro Coronati]Suffering the same fate as San Clemente down the hill, Pope Leo's basilica was burned to the ground when the Normans sacked the area in 1084. It was rebuilt, as was San Clemente, by Pope Paschal II (1099-1118) in the early twelfth-century, but on a much smaller scale. The present (Paschal's) basilica is just about half the size of Leo IV's. Leo's nave becomes the entire church, the left aisle has become the cloister; while the right aisle was used for construction of the convent refectory. Five huge columns imbedded in the outside right wall of the present courtyard (which was the back half of Leo's church) are the lonely testimony to the church's shrinking structure and to dwindling papal funds. (Threatened by two antipopes, investiture battles and imperial invasions, it is a wonder Paschal managed any construction at all!)

The apse seems enormous and completely out of proportion with the rest of the church. In fact, when Paschal rebuilt the church, he did not reduce the size of the original apse. He also constructed the matronea, or enclosed women's galleries above the nave columns. The church was restored again under Martin V (1417-1431) and given a carved wooden roof in 1580 by King Henry of Portugal, who had earlier been the basilica's titular Cardinal. Another titular cardinal, Giovanni Garcia Mellini redecorated the apse in the early seventeenth century (paintings by Giovanni da San Giovanni from 1621-23) and built an altar to house the skull of Saint Sebastian (now kept in the Vatican Museum), which he discovered while verifying the martyrs' relics in the crypt. The last restorations were carried out by Professor Antonio Munoz, who, as Rome's Superintendent of Monuments in the 1930's, tried to return so many Roman churches to their original pure state.


The Cloister
Ring the small bell in the basilica's left aisle and a discreet Augustinian nun will open a wooden door to the Romanesque cloister. Here is an unexpected world of silence and tranquillity: the smell of mint and soft tinkling of water; a four-sided portico of arches and double columns around a green garden; and in the middle a stone fountain carved with friendly lions' faces.

[Basilica of the Santi Quattro Coronati] The cloister was built by a famous Roman stonecutter, Pietro de Maria, in the early thirteenth century in honor of his martyred patrons. (The fountain, from one century earlier, originally stood in the church courtyard.) All the walls are covered with paleo-Christian graffiti and sarcophagus fragments. The small chapel in the left gallery, dedicated to Saint Barbara, belonged to Leo IV's church and has faded frescoes from the ninth-twelfth centuries.

The spiritual harmony of this place is deeply grounded in the contemplative life of the cloistered Augustinian nuns, who reside in the convent and have administered the basilica since Pius IV (1559-65) gave it into their keeping in the mid-fifteenth century. One sister, who repeatedly pleaded not to be identified, told us she had been a missionary in Mozambique before entering the convent. The eighteen enclosed nuns, she said, divide their time between three activities: work for the convent and basilica; contemplation and prayer; and study: Bible studies, Augustinian philosophy, and liturgical chant. Once a nun enters the convent, she will not leave, even for errands or visits, until her death. The order is famous for its beautiful singing, and on Sundays at 11:00 a Mass with music is open to the public.


The Chapel of St. Sylvester
The Basilica of the Santi Quattro Coronati boasts of yet another marvel: the Chapel of St. Sylvester, located in a small vestibule to the left of the church exit. Before entering, ritual necessitates that the curious ring one more bell, petition to a silent and faceless presence behind the dark grate, and accept a key from a wooden turntable mysteriously opening from the wall. A heavy door grinds open, lights go on, and voila! Around the top of the claustrophobic chapel wind a series of frescoes. These illustrate the legend of Emperor Constantine's cure from leprosy by Pope St. Sylvester and other miraculous events during the early pontiff's reign. They were completed and consecrated in the year 1246. These paintings have tremendous charm and narrative appeal. But their true significance lies in their thematic content and the date of their execution.

[Basilica of the Santi Quattro Coronati]The cycle makes an amazing contemporar comment on the struggle of the Roman Church to maintain its universal authority in the changing world of the Middle Ages. The relationship between the first Christian emperor and his papal counterpart in the fourth century, as depicted by a thirteenth-century artist, exalts the spiritual over the temporal authority in no uncertain terms. In one panel the Emperor Constantine has relinquished his throne to Pope Sylvester and is in the process of offering his crown. In the next, the Emperor, on foot, humbly leads the Pope, on horseback, in triumph through the city. In the early thirteenth century, papal supremacy had reached its high water mark under Innocent III. Under his leadership, the Lateran Council (1215) had asserted political as well as spiritual prerogatives with the election of the Emperor Frederick II.

By 1246, when the chapel was consecrated, the power struggle between the papacy and the Hohenstaufen emperors was once more in full swing. In 1244 Pope Innocent IV, pressed by the imperial forces, had fled to Lyons, where in 1245 he excommunicated and deposed the emperor Frederick II. The political message in this chapel is clear: the papacy has ultimate authority over Church and Empire. Before exiting from the two massive portals and two dark courtyards (one was originally the back of the Leonine church), one last singularity should be noted : a thirteenth-century liturgical calendar painted on the wall of the vestibule. The background has been rendered to appear as a fake medieval parchment, with (now faded) decorative figures and Gothic letters.

by June Hager

Reprinted by kind permission of June Hager and the magazine "Inside the Vatican," published in Rome.

The cloister at Santi Quattro Coronati is on the World Monuments Watch List of 100 Most Endangered Sites, a program of the World Monuments Fund, issued every other year.

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[Santa Maria sopra Minerva] [Santa Maria in Aracoeli]