In Search of Lost Time: 6 of the Most Ancient Churches in Rome
23rd Aug 2019
They say that age is just a number. We all have that sprightly older relative who’ll tell anyone that listens how you’re only as old as you feel, laughing in the face of time’s relentless march. But while Uncle Frank might be in good shape for 70, he’s got nothing on the churches of Rome - many of the basilicas in the Eternal City have racked up some seriously impressive numbers, and show no signs of slowing down yet. After Christianity was legalised in the Roman Empire by Constantine in the year 313 AD, adherents to the new faith were free to openly build sacred spaces where they could celebrate their masses and bury their dead in peace. Some of these churches now have nearly 1,700 years of venerable history behind them, and visiting them today is a fascinating journey back in time through the ages.
Let’s face it, though – no matter how well you look after yourself the millennia will eventually take their toll, and so these venerable old hands of the Eternal City’s ecclesiastical scene have had plenty of work done - the odd Renaissance face-lift here, the occasional new Baroque roof there. But these hallowed houses of the holy have lost nothing with their periodic doses of architectural Botox, and many of them still provide a remarkable sense of the distant age of Early Christianity. Read on for our guide to some of the Rome’s oldest and most fascinating churches.
Table of contents
- Saint Peter’s Basilica
- San Paolo fuori le Mura
- Santa Pudenziana
- Santa Maria Maggiore
- Santa Sabina
- Santa Costanza
Saint Peter’s Basilica
Since its ground-breaking in around 318 AD, St Peter’s Basilica has had more persona changes than David Bowie and Prince combined. But the air of sanctity still lies as thickly as ever over the venerable burial place of Christ’s most trusted apostle. The story of St. Peter’s goes all the way back to the time of the Emperor Nero, and the fire that razed Rome to the ground in 64 AD. Seeking a scapegoat for a devastating inferno he may well have started himself, Nero hit upon the idea of blaming the still widely mistrusted Christian sect. He ushered in a wave of persecution, and hundreds of Christians were crucified in the Circus of Caligula across the river to the north-west of Rome on the Vatican hill.
Amongst the executed was a certain fisherman from Bethsaida by the name of Peter, anointed by Jesus as the spiritual leader of the new faith. When Constantine legalised Christianity in 313 AD, a site of worship was quickly erected on the site of Peter’s martyrdom and tomb with the full blessing of the Emperor. For over a millennium Constantine’s great basilica, complete with 5 naves and 120 altars, stood at the epicentre of Christianity - but by the start of the 16th century the church was in a state of terminal decline, slowly sinking into the foundations of the ancient circus.
The industrious Pope Julius II decided to have a massive new church built on the same site, and entrusted the enormous responsibility of designing the edifice to Donato Bramante, one of the Renaissance’s greatest architects. Julius and Bramante died within a year of each other however, and the architect’s controversial plan for a centralised building was put on ice. In 1547 Pope Paul III turned to the only man capable of bringing such a project finally to completion: Michelangelo. It’s to Michelangelo that we owe the basilica’s distinctive undulating interior and the massive dome that crowns its centre. At over 190 metres long and 136 metres high, the basilica remains the largest Christian church in the world. It’s also chock-full of artistic masterpieces, the most spectacular church in all of Italy.
What’s Nearby: Chances are if you’re visiting St. Peter’s basilica, you’re going to want to visit the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel around the corner. Join one of Through Eternity’s Vatican tours to enter St. Peter’s directly from the Sistine Chapel, skipping the entrance lines.
Might interest you:
-> The 7 Most Unmissable Treasures of St. Peter’s Basilica
San Paolo fuori le Mura
Anything Saint Peter could do.... The original apostolic double-act, Peter and Paul cut a swathe through first-century Rome preaching and converting pagans in the decades after Christ’s death, before Nero finally had enough of their hectoring and had them despatched to their maker. The two have been Rome’s twin patron saints ever since, and Rome’s Christian community decided to mark the site of Paul’s martyrdom and tomb in the city’s southern outskirts with a church consecrated by Constantine in 324 AD. The original church wasn’t up to much however, and was demolished and rebuilt 60 years later. This magnificent second basilica was much more like it, and today is the city’s second largest church. Although the basilica was seriously damaged by fire in the 19th century, it was painstakingly restored and still gives a faithful sense of what it would have looked like back in the 4th century. The church is accessed through a spectacular open-air atrium surrounded by palm trees that is one of the most peaceful spots in all of Rome, and the expansive five-aisled nave gives a great idea of what old St. Peter’s basilica looked like too.
Inside the church look out for the series of papal portraits in the nave – every pope has their mosaic mug-shot here (give or take the odd candidate whose legitimacy is under dispute), a tradition that goes back to the 5th century and Pope Leo the Great. According to legend, when the roundels reserved for the portraits run out, the world will enter the end-times – worryingly, there are only 27 spaces left. Don’t miss the beautiful 5th-century mosaic triumphal arch mosaic in the church’s nave depicting the entire celestial court, or the equally impressive medieval mosaic in the apse crafted by Venetian artisans and representing Christ, his apostles and the Hetoimasia – the empty earthly throne awaiting Jesus’ second coming. Other highlights to look out for are Arnolfo di Cambio’s 13th-century Gothic canopy over the high altar and the massive marble 12th-century Paschal candlestick nearby.
What’s Nearby: A short stroll up the Via Ostiense will take you to the Centrale Montemartini, one of Rome’s most interesting and little-known museums. Once a power station, the building now houses a great collection of antique sculpture juxtaposed with the massive decommissioned engines and boilers.
Hidden away in the charming backstreets of Monti, the basilica of Santa Pudenziana can stake a strong claim to being amongst Rome’s oldest churches. At the very least, it’s one of the only structures in the city that has been continuously occupied and never reduced to a state of ruin since antiquity. According to pious legend, Pudenziana was the daughter of the Roman senator Pudens. Pudens converted to Christianity and had the honour of hosting none other than Saint Peter himself at his house, later being martyred for his troubles. After the building was gifted to the church in 154 AD and converted to a bathhouse, a church was apparently built over the site two centuries later in honour of Pudens’ daughter Pudenziana. Along with her sister Prassede, Pudenziana had made a name for herself (and earned her own martyrdom) collecting the brutalised remains of Christian martyrs and giving them appropriate burial. The church still houses a well where it’s claimed the pious sisters deposited the countless litres of blood they mopped up from the corpses of their fallen co-religionists.
Today the church is a fascinating patchwork of late antique, medieval and Baroque features – but its undoubted highlight is the glittering apse mosaic that shimmers above the high altar. This is the oldest Christian mosaic in the city, dating from the last years of the 4th century. Christ is seated at the centre on a jewel-encrusted throne in robes of gold, surrounded by his apostles in Imperial Roman togas and various other classical figures. Behind them rises the city of Jerusalem with its domes and turrets, as the symbolic winged animals of the four Evangelists flutter in the sky. The realism of the figures is remarkable, and the meticulously detailed mosaic is perhaps the finest example of the skill of Roman Hellenistic artists being put to Christian ends that survives anywhere.
What’s Nearby: Check out the nearby church dedicated to Prassede, Pudenziana’s sister – Santa Prassede is hardly less impressive than its twin institution, and in Saint Zeno’s chapel the church boasts some of Italy’s most beautiful Byzantine mosaics.
Santa Maria Maggiore
Santa Pudenziana has a rival for the most impressive early-Christian mosaics in Rome, located just around the corner at the beautifully ornate church of Santa Maria Maggiore. The most important church dedicated to the Virgin Mary in the city, Santa Maria Maggiore also features one of the most interesting foundation legends of them all.
The story goes that a wealthy but childless Roman couple who had recently converted to Christianity prayed to Mary for advice on how to use their wealth to benefit the church. Their prayers were answered when both had a dream on August 5, 358, in which the Virgin herself instructed them to finance a new church at a place where snow was to miraculously fall despite the heat of the Roman summer the next morning. So said so done, and Pope Liberius himself traced the shape of the church-to-be guided by the snowfall. No trace of the Liberian basilica remains, and the church you see today instead dates from the 430s, constructed to mark the official church declaration of Mary as Mother of God.
Despite its Baroque façade, the structure of Santa Maria Maggiore has survived remarkably intact over the centuries. The greatest treasure within is its original cycle of 5th-century mosaics high on the nave walls beneath the windows, depicting vibrant scenes from the Old Testament lives of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses. Like at Santa Pudenziana the realism of these mosaics places them firmly in the world of classical art, very different to the greater abstraction characteristic of the fabulous 13th-century Byzantine mosaics in the apse. In the crypt beneath the high altar meanwhile are supposed remains of Christ’s manger housed in an elaborate crystal reliquary. Santa Maria Maggiore is one of the oldest churches in Rome and the only Patriarchal basilica to retain its early-Christian fabric – a must-see!
What’s Nearby: To get a sense of how ancient pagan Rome and Early Christian Rome coexisted in the very same spaces in the first centuries after Christ take a 3 minute walk south to the Arch of Gallienus, a gate into the ancient city set into the Servian wall that now doubles as a support for the 15th-century church of San Vito.
Beautifully situated high atop the Aventine hill, the early-Christian basilica of Santa Sabina enjoys one of the most scenic locations in all of Rome. But it makes our list because it provides a rare insight into what the earliest Christian churches of Rome actually looked like to their first users. Santa Sabina is widely considered to be the best-preserved example of Paleochristian architecture still surviving in Rome today, and can trace its origins all the way back to the early 5th-century reign of Pope Celestine I.
The interior is large, spare and bright, a perfect example of the ‘basilica’ plan – basilicas were originally large secular ancient Roman buildings adapted for public meetings with a central nave and simple side-aisles. The soaring arcades of marble columns that divide the space are breathtaking, brilliantly illuminated by light flowing in through the mullioned windows. The wide expanses of marble floor are studded with funereal slabs, many of them almost worn away with by the feet and swishing cloaks of centuries of pilgrims – don’t miss one dating to 1300 commemorating a Dominican functionary in mosaic, the only such surviving example in Rome.
Like all of Rome’s most ancient churches, there are plenty of curiosities on show here. Look for a short column supporting a round black stone near the entrance known as the lapis diaboli – the devil’s stone. According to medieval legend, Satan lobbed the projectile at Saint Dominic whilst he was praying here in the 12th century. For all you Dominic fans out there, take a peek through a hole in the vestibule wall into the cloister beyond and you’ll spy an orange tree reputedly planted by the saint himself. But perhaps the most precious artefact speaking to Santa Sabina’s antiquity is its original cypress-wood entrance door dating from the 5th century, flanked by a lavish marble frame. Beautifully carved Biblical scenes from the Old and New Testaments decorate the door, including what many scholars believe to be the oldest representation of Christ’s Crucifixion in the history of art. Wooden objects from this period are extremely rare, making the doors alone worth the hike up the Aventine hill to visit one of Rome’s oldest churches.
What’s Nearby: Santa Sabina is in one of Rome’s most charming neighbourhoods. Next door to the basilica is the magical Orange Garden, with its spectacular views sweeping down to the Tiber far below and over to the dome of Saint Peter’s twinkling in the distance. Flanking the church on the other side meanwhile is the Keyhole of the Knights of Malta, an incredible perspective trick dreamed up by Piranesi to frame Michelangelo’s distant dome through a tiny keyhole.
Last but not least, the charming circular church of Santa Costanza, surrounded by umbrella pines in Rome’s leafy northern outskirts, is maybe the most beautiful building on our list. The ancient structure was built in the middle of the 4th century A.D., and was traditionally thought to have begun life as the fabulous mausoleum of Constantine’s unimaginatively named daughter Constantina, although it’s more likely it was actually the sepulchre of her sister Helena. Their immense red porphyry sarcophagi once stood pride of place here, and you can now see them in the Vatican Museums.
The vaults are covered with marvellous 4th-century mosaics that are equal parts pagan and Christian, featuring doves, peacocks and creeping vines. The free mixing of classical and Christian themes makes Santa Costanza a great showcase of Rome’s slow transition from pagan antiquity to the capital of Christendom in the wake of Constantine’s 4th-century conversion – the scenes of grape harvests and winemaking on the vaults for example are classic ancient themes relating to Bacchus, but seen through a Christian lens seem to foreshadow Christ’s martyrdom and the Eucharistic wine drunk during Mass. For us Santa Costanza is the most ‘ancient’ feeling Christian building in Rome, a remarkable place lost to time where the past seems to live vividly on in the present.
What’s Nearby: Adjacent to Santa Costanza, the 7th-century church of Sant’Agnese fuori le Mura is built over an early-Christian catacomb and is the reputed burial site of Saint Agnes herself.
If you’d like to visit any of the places featured on our list, get in touch with Through Eternity Tours today!