Here are some reflections coming out of a two-week stay in Rome, 28 May to 11 June, 2008. The focus is on our last full day, when we visited the Basilica of San Lorenzo Fuori le Mura (St Laurence Outside the Walls). A folder of photos relating to this essay are here:
The full set of photos taken during our days in Rome are posted here:
The Rome of the Martyrs
by Jim Forest
How to compare the Rome of the Caesars with the Rome of the martyrs… I was entering a city that had been transformed by the Cross.
— Thomas Merton (The Seven Storey Mountain, p 106)
The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.
— Tertullian (155-222 AD)
“Look to your left, look to your right, and try to enjoy.” Nancy and I heard this brief instruction from a fast-moving guide leading a tour group through one of the long galleries of the Vatican Museums. If those in her charge had time to look on either side, at that moment they would have had a blurred glimpse of colorful frescoed maps of various cities and regions of Italy, including two views of the entire Italian peninsula in the days when much of Italy was under papal rule.
Two weeks in Rome gives time to move slowly. Nancy and I not only looked to our left and looked to our right but ahead and behind and up and down, more often than not doing so slowly or not moving at all.
What touched us most deeply was a consequence of visiting a number of ancient churches founded on places where martyrs of the early church were either killed or buried. Some of their names are familiar to any Christian — Paul and Peter, Stephen, Cosmas and Damien, Laurence, Agnes, Theodore, Cecilia — while others are hardly known (for example the sisters Prassede and Pudenziana). All these names and others daily took on greater significance.
The only ancient churches in Rome not named after martyrs are those dedicated to Mary. Each of the martyr-linked churches is a place for passing on memories and stories of those who lives inspired the conversions of many others, not only in ancient times but today as well. Such churches serve as points of access to what might have seemed the remote past, but then suddenly becomes part of the present day. This happened to us. We left Rome with a far more acute and intimate sense of connection not only with the martyrs of the early church who are remembered by name, but with a deepened sense of being linked to the many thousands, the names of the vast majority now forgotten, who are part of what St. Paul called “the cloud of witnesses.”
To write about all the churches we visited would require either a book-length text that might take a year to write, or something brief but no more interesting than a catalog. Instead I’ll focus on the church we visited on our last full day in Rome, the Basilica of San Lorenzo Fuori le Mura (St Laurence Outside the Walls).
All over the world there are churches that bear Laurence’s name (including the medieval cathedral a hundred meters from our house in Alkmaar, Holland), but this particular church to the northeast of the center of Rome is the first and oldest.
It was about a three- or four-kilometer walk from the convent hospice on the Via Cavour where we were staying. Setting off after breakfast, we walked past the nearby Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, then down a boulevard of shops and street venders that led to a neighborhood park, then up a side street to a tunnel that allowed us to pass under the tracks that lead to Rome’s main train station, Termini, then through a gate that took us outside the Aurelian Wall, the barrier that enclosed the city’s seven hills, meant in its day to protect Rome from barbarian invaders. Finally we walked along the Via Tiburtina, one of the old roads connecting Rome with the world beyond. A few hundred years ago, we would have been passing not apartment buildings, shops, cafes and bus stops, but enjoying the open air of the Italian countryside. At last we found ourselves standing before the gates of the Campo Verano, Rome’s biggest cemetery and also the place where the basilica of San Lorenzo was built.
Not at first seeing the church, we entered the cemetery, thinking the church must be somewhere within. Instead we spent half an hour or more looking at gravestones. The ones that we were most drawn to were decorated with photos of people who had died in the nineteenth century — usually colored ovals, an elderly matriarch in one, an equally aged patriarch in the other, and carved in the stone not only particular names but again and again the word “Famiglia” — family. Old graves or new, the cemetery seemed more than anything a monument to families, though there were also numerous indications of those families being Catholic (crucifixes and images of the Madonna).
The cemetery with all its tomb stones is above what started out as an extensive ancient catacomb, far beneath our feet. It was here in the year 258 that the roasted body of Laurence was brought, carried by a procession of Christians who followed more or less the same route we had just walked. His body was placed in a narrow niche along one of the underground passageways, then walled in with mortar and an inscription made, probably on that day just his name plus the word “sanctissimi” — most holy — done quickly in red lead paint applied with a brush. Only later on was the marble sarcophagus provided that the pilgrim approaching the saint’s relics sees today.
In Laurence’s day, the bodies of most Romans would have been burned and their ashes placed in urns, but the Christians opted for burial. In Rome, partly thanks to geological factors, almost all Christian burials were in catacombs — a less costly and more democratic option, both of which greatly appealed to the Church at that time. The catacombs — narrow passageways craved out of soft tufa stone with shallow niches, six or seven stacked one above the other — could be extended horizontally, and also be extended downward, gallery beneath gallery. Many thousands were buried in a single catacomb.
By the end of the second century AD, the Church in Rome had founded burial societies in order to be sure that even the poorest baptized person would be properly buried in one of the many catacombs that existed outside the city walls. Rank was of no consequence. In the catacomb of St. Callisto, a few kilometers outside the city walls to the southeast along the Appian Way, six popes and many martyrs were entombed among thousands of ordinary people.
At last we found the basilica. It proved to be a surprisingly simple structure. Most ancient Roman churches have been modified and embellished over the centuries by popes, cardinals and wealthy benefactors: side altars added, gilded ceilings created, fashionable art substituted for older, unfashionable art. In many churches the lily had not only been gilded but re-gilded, then gilded yet again. The basic shape of the church survived, but simplicity had been replaced by complexity, austerity by lavish displays of wealth. But at the Basilica of San Lorenzo, a small miracle occurred. Both inside and out, no overlays or major renovations had been made — no decorative overlays for the facade, no elaborate, gilded ceiling, no cherubs, none of the theatrical interventions of the counter-reformation or baroque periods.
Probably all this is thanks to its providential location as a church outside the city walls in what was for most of its history a rural area. When the population of post-imperial Rome plummeted to just a few thousand people, the monastery of San Lorenzo (now a Franciscan friary) remained active but isolated. No wealthy philanthropist bothered to “improve” the church. The result is perhaps the most unspoiled ancient building in Christian Rome, though a few churches inside the walls (such as Santa Sabina, San Clemente, Ss. Cosmo e Damiano and Santa Prassede) come close.
Under a tiled roof held up by six tall pillars, the visitor steps down a meter or so below ground level into a spacious porch built in the thirteenth century. On the inner wall of the porch, access to the church is provided by smaller doors to the left and right plus a large entrance in the center that is guarded at floor level by two Romanesque stone lions, neither of whom seem on their way to baptism. One has a child in its claws, the other a lamb — graphic images of the world which condemned people like Laurence to death. One is reminded of a passage in one of the letters of Peter: “Brethren, be sober and watchful. Your adversary, the devil, like a roaring lion, goes about seeking to devour you. Resist him strong in the faith” (Not all lions are seeking someone to devour. Inside the church, close to the altar, there is another pair, but these seem to have taken the New Testament to heart. Their eyes are deeply thoughtful and, in the case of the lion on the left, meek and compassionate.)
The main event on the church porch isn’t its pair of lions but the frescoes, those concerning Stephen, the first Christian martyr, on one side, and Laurence one the other. (Stephen’s relics were brought to this church in the seventh century, at the time when Palagius II was pope.)
One can almost see the crowds of people who have gathered on this porch down through the centuries listening to those who knew the stories the frescoes illustrate. No doubt the stories were recited unhurriedly and passionately, and with great attention to every detail in each fresco. Thus actual entry into the church was proceeded by a visual and verbal immersion in the lives, deaths and burials of the two great saints. (Fifteen years ago, when our daughter Anne was ten and we were all visiting a cathedral in Palermo, she called a similar set of linked images “the first comic book.”)
Sadly, these days it must be rare for visitors to hear such recitations, but if one knows at least the bare bones of the stories, a visitor fill in many of the blanks by “reading” these panels in sequence.
The Stephen narrative is on the left side of the porch, with his stoning in Jerusalem part of the top row. Other panels portray the later bringing to Rome of the body of Stephen in order to place it side-by-side with another deacon-martyr, Laurence.
On the right hand side of the door, the subject is Laurence, a Roman who received his religious instruction in preparation for baptism from Archdeacon Sixtus, later Pope Sixtus II. When Sixtus became Bishop of Rome in 257, he ordained Laurence a deacon (from the Greek word for servant), entrusting him with administration of the material goods of the local church and, still more important, care of the poor. In a panel that shows Lawrence washing the feet of a poor man, it is striking that Laurence concentrates his attention not on the man’s feet that he is washing so gently, but on the man’s face, in whom no doubt he recognizes Christ. Other panels focus on the persecution initiated by the Emperor Valerian in 258. As a result, many Christians were put to death, while Christians belonging to the nobility or the Roman Senate were deprived of their goods and exiled. Among the first victims of this persecution was Laurence’s mentor, Pope St Sixtus II, who was beheaded on August 6.
One of the early accounts of Laurence’s life was told by St Ambrose of Milan. Laurence, he related, met Pope Sixtus on his way to his execution and asked him, “Where are you going, dear father, without your son? Where are you hurrying off to without your deacon? Before you never mounted the altar of sacrifice without your servant, and now you wish to do it without me?” Pope Sixtus responded, “After three days you will follow me”.
Following the death of Pope Sixtus II, the prefect of Rome demanded that Lawrence turn over the riches of the Church — meaning its chalices, candlesticks and anything else of monetary value. Laurence asked for three days to gather together the church’s treasure, during which time he worked swiftly to distribute as much church property to the poor as was possible in order as to prevent its being seized by the government. Then, on the third day, he presented himself to the prefect, bringing no gold or silver, but the poor, whom he assembled in ranks — the crippled, the blind, the suffering, the widows and orphans, all of whom were cared for by the Church in Rome. “These were the true treasures of the Church,” he told the prefect. “In its poor, the Church is truly rich, far richer than your emperor.”
It was this act of defiance that led directly to Laurence’s martyrdom. The prefect told the young deacon that not only would he follow the path of martyrdom as Pope Sixtus had done, but in his case, it would be “a death by inches.” Lawrence, bound to the iron grill of an outdoor stove, was roasted over a low fire. During his torture, Lawrence is said to have told his executioner, “I am already roasted on one side. If you would have me well cooked, it is time to turn me on the other side.” Laurence’s final prayer was for the conversion of Rome.
Later that day, as the porch panels relate iconographically, Laurence was buried in a section of catacomb under what later became the Basilica of San Lorenzo Fuori le Mura.
Rome’s visitors and their guides daily express skepticism about the stories linked with saint’s lives and relics. Did Laurence actually ask to be turned over so that he might be better cooked? Perhaps. Perhaps not. What is obvious is that, both in the way he lived and died, Laurence gave so remarkable a witness to his faith in the risen Christ that it touched Romans in an extraordinary way, contributing to the conversion of a many people from every class. According to Church Father Prudentius, Laurence’s courage under torture had significant consequences for the population of Rome, high and low, marking a decisive moment, Prudentius states, “in the death of idolatry in Rome.”
The catacomb in which Laurence was buried immediately became a place of pilgrimage. People who had been indifferent to Christianity, or hostile to it, were among those now praying with tears at the saint’s tomb. For eighteen centuries, even during the centuries when Rome was little more than a village, the tomb of St Laurence has been a place of pilgrimage. (Remarkably, Laurence and Stephen’s relics are among the few that were never transferred inside the city walls even at times when the city was under siege.)
Having done our best to decipher the porch frescoes, we entered the church.
It’s a breathtaking view that must stop most visitors, even tour guides, in their tracks. The space is deep, quiet, austere and multi-layered, a place unlike any other we have ever seen. While we had been in many beautiful churches in Rome, none made us move so slowly and quietly as this one. The space seems just a deep breath away from heaven.
The oldest part of the basilica, the section at the far end, was built in the seventh century by Pope Palagius II. It replaces another structure built in the fourth century with the support of the first emperor to respect Christianity, Constantine the Great. Though Constantine was not himself baptized until he lay on his deathbed, after publication of the Edict of Milan in 313, he made Christianity a privileged rather than persecuted religion.
Digging into a hillside, the seventh-century church was built so that Laurence’s catacomb tomb would be immediately beneath the church’s altar, with steps leading down to the crypt beneath so that pilgrims could pray in the very place where Laurence’s body was placed on the day of his martyrdom.
Later, in the thirteenth century, another church (the one with the porch) was built adjacent to the old one. In time the two buildings were unified, creating the single large building that exists to this day (though parts of the building and its monastic cloister had to be restored due to damage caused by allied bombs in July 1943).
The building is something like a Russian matriushka toy — a doll within a doll within a doll within a doll. At the its core is the altar and the relics beneath. Standing around and over the altar is a ciborium — a stone canopy supported by columns. The most famous of Rome’s ciboriums, made by Bernini in the seventeenth century, rises monumentally over the altar in St. Peter’s Basilica. The one at San Lorenzo’s is smaller and lighter, not at all a triumphal monument but a delicate structure that serves as an airy border marking the heart of sacred space. The four columns of purple marble are said to have been part of a similar ciborium that stood over the altar of the fourth-century church Constantine had sponsored.
On three sides of the sanctuary are two deep galleries, one above the other, through which light filters from windows that are out of sight. Above the upper gallery, just beneath the low-pitched roof, is a row of arched windows containing a pattern of small circles filled with light-bearing selenite. (The same material is used in a similar way at the fourth-century Basilica of Santa Sabina on the Aventine Hill.)
Crossing the border from the thirteenth-century area of the church to the part built in the seventh century, the visitor passes under an arch on the altar side of which is a mosaic spanning the width of the church. As is the case with nearly all the church mosaics of the early centuries, Christ is in the center with saints on either side. In some of these, Christ is standing, but in this instance he is seated on a blue globe that represents the whole of creation. His right hand is raised in a gesture of blessing while the left holds a thin staff which, when looked at closely, proves to be a cross. On his left and right, again following the pattern of other ancient churches in Rome, are Peter and Paul — Peter (also holding a cross) with his familiar dense, close-cropped grey hair and beard, and Paul, bearded but nearly bald, with a scroll in his left hand representing the many letters he sent to local churches. To Peter’s left is Laurence, also holding a cross, and next to him, but without a halo, Pope Pelagius, holding a model of the seventh century church. On the other side, to the right of Paul, is the proto-martyr Stephen, and then, on the far right, Hippolytus, shown holding a golden crown. While there are various saints named Hippolytus, this is probably the Roman army officer named in “The Acts of St Laurence” who had been assigned to guard Laurence while he awaited execution and who, soon afterward, was converted to Christianity and died as a martyr.
As is always the case with iconography, there is a deep quietness and stillness about the mosaic. It seems to exist in a place where all means of measuring time have vanished or have no meaning, suggesting “is-ness” rather then temporality. The background of the mosaic is gold, symbol of the eternity and the kingdom of God.
The altar end of the church is higher than the thirteenth-century nave. Steps take the visitor up into the area surrounding the altar, while a narrower set of steps lead down into the small chapel-like space beneath the altar where the relics of Stephen and Laurence are located. In earlier times, from dawn till nightfall, there must have been a continuous ribbon of pilgrims walking slowly around the wrought iron enclosure that surrounds the relics, each visitor briefly touching the sarcophagus and the red cloth that is laid across its open top, each touch a gesture of prayer. Perhaps the most common prayer made by all these pilgrims was the appeal that, when the time comes in one’s life to lay a bed of fire, to do so as Laurence did — or, when rocks fell on one like rain as they did on Stephen, to die forgiving those who threw them and to hope one’s death might help bring others to conversion. (Such things happen. The Apostle Paul, as a young man, was present at the stoning of Stephen. In the porch fresco of Stephen’s stoning, Paul is standing to the left, not hurling a stone but his right arm extended in what appears to be a gesture of approval.)
We were fortunate to be in the church at such a quiet time of day. Later on in the morning, after we had spent time in the monastery cloister adjacent to the church, we came back inside to discover a well-attended funeral in progress, probably the first of several that would occur that day, given that the church is surrounded on three sides by Rome’s largest cemetery.
Some churches help one pray while others seem to make prayer more difficult. The basilica of San Lorenzo was one of those churches in which it seemed impossible not to pray.
For us, being at the church forged a much deeper sense of connection with both Stephen and Laurence. Much the same had happened to us in the other martyr-associated churches in Rome.
Thanks to the guidebooks we had carried with us to Rome, later in the day we realized that the place of Laurence’s actual death was just around the corner from the hospice where we were staying, on the Via Panisperna. After our last supper in Rome, we decided to walk along Via Panisperna to see if one of the several churches we had passed by time and again wasn’t built where Laurence died. The answer, of course, is that there is such a church. By the time we found it, it was closed, but we stood at the locked gate, looking across a stone-paved courtyard with the church on the far side. It didn’t seem important that we were unable to go inside. It was blessing enough to be where we stood.
It seemed a providential ending to a pilgrimage that made us far more aware of the truth, as Tertullian put it, that “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”
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For those inclined to do more reading, here are a few titles:
Ancient Churches of Rome: From the Fourth to the Seventh Century
by Hugo Bradenburg
Brepols Publishers, Turnhout, Belgium, 2004
This is an expensive but extraordinary (and magnificently illustrated) book that would be essential for anyone with a special interest in Rome’s oldest churches.
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The Geometry of Love: Space, Time, Mystery and Meaning in an Ordinary Church
by Margaret Visser
North Point Press, 2000
This is about the church of Saint Agnes Outside the Walls in Rome. We learned about this book from Patricia Burton, who writes: “Visser explores the meaning and symbolism of quite ordinary things, and presents it in an informative, un-stuffy way, thereby often awakening us to how much we take for granted or simply don’t see. In this case she walks through an ‘ordinary church’ and gives its meaning at each step.” Use the “look inside” features on the book’s Amazon page to read the book’s very engaging opening pages:
But you may well prefer to buy a used copy via Abebooks — $5 instead of $50.
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The Christian Catacombs of Rome: History, Decoration, Inscriptions
by Vincenzo Fiocchi Nicolai, Fabrizio Bisconti and Danilo Mazzoleni
Schnell & Steiner, Regensburg, Germany, second edition 2002
Probably this is the best study now available of the catacombs of Rome. It includes a great many well reproduced color photos plus many maps and drawings. The authors are members of the Pontifical Commission for Sacred Archeology.
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The Companion Guide to Rome
by Georgina Masson and John Fort
Companion Guides; Revised edition, 2007
Perhaps the best single guidebook to Rome. While not the book to choose for visual content, the text (more than 700 pages) is outstanding. Well worth taking to Rome despite its weight.
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Eyewitness Travel: Rome
published by Dorling Kinderly
This is an excellent, sturdily-made 450-page guide to Rome updated annually. It offers lots of photos, cross-sections and maps, short but useful entries on nearly all the places a visitor might wish to see plus details about how to get there and opening times, plus practical information about how to get around by bus, tram and metro, how to avoid being pickpocketed (but also what to do if it happens), how to find medical help if needed, etc., etc.
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The Wikipedia entry about the church is here:
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text written in June 2008, revised 16 January 2009
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