San Salvatore alle Coppelle is an 18th century former parish and confraternity church on 12th century foundations, now Eastern Catholic and national, at Piazza delle Coppelle 72/B in the rione Sant'Eustachio. Pictures of the church at Wikimedia Commons are here. There is no English Wikipedia article yet, but the German one here is good.
The dedication is to Christ the Saviour.
It is not often realized, even by Catholics, that the Catholic Church has nine different Eastern rites all of which are of the same dignity as the Latin rite and which are in full communion with the Holy Father. The Byzantine rite is one of these, and in the Catholic church is further divided into fourteen so-called Particular Churches. The majority (not all) have the word "Greek" in their title, although this has nothing to do with the modern Greek nationality. The Romanian language group is one of these fourteen.
The Byzantine rite is now viewed as a single rite like the Roman one, with language groups, instead of several different rites each with its own language as used to be the case. The latter interpretation came about in order to protect the status of Latin in the Roman rite -"one rite, one language"- and is now obsolete.
Smaller parish church such as this one would have been founded around the end of the first millennium. However, as with most such churches in Rome any details of its foundation have been lost -except one.
In 1574, Giuliano Giustino Ciampini transcribed a late 12th century epigraph in the church which is now lost. It allegedly read:
Illustris mulier Abbasia, nomine quondam praebuit expensas, inde sacrata fuit haec domus ante locos pietatis, nomen habebat dicitur. Ecclesia nunc, pietate Dei, Papa Deo mulierque simul haec templa dicarunt, hic facit officium, foemina donat opem, pontificabat tunc Coelestinus in Urbe Tertius et praesen...[elision]...cum Salvatoris templum hoc dicavit honori et veniae munus contulit ipse Pater, tempore quo Rectore Romanae ac Archisacerdos hoc opus providit presbyter...[elision]...is et magni boldini virtute inde praebenda.
This states that the church was founded in the house of a pious lady called Abbasia. Also, it states that the house was in front of "places of piety", and was said to take its name from them. Commentators have failed to make any real sense of this through the centuries.
It has been thought, without any way of proving it, that this church is identical to one in the vicinity called Sancti Salvatoris de Sere which was extant in the latter half of the 12th century.
The epigraph also describes Pope Celestine III (1191-98) as having the church built or rebuilt. The original notice of consecration in 1196 is preserved on a wall in the church, together with a long list of relics provided. The present Via delle Coppelle was part of a major pilgrim route in the Middle Ages, and many visitors to the church would have come to venerate these.
The present campanile dates from this project, as do the church's foundations. It is unclear how much of the original fabric survives in the walls, although the side apses at least seem to be part of it.
The name Coppelle first occurs in 1222, as Cupellis (a plural form). Its meaning is a small puzzle. A circumstantial theory is that the name is derived from the Latin word cupa meaning "cask" or "barrel" (it occurs only in the works of Cicero ). Cupella would then be a small barrel, but the problem here is that this word is not in any Latin literature. It does occur in metallurgy, in the production of metal by smelting ore in a ceramic vessel, but only as a result of a neologism of the 17th century. The barrel etymology dates from the same century.
The church was parochial throughout the Middle Ages, and this was its primary function.
In 1404, a guild for goldsmiths, blacksmiths and saddlers (Università dei Orefici, Ferrari e Sellari) was founded at the church by Pope Innocent VII. This guild split up within a few years, with the goldsmiths ending up at Sant'Eligio degli Orefici and the blacksmiths at Sant'Eligio dei Ferrari. The saddlers stayed put, however, being in possession of a small oratory next to the church, until they decided to build their own church three hundred years later.
In the later Middle Ages, the parish also had confraternites for innkeepers (Compagnie dei Albergatori) and glovers (Compagnie dei Guantari), which were in charge of the two side chapels flanking the sanctuary.
Confraternita della PerseveranzaEdit
In 1663, the church became the headquarters of the Confraternity of Our Lady of Perseverance (Arciconfraternita di Maria Santissima della Perseveranza). This confraternity had been established to aid foreigners who fell ill in Rome, and to bury those who died.
In 1740, the saddlers decided to build their own church, and moved out when Sant'Eligio dei Sellai was completed. The Perseverance confraternity was left in possession of the oratory, and was apparently the most important group in the parish.
The church was rebuilt in a project beginning in 1739, and apparently completed in 1750. As mentioned, it is unclear how much of the old church was demolished for this but the continued existence of mediaeval frescoes in the side chapel apses indicates that demolition was not total. The architect was Carlo De Dominicis, who had been responsible for building Sant'Eligio for the saddlers so it is obvious that they had given him a reference.
One very unfortunate aspect of the rebuilding was that the set of ancient marble columns in the arcades was looted and replaced with brick piers. The abstracted columns apparently made their way to the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj.
The sponsor of the work was Cardinal Giorgio Spinola, who fitted up one bay of the left hand side aisle for his funerary monument.
Apparently to protect the interests of the parish, the church was given into the care of the Collegio dei Parrochi in 1742.
The parish was one of many suppressed in the Centro Storico in 1823. This left the church without any pastoral function, but it remained in the charge of the Collegio, which was responsible for repairs and for providing a priest.
In 1850, a major restoration was completed. This was severely criticized at the time, for destroying mediaeval frescoes which had survived until then.
The problem of what to do with the church was finally solved in 1913. In that year, Pope St Pius X granted the church to Bishop Vasile Hossu, the Byzantine-rite Catholic prelate of the diocese of Cluj-Gherla in Romania. However, the First World War delayed the progress of the conversion of the church to the Byzantine rite, and Bishop Valeriu Traian Frenţiu performed the consecration in 1920. The supervisor of the work was Monsignor Vasile Lucaciu.
The Greek-Catholic Church in Romania was suppressed by the Communists after 1945, a situation that pertained until the downfall of Communism. Hence, the church here ministered to a small community of exiles. However, after Romania joined the European Union the number of Romanians in Italy has increased massively and the liturgies celebrated here are now very well attended.
There has been a recent structural restoration, and the church is now in sound condition.
Layout and fabricEdit
The church has a rectangular basilical plan, having a nave with side aisles and a semi-circular apse.
The brick fabric is mostly invisible from the street, except for the façade and campanile. The left hand side aisle external wall fronts the Piazza delle Coppelle, but a range of domestic accommodation is on top of the aisle and the actual church wall here is only as high as the string course. Other buildings abut the church on all other sides.
The campanile dates from 1195, and is at the bottom of the right hand side aisle. It is in brick, of four storeys above the aisle roofline. The first storey had two separate arched openings presumably on each face away from the church (adjacent buildings obscure this), while the top three storeys had arcades of three arches each separated by little stone columns with imposts. However, these have been mostly blocked up and only one column remains in its original state..
The storeys are separated by dentillated brick cornices, and the roofline has stone modillions as well. There is a low tiled pyramidal cap.
The very simple single-storey façade by De Dominicis is now attractively rendered in light
blue, with details in white. Four gigantic Composite pilasters with festoons on their volutes support an entablature and triangular pediment. There are three entrances, with the central one larger. This has a molded doorcase, with a raised horizontal cornice above. The side entrances just have molded doorcases (these actually do not lead into the church; the left hand one is for the sacristy, the right hand one for the campanile).
Above the entrance is a large rectangular window in a simple molded frame, the lintel of which abuts the entablature. Above the side entrances are two tondi with raised and molded frames, topped by knots of ribbons.
These tondi used to contain frescoes. The remnants hint that at least the right hand one had the coat-of-arms of a cardinal. The tympanum of the pediment also had a fresco in its centre, but this is now illegible.
There are two interesting epigraphs on the side wall of the church.
One reads Chi[es]a de S[an] Salvatore aler [sic] delle Cupelle 1195, and is an 18th century piece of antiquarianism.
The other one has been damaged by erosion, but bears the date 17 December 1749. It is a notification to local innkeepers by the Confraternity of Perseverence, requesting them to inform the latter of any sick guest needing assistance. This was put up for the Jubilee year 1750, when many pilgrims were expected at Rome. The text reads:
Anno Iubilei MDCCL. Qui devono mettere i vigiletti tutti, gli osti albergatori locandieri ed altri per dare notizia de forestieri che si infermaro nal lore case, alle Venerab[ile] Conferatia della Divina Perseveranza. Con autorita apostolica eretta, a tenore all'ultimo editto dell'e. vicario emanato, il di XVII decembre, MDCCXLIX.
Layout and fabricEdit
The church has an entrance bay, which is flanked by two chambers. To the left is the sacristy, and to the right the first storey of the campanile.
Then follows a nave with side aisles of four bays, then the sanctuary of one bay with an external apse. This is flanked by a pair of side chapels, which are extensions of the side aisles. Similarly, the sanctuary bay is structurally part of the nave and shares its ceiling.
The nave has arcades on either side, which spring from square Doric piers. Above the archivolts on each side is a floating entablature (unsupported by pilasters), which has an extremely wide frieze. This has alternate rectangular and square panels, painted to resemble alabaster.
The piers and other wall surfaces in the nave are painted to resemble polychrome marble revetting, crude work but colourful.
The ceiling is a barrel vault with five shallow lunettes on each side. The near right hand four and the middle left hand one contain real windows, but the rest have fake painted ones because of abutting buildings. The apparent stucco decoration is painted on. The central panel contains an interesting fresco depicting Providence. This consists of the Eye of Providence (to be found on the back of a US dollar bill), which is an eye within the triangle of the Trinity emitting rays of glory. This is over the yellow disc of the sun, itself surrounded by a cloudy blue sky.
The sanctuary is now screened off by a traditional solid iconostasis installed by 1920. The icons on this are in the traditional disposition, but are an interesting late example of Byzantine-rite icon painting being influenced by Western academic artistry. The technique here is very accomplished, but in a realistic style not in the Byzantine iconographic tradition. The most striking example of this is the icon of Our Lady to the left of the Royal Doors. She has bare feet, which is prohibited in Byzantine iconography.
It might be supposed that the use of a Western style here was the result of undue influence from the Latins. This is incorrect, as Orthodox icon-painters in the 19th century espoused a realistic style especially in the Russian Empire. Only in the 20th century did devotion to the traditional manuals of icon-painting re-emerge.
Behind the iconostasis is the free-standing altar required by the Byzantine rite. The original altar seems to have been against the curve of the apse wall, where the original Baroque altarpiece survives. This depicts Christ the Saviour, and is in a dirty and neglected condition. Angeli writing in 1903 gives the name of the artist as G. B. Lelli, which seems to be a mistake.
The apse conch is coffered in octagons, with rosettes. The wall above the apse arch has a lunette fitted into the curve of the ceiling, which has fake stucco work showing the Dove of the Holy Spirit.
Chapel of St JosephEdit
Those familiar with the Byzantine-rite Eucharist will know that it entails the use of two side chambers flanking the sanctuary. These are the prothesisto the left, where the bread and wine to be consecrated are prepared, and the diaconicon to the right, where the sacred vessels and vestments are kept.
In this church, the chapel at the end of the left hand aisle has been converted into the prothesis.
The chapel was dedicated to St John the Baptist when the church was re-built in the 12th century. It was re-dedicated to St Joseph in the 18th century, but mediaeval frescoes survived until destroyed in the 19th century restoration.
The late 18th century (?) altarpiece survives, depicting The Trinity and St Joseph. It is not great art, but the composition is interesting and the work has some charm.
Chapel of the DormitionEdit
The chapel at the end of the right hand aisle is dedicated to the Dormition or death of Our Lady. It is unsuitable for use as a diaconicon, so has been left alone.
There is a fragment of a 15th century fresco depiction of the Dormition. What is left shows Christ holding the soul of Our Lady; what is mostly lost is her corpse laid out and surrounded by the apostles. The depiction of her soul as a little girl has caused the ignorant description of this fragment as showing St Joachim with Our Lady -this is quite wrong.
Our Lady of PerseveranceEdit
On the right hand aisle wall is a framed fresco depiction of the Madonna and Child, which has been ascribed to the school of Antoniazzo Romano. One view is that the work is by the master himself, which would make it the most important artwork in the church.
It is in serious need of cleaning and conservation. One advantage of its unrestored state is that it still has on it a silver crown, and two silver ex-votos in the form of hearts. Restored icons invariably have such additions removed, so these are interesting survivals.
Monument to Cardinal Giorgio SpinolaEdit
The third bay of the left hand side aisle has been converted into a little casula for the spectacular polychrome marble Baroque monument of Cardinal Giorgio Spinola. This is by Bernardino Ludovisi, 1744. An angel and a putto hold a cameo portrait of the cardinal, in an elliptical tondo at an angle facing the church entrance.
The angel is female, and has a bare breast. Female angels were still risqué at the time, and the sculptor was lucky to get away with it.
The savage 19th century restoration left a dearth of items of interest in the church.
On the wall to the right just inside the church entrance is a large slab bearing an inscription commemorating the consecration of the church by Pope Celestine III (1190-1198), and a list of the relics which he provided for it.
Since the church was parochial, it had the right of burial and so there are some monuments and tomb-slabs to be found. The one to Filippo Boschetto 1740 is the best, having a frame in yellow and green marbles with a skull and crossbones.
At the bottom of the left hand aisle is a memorial to Pope Leo XII, 1829. He was an extremely unpopular pope who tried very hard to re-introduce mediaeval social structures to the Papal States, and so his memorial here is noteworthy.
In the left hand aisle is a portrait of Pope Gregory the Great, with the dove of the Holy Spirit whispering in his ear.
The following information on access and the liturgy is from a notice recently pinned up at the church, and is perhaps subject to change.
The church is open:
Weekdays 14:00 to 20:00.
Sundays 8:00 to 12:00, 14:00 to 20:00.
The Eucharist in the Byzantine rite is celebrated daily at 18:00, and additionally on Sundays at 10:00. The Romanian language is used.
All Catholics may receive Communion. Orthodox Christians should obey the instructions and prohibitions of their own priests concerning this matter.
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