San Sebastiano fuori le Mura is a heavily remodelled 4th century basilica with older catacombs, and is at Via Appia Antica 136 in the Ardeatino quarter. It is one of the seven traditional pilgrimage churches of Rome. Pictures of the church at Wikimedia Commons are here. There are English Wikipedia pages here for the church, and here for the catacombs.
The dedication is to St Sebastian, a 3rd century Roman martyr
(Catacombs of Rome is a general introduction to Rome's catacombs on this Wiki.)
The church is built above one of Rome's famous catacombs or underground cemeteries, and in fact the word 'catacomb' comes from this site. In ancient times the locality was called catacumbas from the Greek 'katà kymbas', meaning 'near the hollows' -a reference to local quarries. The name was eventually used for all the city's underground hypogaea. (The name San Sebastiano ad Catacumbas has occurred for the church, but this is actually the cardinalate title).
Ancient times Edit
The quarries mentioned were caves dug out when mining pozzolana for making cement, the earliest human activity discernible here. The particular quarry here was being used for burials towards the end of the Republic, and in the 1st century AD a double row of columbaria or storage units for cremation ashes was built above it. These two rows flanked a lane leading off the Via Appia, and to the south-west was was built the so-called "Large Villa" in the same century. This had its main entrance to its west, off a road parallel to the Via Appia.
However by the end of the century the quarry collapsed and left a large open hollow, nicknamed the Piazzuola or "Small Square". This was tidied up, and around AD 125 to 140 three pagan brick mausolea were built snugly inside it. These are the so-called Mausoleo dell'Ascia, Mausoleo degli Innocentiores and Mausoleo di Marcus Clodius Hermes. It is thought that the catacomb galleries began to be excavated around the same time -they were to extend over four levels (the uppermost of which has been mostly destroyed). The evidence presented for a 1st century date for the catacombs is discredited.
In the 3rd century, the so-called "Small Villa" was built to the west of the columbaria. Despite the traditional name, it is thought to have been built as a meeting-place for funerary assemblies.
Memoria Apostolorum Edit
There was a major change in about the middle of the 3rd century. The hollow of the Piazzuola was filled in, and its mausolea buried, to provide a platform for a trapezoidal courtyard, 23 by 18 metres. This was paved in brick, and had porticoes with piers on its northern and eastern sides. The walls of these covered porticoes were in red plaster. The trapezoidal portico on the east side was more substantial -the so-called Triclia (so-called because it is thought to have been the setting for funerary banquets), and this also had figurative frescoes.
In the north-west corner of the courtyard was a re-used vaulted room originally associated with the "Large Villa". A niched aedicule, embellished with stucco columns painted to resemble marble, was built against this chamber to the south, facing the courtyard. There was an underground well, accessed by a flight of steps in the courtyard, and on the south side the so-called "delta-cell" which was an apsidal chamber entered through three portals separated by columns. The original function of this edifice is unknown, although it was converted into a mausoleum before the basilica was built (the original left hand outer wall cuts through its foundations).
This entire complex is identified as a cult-centre of the Apostles Peter and Paul, the Memoria Apostolorum, which is the subject of a long-running scholarly controversy. See a good (if slanted) summary of this here. The consensus is that the aedicule mentioned was the focus of attention.
The Depositio Martyrum, included in the Chronography composed in 354, mentions a feast St Peter in catacumbas and the Martyrology of Jerome of the 6th century (?) lists a joint feast of SS Peter and Paul in catacumbas. Both documents have a note "in the consulship of Tuscus and Bassus", which is the year 258. Hence, the conclusion is drawn that a cult-centre to the Apostles was founded here in that year. One popular traditional surmise has been that the relics of the two apostles were taken from their tombs in St Peter's and San Paolo fuori le Mura to here for safe-keeping during a persecution by the emperor Valerian, and subsequently returned before (or when) their basilicas were built.
The archaeologists found the red plaster in the Triclia covered in hundreds of scratched graffiti, which make it clear that assemblies and funerary banquets in honour of the apostles took place there. The evidence is clear enough for a revisionist suggestion to be made that SS Peter and Paul were originally buried here, and only enshrined in their respective basilicas when they were built. However, it is difficult to reconcile this view with the totality of the documentary and archaeological evidence relating to the three sites.
An unprovable hypothesis is that Christian interest in the site existed because the St Peter had his headquarters here when in Rome. The only evidence for this is a graffito in one of the 4th century mausolea attached to the church, reading Domus Petri ("house of Peter").
Palaeochristian basilica Edit
The first church (?) here was a great basilica built in the early 4th century over all the structures mentioned above. That is, the columbaria, "Villas" and Triclia were partially demolished and filled with rubble to form a platfom for the structure which was just over 73 metres long. The fabric was in opus vittatum, which consists of courses of tufa ashlar blocks alternating with brick.
It is thought to have been constructed during the reign of Constantine. However documentary evidence is lacking, and later tradition attributed the foundation to Pope St Damasus (366-84) who composed epitaphs for the catacomb here.
The building had the same plan as edifices of the same date at San Lorenzo fuori le Mura and Sant'Agnese fuori le Mura as well as three elsewhere (Santi Marcellino e Pietro ad Duas Lauros, Basilica Anonima della Via Ardeatina and Basilica dei Gordiani). That is, it had a semi-circular far end which is a layout technically called circiform in English architectural parlance, meaning "in the form of a circus" (an ancient Roman one, that is).
Initially it was called Basilica Apostolorum, the Basilica of the Apostles, and was dedicated to SS Peter and Paul.
Layout of original basilica Edit
This is one of six paleo-Christian Roman basilicas discovered with a semi-circular far end, and its aisles meeting at the back as an ambulatory. The Italians call this layout circiforme. The dimensions here were originally 74 by 28 metres, typical for the set of six. The arcades started with two very large L-shaped pillars near the entrance, then eight rectangular pillars in the nave. Two smaller L-shaped pillars marked the entrance to the putative sanctuary, and in between these were the foundations of another pair of the rectangular pillars. The ambulatory then had seven further pillars. In the middle of the nave were four small square pillars marking the site of a shrine or mausoleum.
The near right aisle wall, the far left aisle wall and the ambulatory were decorated with little pilasters forming niches, fourteen on the first, six on the second and fourteen on the third.
The excavation did not find an original façade wall, and this reinforced a doubt as to whether circiform basilicas were originally fully roofed so as to form churches. Only the aisles and sanctuary might have been roofed, and the centre of the nave left open to the sky. See Sant'Agnese fuori le Mura -Basilica Constantiniana for another example of doubt over the roofing arrangements of these structures. However the consensus is that the particular structure here was fully roofed, and that the entrance had large arched portals on a pair of piers. It is now accepted, on the other hand, that it was not designed as a church but as a funerary hall.
There is actually a persuasive argument that none of the basilicas built by Constantine functioned as churches originally except San Giovanni in Laterano, that is to say as places where Mass was celebrated at an altar with a congregation in attendance. Not even Old St Peter's seems to have had an altar before the end of the 6th century. So, apart from the Lateran basilica it is thought that these basilicas were for funerary rites and commemorations -but nobody has any idea of the form that these took.
One intriguing clue is that the circiform basilicas had their entrance ends on a slight diagonal to the major axis, as did ancient Roman circuses. The reason for this was originally so that a chariot racing round the outside of the curve would travel exactly the same distance as one on the inside. So, in the basilica a procession of people standing shoulder to shoulder could start at the bottom of one aisle, process round the curve and back down the other aisle without getting out of step.
If the edifice was not originally a church, it might have been made one by Pope St Damasus.
It appears that the initial floor levels in the nave differed, and that the eastern part of the nave (east of the Albani Chapel) was about two metres below the western part which had a level about the same as now. This allowed access to the triclia.
4th century mausolea Edit
The basilica was surrounded by chapels and mausolea of various sizes, originally erected in the 4th century and some rebuilt later in differing forms. The left hand exterior wall had a short corner stretch where the basilica façade should have been if it ever existed, and against this was a little edifice with an apse facing in the opposite direction of the basilica. The entrance to this was external. On the corresponding right hand side, a two-roomed edifice was entered from the bottom right hand corner of the basilica -this is the so-called Mausoleum of the Five Sarcophagi. The near wall of this was continued as a large, vaguely square enclosure containing no buildings, then was joined up via re-used walls of mausolea to another, larger trapezoidal enclosure to the north of the basilica which contained a complicated set of walls focusing on two free-standing edifices. One of these edifices had a plan shaped like a keyhole, the other like a Greek cross. Where the two enclosures met is a confused set of walls of at least two building campaigns and focusing on an edifice on the plan of a Latin cross with apse.
The left-hand, north side of the basilica was occupied by a row of large mausolea. Proceeding westwards, the first was round with three apses -two semi-circular lateral ones, and a square main one. This is the so-called Mausoleum of the Uranii. Against this building was a rectangular edifice with apse and narthex facing the basilica, but not connecting to it. Both of these edifices were entered via an outside path following the basilica wall. In contrast, the next edifice was originally a larger rectangle with apse, and was entered via a double entrance through the basilica wall. The left hand, west entrance of this doublet was wider, wtih two pillars. This edifice was replaced by a row of three smaller earlier mausolea, the lower courses of the easternmost two being preserved in rooms in the monastery.
On the left hand side of the ambulatory, where the outside wall of the basilica starts to curve, was another exit from the basilica which led into a small court. To the west of this was a pair of small apsidal edifices attached to the basilica wall (these survive), and to the east was a complicated structure with a trapezoidal narthex and a horseshoe-shaped main area with niches all round its curving interior wall. This last edifice was to have a long history as the so-called Platonia.
The catacombs here contained the relics of three martyrs in early centuries -SS Sebastian, Qurinus and Eutychius.
St Sebastian had been buried here after his martyrdom during the reign of the emperor Diocletian. The revised Roman martyrology of 2001 accepts that this was during that emperor's general persecution, which only began in 302. According to St Ambrose, he had been an expatriate from Milan. Other traditional details, including the year of his martyrdom as being 288, derive from a 5th century legend which is now regarded as fictional. This contains the famous detail that he had been tied to a tree and used for archery practice, and this is how he is invariably represented in art. The legend also includes a detail that his body was fished out of a sewer by one St Lucina -who is actually associated with the neighbouring Catacombe di San Callisto, but whose fake tomb used to be pointed out in the catacombs here.
St Quirinus was a bishop of Sisak in Croatia, then Siscia in the Roman province of Pannonia Prima. He had been martyred in 309 and enshrined locally, but when Slav barbarians overran the province towards the end of the 4th century his relics were taken to Rome and enshrined in the Platonia which might have been built for the purpose. This was done in the reign of Pope Sixtus III.
St Eutychius is a martyr of an unknown date, whose epitaph by Pope St Damasus was recovered by archaeologists and is now on display within the church entrance. It asserts that he was imprisoned for twelve days without food before being thrown into a well.
Middle ages Edit
There is a mid 7th century reference to the ecclesia Sancti Sebastiani, which is the earliest evidence for the change of name from the Basilica Apostolorum.
In the 9th century the city lost control of its surrounding countryside to marauders such as the Muslim pirates from North Africa, also Lombard barbarians and simple outlaws. As a result, the Church undertook a campaign of bringing all the venerated relics of martyrs within the city walls, where they were re-enshrined in the various churches. The catacombs in the suburbs were stripped, abandoned and lost to view. This applied even to the nearby Catacombe di San Callisto. There was only one set of catacombs which has never been closed to visitors up to the present day, which is the one here. It was visited continuously through the Middle Ages.
However, the church was sacked in a Muslim pirate raid in 826 and the relics of St Sebastian were removed for safety. Some ended up (allegedly) at Soissons in France, and the head was enshrined under the high altar at Santi Quattro Coronati. The rest were kept in a chapel dedicated to the saint at St Peter's.
A restoration of the basilica was overseen by Pope Nicholas I (858-67), when the dedication was probably formally changed. A convent was also established here. The earliest records mentioning the administration of this, which date from the 12th century, ascribe it to the canons of the Lateran.
The canons were replaced by Cistercian monks in the reign of Pope Honorius III, who oversaw another restoration. The relics of the saint were brought from St Peter's in 1218, and enshrined in a rectangular crypt under the lower left hand side of the present church. It is on record that the aisles of the original basilica had been walled up to create the ground-plan of the present church by the end of the 13th century, and this might have been done in Pope Honorius's restoration.
An entrance portico was added in the 15th century. This was fronted by an atrium on the site of the present courtyard, and had a tower campanile behind it on the left hand side.
16th century Edit
Pilgrimage visits to the basilica were seriously encouraged by St Philip Neri, who originated the Seven Churches devotion. As a young priest he found spiritual benefit in sitting in the catacombs all night after other visitors had left, in the dark and perfect silence.
However, things had gone very badly wrong with the administration. The Cistercian monastery failed in the mid 16th century, and was suppressed in 1584. Despite this, the Order kept the patronage. The church was in such a poor condition that its status as a pilgrimage basilica and one of the Seven Churches was transferred to Santa Maria del Popolo shortly before its rebuilding.
Appearance of church in 1600 Edit
A visitor to the church in 1600 would have been met with a street frontage of a blank wall with a little pedimented doorway, the triangular pediment being supported by four flanking columns. Once through this, he or she would be in the atrium courtyard, which had no colonnades. The church frontage featured an external loggia with a single-pitched tiled roof, supported by an entablature and six columns forming five portals. Above the loggia, the actual church frontage sported a large round window with rose tracery, flanked by the outlines of a pair of blocked round-headed windows.
There was a semi-circular chapel on the right hand side of the nave, the ancestor of the present Chapel of the Relics. This had several round-headed windows. To the left of the nave was a large tower campanile of four storeys, the upper two being above the roofline of the nave and having a large arched soundhole on each face. There was a pyramidal cap above a parapet.
17th century Edit
The last major rebuilding was started by Flaminio Ponzio in 1608 on the orders of Scipione Cardinal Caffarelli-Borghese who had found the church left in a ruinous state by the monks. He built the present portico, in the process lowering the level of the former atrium to that of the interior of the church (it had been almost two metres above floor level beforehand). He also added a dome to the remodelled sanctuary, and re-modelled the Platonia which was provided with its own façade. The ancient columns in the portico were re-used by him from the mediaeval portico that he demolished.
Ponzio was assisted by Giacomo Mola in the execution of the project.
The new high altar was provided with the alleged relics of Pope St Stephen I, and Ponzi built a rectangular side chapel for those of Pope St Fabian. A three-storey monastery wing was added to the left hand side of the nave, and a tower campanile built in the far corner to replace the demolished mediaeval one. The ground floor of this wing incorporated a sacristy (now the Chapel of the Crucifix), and from the campanile a corridor ran to the Platonia along the alignment of the palaeo-Christian aisle.
Ponzio died in 1613 and work was continued by Giovanni Vasanzio, who provided the ceiling and finished the façade. The relics of St Sebastian were enshrined in a chapel to the right hand side of the nave. The dignity as one of the Seven Churches was restored after the work had been finished, and the church became popular as a place of resort to pray against epidemics of bubonic plague.
The complex was put in the charge of monks called Cistercensi Riformati, but the abbacy of the monastery was filled by a cardinal protector (note that the church was not then titular). In 1672 this was Cardinal Francesco Barberini, who had the nave floor re-laid and a grille provided so that pilgrims could look into the Crypt of St Sebastian while in the church. He moved the saint's remains into his present chapel, providing the noted sculpture there now, and converted the former shrine into the Chapel of the Relics. The work was funded by a legacy from Elector Maximilian I of Bavaria.
The pilgrimage arrangements were different to what they are now. There was only a limited access to the catacombs, the visitable passages being accessed via a set of stairs in the bottom left hand corner of the church. This led to a passage that ran under the nave to three burial chambers, from which visitors were taken on a route which doubled back on itself twice before emerging up another set of stairs on the right hand side of the nave just before the altar dedicated to St Jerome. At the start of the main passage, a side passage led to the left into a large rectangular crypt-chamber pointed out as the original shrine of St Sebastian and at the junction the (fake) tomb of St Lucina was also pointed out.
The Platonia mausoleum was mistakenly described as the original Memoria Apostolorum, and visitors were shown the alleged niches in which the relics of SS Peter and Paul had been kept. This error persisted until the late 19th century. Also down here was displayed a stone chair with rust stains, described as the one in which Pope St Stephen I had been sitting when he was martyred. The untrue story of the pope's martyrdom was originally associated with the Catacombe di San Callisto, but when those catacombs were lost to view the ones at San Sebastiano were mistakenly thought to be them.
18th century Edit
The Cistercian monastery reached its apotheosis when it became the Generalate of the entire Order in 1699 under Cardinal Giovanni Maria Gabrielli as Abbot General. He had been a Cistercian monk at Santa Pudenziana, the church of which he chose for his cardinalate title. An attractive character, he loved growing roses and was very fond of the basilica. A rose garden that he established here became internationally famous, and he donated a noted library to the monastery when he died in 1711. He was buried at San Bernardo alle Terme, but his heart was interred here according to his wish.
In 1712, Pope Clement XI Albani demolished the chapel of St Fabian in favour of a large domed one intended as a mortuary chapel for his family. The architect was Carlo Fontana, who also provided a new sacristy next door near the high altar. The corridor from the monastery to the Platonia was extended through two previously existing rooms between the apse and the latter, to reach the sacristy.
The Cistercian monks remained in possession of the church, and continued to administer the site when the church was made parochial in 1714 (even though administering parishes was not in the Cistercian tradition). Back then, the parish territory was enormous and very thinly populated. The Via Appia entered an overgrazed and treeless sheep-walk as soon as it left the Porta San Sebastiano, and the only buildings between the gate and the basilica complex (apart from the many ruined ancient tombs) were the little church of Domine Quo Vadis, a country inn opposite and the strange edifice of the Cappella di Reginald Pole.
A walk down the Via Appia was part of the Grand Tour for wealthy and cultured tourists in Europe at the time, and so the church had many distinguished visitors wishing to visit the catacombs.
19th century Edit
The Cistercian monastery was suppressed by the French at the start of the 19th century. The monastery never properly recovered, and the monks were replaced by Franciscan Friars Minor in 1826. By then, vineyards had been laid out along the Via Appia as far as the basilica.
Pope Gregory XVI (1831-46) ordered a restoration of the ceiling, and had his coat-of-arms inserted therein.
The basilica had catacomb visitors all to itself until archaeologists set to work to trace the other lost catacombs of the city. Notably, the famous archaeologist Giovanni Battista de Rossi triumphantly succeeded in finding the entrance to the inaccessible Catacombe di San Callisto in a vineyard in 1854. He had worked out the location from documentary evidence, and came across a partly buried epigraph indicating the site. Since these were a much more interesting and prestigious set of catacombs than that at San Sebastiano, as soon as it was made fit for visitors it took over as the premier visitable set of catacombs at Rome -a status that it has held to the present day.
However, the proximity of the basilica meant that successful objections were made to the building of any church at San Callisto. Even now, those wishing to celebrate Mass there have to use an unconsecrated converted barn. One advantage accruing to the basilica was that the public amenities at San Callisto involved a new driveway from Domine Quo Vadis past the catacombs to the basilica, which means that pedestrian visitors to the latter do not have to walk down a narrow walled section of the Via Appia.
In 1892, archaeological investigations began under the basilica. These continued into the next century, and eventually revealed the true Memoria Apostolorum and the original pagan cemetery which were unearthed in the Twenties.
20th century Edit
The Franciscans have remained in charge to the present day. In the mid 20th century they sponsored a new arrangement for visitors, involving a large display room for archaeological discoveries on the site of the right hand aisle of the palaeo-Christian basilica. Part of the original site of the left hand aisle beyond the Chapel of the Crucifix, which had been a corridor beforehand, was also fitted out to display epigraphs and sculptures. The work was completed in 1933.
From 1988 to 2000 there was a major campaign of restoration of the fabric and artworks.
For the Holy Year 2000, the status of pilgrimage basilica was taken from this church and transferred to the Santuario della Madonna del Divino Amore for those wanting to obtain the Jubilee indulgence.
The basilica was only made titular in 1960.
The current cardinal priest is H.E. Cardinal Lluís Martínez Sistach.
Layout and fabric Edit
The present edifice utilizes the plan of the original palaeo-Christian basilica in a cut-down form, but this is not obvious from the interior and much of the exterior is inaccessible to the gaze of the ordinary visitor.
The church has a single nave fronted by a two-storey loggia, the latter having its own separate and slightly higher roof. Externally, the nave is a single unit with the apsidal sanctuary and there is one pitched and tiled roof covering both. From the apse protrudes the sanctuary dome, which has a low octagonal drum topped by a tiled cupola in eight sectors. There is a tall lantern with round-headed window slits, having a little lead cupola with a brim looking rather like a 17th century helmet.
The have has a pair of small external chapels near the entrance, on a segmental plan. The left hand one is the Chapel of St Sebastian, that on the right is the Chapel of the Relics. Then, on the left hand side, the three-storey monastery joins the side wall of the church on a T plan. From the other side of this block a wide corridor or ambulatory with a single-pitched tiled roof runs round the apse, on the line of the U-shaped aisle of the original basilica.
There is a tower campanile at the start of the ambulatory on the left hand side, a simple brick tower having a single arched sound-hole on each side of the top storey and a pyramidal tiled cap.
On the far right side of the nave is the Albani chapel, a structurally separate edifice on the plan of a Greek cross with a central dome, of almost the same design as the main dome but slightly smaller and lower. The lantern differs, since the window slits are rectangular and the hemispherical lead cupola fits on top without a brim.
Behind this chapel is the 18th century sacristy, a square structure with its own roof slightly higher than that of the ambulatory.
Finally behind the apse and ambulatory, just to the left of the major axis, is the so-called Platonia which is an irregularly polygonal structure with its own rather haphazard tiled roof slightly lower than that of the ambulatory.
In the Middle Ages, before the rebuilding, in front of the church was a walled atrium or courtyard with a single gate fronting the Via Appia. The present entrance courtyard preserves much of the appearance of this, although the entrance wall is gone. The present arrangement is a result of the restoration by Ponzi, who dug away the ground to create a gradual slope from the street to the church façade. Previously, the church could only be accessed by steps down from the level of the atrium.
To the right in the courtyard is the modern entrance to the catacombs, where you buy your ticket. To the left are the parish facilities, with a very useful set of toilets.
Across the road is a monument in the form of a free-standing Corinthian column in grey granite, erected by Pope Pius IX in 1852.
The façade was begun by Flaminio Ponzio in 1608. It was a rebuilding rather than a reconstruction of the original 15th century portico, with the addition of rooms over the loggia for the church's custodians. The six columns of the original portico were re-used, and it is claimed that these came from the original basilica. If so, it is pretty certain that they were pillaged from an ancient edifice somewhere.
Unfortunately Ponzio fell ill in 1612, and died in the following year. The work had to be finished by Giovanni Vasanzio, whose real name was Jan van Santen and who signed off the completed project in 1613.
The entire façade is in cream-coloured stucco which looks very crisp, and is of two storeys. There is an internal loggia, with three entrance arches separated by two pairs of ancient granite Ionic columns. The inner two columns of the pairs are grey, and these seem to have come from the famous ancient quarry of Mons Claudianus in the Egyptian desert east of the Nile. The outer two are pink, as are two more at the ends of the arcade which are twinned with engaged piers in the same style. The arches have molded archivolts with strap corbels on their keystones. Above the arches is an entablature with is a marble frieze having an inscription commemorating the Borghese rebuilding: Scipio Card[inale] Burghensius, S[acrae] R[omae] E[cclesiae] Major Penitentiarius, An[no] Dom[ini] MDCXII. The entablature floats from posts at either end, themselves above blind pilasters at the corners of the storey.
The second storey has three identically sized rectangular windows with raised segmental pediments. The central windown pediment is split in two by the insertion of the coat-of-arms of the Borghese family, which displays the family eagle and dragon. (These emblems occur elsewhere in the church.) These windows sit on a low attic plinth with four wide posts and a little recessed panel below each window, and are separated by four pairs of blind pilasters which are connected by an architrave running below the cornice of the crowning pediment (there is no proper entablature here). This storey is also framed by a pair of blind corner pilasters.
The molding of the window frames is taken around panels above their lintels. This is a design feature of the restoration by Ponzio, also to be seen in the entrances of the church and Platonia.
The crowning triangular pediment contains the coat-of-arms of Pope Paul V, embellished with fluttering ribbons and flanked by two stumpy pairs of the blind pilasters. The cornice and gable have modillions (little brackets).
Within the loggia, the actual frontage of the church has a blind arcade of three arches separated by four pairs of Ionic pilasters. Within these arches are just discernible the decayed remnants of frescoes by Antonio Caracci. The single entrance has a molded doorcase with the molding running round a dedicatory inscription above the lintel, which is topped by a winged putto's head sheltered by a floating gable cornice.
Serious visitors should see the other early 17th century façade by Ponzio, that of the Platonia. This is neglected, and is easy to miss. Take the Vicolo delle Sette Chiese to the north of the church, and where the road bend sharp right you go down a weedy cobbled lane to the left. The façade is at the end of this.
This work is arguably a better design than the main church façade. It has a single storey in red brick, with architectural details in travertine limestone. Two pairs of brick pilasters, the inner ones doubletted along their outer edge, stand on stone plinths and have swagged Ionic capitals incorporating the Barberini eagle. These pilasters support an entablature posted over the doubletted pair, the frieze of which bears the epigraph Paolo V Pontifice Optimo Maximo, anno MDCIX. Above is a triangular pediment with a broken cornice, from which a heraldic shield has vanished. There are two flaming torch finals at the ends, and a cross finial on top.
The molded doorcase has its molding taken around a panel above the lintel reading Scipio Card[inale] Burghesius. This is flanked by a pair of little Borghese dragons, and the doorcase is flanked by pilaster strips ending in tasselled strap corbels. These support a segmental pediment with a broken top, and with little curlucues at the broken ends and the outer angles. In the break hangs a floral swag.
Above this pediment is a third epigraph on a tablet with a molded frame, reading In honorem Sancti Martyris Sebastiani. Above is a winged putto's head with swags.
The façade is flanked by two low and narrow wall frontages topped by large double curlicues.
On first entering the basilica, those expecting a mighty church like the patriarchal basilicas will be disappointed. The nave of five bays has no side aisles, but instead arched recesses containing side chapels. The architectural design of the nave fabric is, frankly, rather poor -and the uniform colour scheme in cream does not help.
The counterfaçade has two storeys, the second one being lower. The first has four blind pilasters flanking the entrance, supporting an entablature with posts in lieu of capitals. This entablature is taken down the side walls and terminated at the triumphal arch of the sanctuary. Each pair of pilasters is separated by two blank recessed panels, the upper one rectangular and the lower one round-headed, and over the door is a marble tablet commemorating the rebuilding. Above, the second storey has four short blind pilasters melding into a blank frieze below the ceiling. These are separated by recessed panels, too. The design echo from the façade is obvious.
The arches in the nave side walls do not form arcades. There are three on each side, each flanked by a pair of blind pilasters which support the entablature. The archivolt of each arch also reaches the entablature, above which is a large recessed panel (intended originally for a fresco?). Between each two arches is a doorway or funerary memorial, above which are two more recessed panels below the entablature and a window above (because of adjoining buildings, some of these windows are blank).
The archivolts bear Baroque tablets, or heraldic shields. The former read unum ex quinque altaribus ("one of five altars"), which is a reference to the gaining of an indulgence for visiting the basilica and praying at an altar. The latter crown the two central arches, and are Borghese heraldry again.
The near and far bays have no arches. Each of the entrance bay side walls starts with three recessed panels, the third above the entablature, then comes a close pair of pilasters. Then comes one of the doorway arrangements just described, and finally another pilaster pairing with the near hand one of the first arch. The far bay replicates this in reverse, except that the right hand wall was altered in the 18th century for the grand entrance into the Albani chapel.
The redeeming glory of the nave is the flat coffered wooden ceiling supervised by Vasanzio in 1613. It is intricately carved, painted and gilded in red, blue, green white and gold, with three main coffers. The details include Borghese dragons and eagles, as well as palm branches of martyrdom.
The near one shows the arms of Cardinal Scipione Borghese, (again) and the middle one has a superb carved depiction of the martyrdom of St Sebastian by Annibale Durante. Here, the figure of the saint and the angel holding a palm branch are in the round, on a painted background. The far coffer has, oddly, the coat-of-arms of Pope Gregory XVI because he ordered a restoration of the ceiling.
The nave ends with a triumphal arch leading through to the domed sanctuary. This arch is supported on blind pilasters, ending in posts terminating the interior entablature which give the impression of Doric capitals. The archivolt is actually higher than the ceiling, which has a niche for it, and on the keystone is the Borghese coat-of-arms yet again. The wall in which the arch is set is actually a screen, and has sunken panels imitating the arrangement in the counterfaçade.
The triumphal arch is one of the four pendentive arches of the dome, which is undecorated except for stucco winged putto's heads at the bottoms of the pendentives, and dentillation in the moldings. It has a central lantern. The side arches contain galleries for musicians, the left hand one containing the organ. The far arch frames a rectangular niche containing the high altar.
The sanctuary is raised by three steps, and is delineated by pin balustrades.
The aedicule is by Flaminio Ponzio, and has two pairs of verde antico Composite columns on high two-storey plinths with the upper parts panelled in alabaster. These columns support a triangular pediment with the central section removed to make room for a black marble Baroque tablet framed in Siena yellow marble and bearing the Dove of the Holy Spirit in white marble. The altarpiece has a frame also in Siena, and depicts Calvary. It is by Innocenzo Tacconi.
This altar is dedicated to Pope St Stephen I, whose relics are enshrined here. This is why St Sebastian has his own side chapel.
In front of the aedicule are two busts of SS Peter and Paul, on identical square free-standing pillars in black-veined marble. These are by Nicolas Cordier, nicknamed Il Franciosino.
The altar pro populo (for Mass celebrated facing the people) is made from a 5th century sarcophagus. It has strigillate decoration, and three reliefs featuring (left to right) The Arrest of St Peter, Christ with SS Peter and Paul and The Raising of Lazarus.
Kept in the sanctuary is a painting of The Preparation of St Sebastian for Martyrdom by Pietro Sigismondi 1618.
The chapels and other items of interest around the side walls are described anticlockwise, beginning at the entrance.
Il Salvator Mundi Edit
Immediately to the right of the entrance is an attractive white marble Baroque monument to Altobello de Ense from Montecorvino (which one?) 1615. He was a doctor of medicine, and chose to be buried here because St Sebastian was a patron of plague sufferers -he died of it himself. The engaging bust is in a dark grey marble scallop shell.
In the first niche to the right is a bust of Christ, Il Salvator Mundi by Bernini 1679. This was only recognized for what it is in 2001 (ignore the epigraph above saying Scipio Card. Burghesius). It was the last work executed by the master. Note the plinth in red marble, which imitates an ancient Roman fashion for using porphyry in this way.
Above is a fresco featuring St Catherine of Siena.
Chapel of the Relics Edit
The first chapel on the right side of the nave is the Chapel of Relics, which was commissioned in its present form in 1672 by Cardinal Francesco Barberini and originally sponsored in 1625 by Elector Maximilian I of Bavaria. It is apsidal in form, with the tall aedicule against the back of the curve and a diapered bronze grating shutting it off. The aedicule has two ancient Composite columns described as being of pavonazzetto marble from Africa, bearing posts in yellow Siena marble which themselves support a segmental pediment with its central section removed. Into the gap is inserted a black marble tablet bearing an epigraph announcing the sponsorship by the Elector, which has its own little triangular pediment. The cornice of this is broken to accommodate a depiction of the Dove of the Holy Spirit.
The columns flank a cabinet of four shelves, with a Siena marble frame, a diapered grille in gilded bronze and a black marble frieze above with a winged putto's head. A list of relics here is given as follows: A spine from the Crown of Thorns; a finger, a tooth and part of a rib of St Peter; a tooth of St Paul; an arm of St Andrew; part of the head and an arm of St Fabian, with other bits in a lead casket; the head of Pope St Callixtus; the head of Pope St Stephen I; an arm of St Roch; parts of the heads of SS Nereus and Achilleus; relics of SS Valentine, Lucina and "Avenistus" (?); an arrow shot at St Sebastian and part of the column to which he was tied when used for archery practice.
Also on the altar here is the original basalt stone bearing the alleged footprints of Christ, brought to the basilica from Domine Quo Vadis in the early 16th century after that church had fallen into ruin. This slab was originally an ancient memorial slab or pagan ex-voto, of which other examples exist -you can see one at San Silvestro in Capite. The one here was probably an ex-voto, and might have been given as an offering to the god Rediculus after a successful journey and return. The Campus Rediculi, a sacred enclosure dedicated to the god, was either on the site of Domine Quo Vadis or very close by.
The next niche contains a superb cenotaph memorial to Cardinal Giovanni Maria Gabrielli 1711, a Cistercian Abbot General who loved the basilica and monastery and had his heart interred here. The memorial (actually put up in 1720) is a fine work in black, yellow, green, pink and purple marbles with two putti accompanying the half-length effigy of the cardinal. This looks odd to modern eyes ("Who? Me?"), but the cardinal is actually asking you to pray for his soul. Requiescat in pace, rosarum amator.
Chapel of St Frances of Rome Edit
The next arch contains an altar dedicated to St Frances of Rome. A simple aedicule having a pair of Ionic pilasters supporting a triangular pediment, in white with gilded highlights, frames the altarpiece. This shows The Vision of St Frances, and is by Filippo Frigiotti 1727. (This artist also executed the cupola fresco at San Giuseppe alla Lungara.) The picture shows Our Lady allowing the saint to hold the Christ-child.
The doorway beyond the chapel leads to a set of stairs down to the catacombs. The vestibule here has a depiction of God the Father with Saints by Antonio Carracci.
Chapel of St Jerome Edit
The next arch is the chapel of St Jerome, with a matching aedicule except that the pediment is segmental. The altarpiece is so bad as to be winsome. It is by Archita Ricci 1613. Apparently this chapel was dedicated to the Assumption of Our Lady until the end of the 19th century.
Albani Chapel Edit
The far right hand side of the nave has a large entrance portal into a domed side chapel dedicated to Pope St Fabian (236-250) by Pope Clement XI, nicknamed the Albani Chapel after his family (which was originally from Albania!). It was designed by Carlo Fontana in 1706, and he worked on it until 1712 with the initial assistance of Carlo Maratta. Then he had to leave the project, which was completed in 1714 by Alessandro Specchi and Filippo Barigioni.
The entrance was knocked through the pre-existing side wall, and consists of a large arch with square rosette coffers on its intrados and a large relief coat-of-arms of the family on its keystone. It is supported by a pair of Composite columns in a brown-flecked marble. There is an ornate set of railings at the entrance, topped by a gilded coat-of-arms. Unfortunately the gate is usually kept locked, so you may have to content yourself with peering through them.
The interior is on the plan of a Greek cross with short arms, each of which has an arched vault with two rows of rosette coffers on the intrados and springing from two pairs of Corinthian pilasters of black and white marble. The arches define the pendentives of the dome.
The dome with its pendentives is decorated with intricate stucco work in a cream colour. The pendentives bear tondi containing portraits of virgin martyrs, each supported by three angels. The drum has four windows, separated by four tablets identifying the martyrs and with each topped by a crown and crossed palms. Over the windows are scallop shells. The dome itself is divided into eight sectors by festoon ribs. The decoration of each sector alternates, with either a star within an octagon with crossed lilies below and a scallop shell above, or a Chi-rho within a tondo with crossed palms below and above. There is a large oculus.
The sanctuary is apsidal, with a three-quarter cupola having stucco decoration which is entirely gilded. This features floral festoon, vine scrolls, putti and the Keys of St Peter. The altar itself is a verde antico sarcophagus containing the relics of Pope St Fabian, and has a curvaceous polychrome marble gradino on which two marble putti with wreaths disport themselves. Where you would expect the tabernacle there is a shrine containing the pope's skull, with an oval bronze door. There is no proper aedicule, but two Corinthian columns in the black and white marble support posts from which the far ribs of the cupola springs. Between these is verde antico revetting embellished with gilded stucco work and containing a niche with a statue of St Fabian by Pietro Francesco Papaleo.
The right hand arm contains a depiction of Pope St Fabian Consecrates the Emperor Philip by Giuseppe Passeri, and the left hand one The Election of Pope St Fabian by Pier Leone Ghezzi. The former depicts an utterly fictional occurrence, based on a legend (itself false) that the emperor Philip the Arab was a Christian.
An 18th century sacristy is on the far side of this chapel, on a square plan (now apparently used as part of the Lapidary Museum).
Opposite the Albani Chapel is a doorway into what is called the Navata Esterna. Over the door is a fresco showing The Penitent St Jerome.
The Navata Esterna is a wide corridor running from the monastery round the back of the apse to the sacristy just mentioned, and is on the foundations of the ambulatory of the palaeo-Christian basilica. Since the 1930's it has been used as a display area for the many epigraphs discovered during the archaeological investigations in the catacombs and beneath the basilica, and also has some sculptural fragments. There should be a model of the ancient basilica and catacombs here as well. Hence the space is also called the Lapidary Museum.
The piers of the arcade of the ancient basilica are visible, embedded in the blocking wall erected in the 13th century. The outside wall also contains 4th century fabric, and behind the high altar there are remains of original fresco decoration imitating marble revetment.
This space, as well as the three edifices following, is not usually open to visitors. It used to be the case that you could ask one of the friars or custodians to allow you access but, like most such courtesies formerly in place in Roman churches, people are too busy and insurance assessors too security-conscious to allow this routinely any more. Serious scholars should seek permission in advance of a visit, to view material on display.
Mausolei Absidati Edit
To the south of the Navata esterna are well-preserved twin 4th century apsidal mausolea, standing side by side and sharing a side wall. These were excavated in the 1920's. The importance of the western one of this pair is that it contains graffiti supporting the tradition that St Peter was associated with the site, either when alive or in the form of his relics. The most striking example is one saying Domus Petri or "House of Peter".
Behind the apse of the basilica is an annexe called the Platonia, which has its own entrance arrangements (now disused) already described above. This was probably the shrine of St Quirinus originally, who was a 4th century bishop and martyr in what is now Croatia. However, in mediaeval times it was mistaken for the original Memoria Apostolorum which is why it was given serious attention in the early 17th century restoration. Pilgrims were shown around until the early 20th century, but when the genuine Memoria was unearthed under the basilica there was an abrupt loss of interest.
Access is now by a set of descending stairs from the Navata Esterna which end in a D-shaped mausoleum with eight arcosolia or niches in the curved wall. These used to have frescoes thought to be of the 5th century, when the edifice was built, but these have perished. There is a free-standing altar with two niches formerly pointed out as the place where the relics of SS Peter and Paul were kept. The dedication of the altar is to the two apostles.
Chapel of Pope Honorius III Edit
The 13th century Chapel of Pope Honorius III is a long rectangular room with a doorway off the Navata Esterna behind the high altar. At its far end it has its own set of stairs running down to the Platonia.
The chapel has original frescoes. Visible are SS Peter and Paul, a Crucifixion, saints, The Massacre of the Innocents and a Madonna and Child.
Chapel of St Francis Edit
The far arch on the left hand side is a chapel St Francis of Assisi . This has an altarpiece of St Francis Receiving the Stigmata by Girolamo Muziano, installed here on the orders of Pope Gregory XVI as the epigraph mentions. This is obviously as a result of the Franciscans taking over the administration of the basilica. Presumably the previous dedication was to St Bernard, one of the most prominent members of the Cistercians.
The aedicule matches that of the chapel opposite.
Chapel of St Charles Borromeo Edit
The middle arch on the left hand side is a chapel dedicated to St Charles Borromeo, who had a great devotion to the basilica and its catacomb. The altarpiece by Archita Ricci 1614 shows the saint in prayer after a penitential procession during an epidemic of bubonic plague. The saint had done this barefoot, hence the blood under his toes.
This aedicule also matches that of the chapel opposite.
Chapel of the Crucifix Edit
The middle doorway on the left leads into the rectangular Chapel of the Crucifix, formerly the sacristy but fitted out by Carlo Fontana in 1727. It is actually on the ground floor of the main monastery wing abutting on the church on this side, and an exit door into the monastery grounds is in the far left hand corner as you go in.
Above the door is a mediaeval epigraph provided with a Baroque frame. It is interesting in that the words are run together without spaces, as in an ancient manuscript. The text reads: + In isto loco p[raeter]missio vera est, et peccatorum remissio, splendor et lux perpetua et sine fine l[a]etitia, qua[s] meruit [Christi] martir Sebastianus. ("In this place is true indulgence, et remission of sins, splendour and eternal light and happiness without end, which Christ's martyr Sebastian deserved.")
The chapel is a room painted in white, with a large restored late 14th century painted crucifix. The cross arms are in bottony, and have little paintings.
There are two frescoes. On the ceiling is God the Father with Saints by Pietro da Cortona 1618, and on the wall is a badly perished Madonna and Child with SS Sebastian and Lucina by Marco Tullio Fontana.
It is worth looking at the exterior of the monastery and church if you can, by passing through the exit door in the Chapel of the Crucifix. The monastery (now a friary) is an undistinguished early 17th century work by Ponzio, but its importance lies in its incorporating the fabric of ruined paleo-Christian mausolea.
The main block is three-storey, but it is joined to the church by a two-storey connection which contains the chapel. To the east is a little car park, and you can see here that the east-facing wall of the monastery contains opus vittatum or bands of brick interspersed with blocks of ashlar. This belonged to an original 4th century annexe of the basilica, which was later mostly demolished and replaced with a row of three apsidal mausolea. The easternmost of these used some of the fabric of the annexe, as you can see.
Facing this old wall, the single-storey edifice on your right has its outer wall on the line of the old basilica's aisle wall. The right hand doorway marks what used to be an alleyway between this wall and the three mausolea. The left hand doorway was knocked through the side wall of the eastern mausoleum, the fabric of which substantially survives as a room used for parish activities. The central mausoleum, separated from the eastern one by a passage that also used to be an alleyway, also survives as a room in the mausoleum. The western mausoleum is gone.
Still looking at this old wall, to the left you can see the outline of a little apse in the fabric. This used to be at one end of the narthex of a large mausoleum with an apse, which has otherwise vanished. Look behind you, to the east, and you will see a circular ruin of the Mausoleum of the Uranii (about 349). This has remains of the matching apse of the same narthex in its wall, which is very fine brickwork (the interior of this particular mausoleum is rock-cut).
Chapel of St Sebastian Edit
The first arch on the left has an apsidal chapel above the tomb of St Sebastian, which was originally planned by Cardinal Scipione Caffarelli-Borghese in the 17th century rebuilding. However, it was finally executed by Ciro Ferri in 1672 under the patronage of Cardinal Francesco Barberini.
The floor of the chapel is elevated to make room for the shrine of St Sebastian. This is a large marble box containing a famous statue of the dying saint by Antonio Giorgetti, one of Bernini's pupils. Most of the front of the box is taken up by a glass panel with a yellow marble frame, and the shrine and chapel are protected by a set of iron railings to stop people getting their fingerprints on the glass.
It used to be thought that the sculpture was based on a drawing by Bernini himself. However, recent opinion is that the design was by Ferri. The work is unusual in that it shows the saint recumbent, and is in white marble with gilt bronze arrows.
The actual chapel is accessed by a matching pair of curved staircases flanking the shrine. The sumptuous polychrome marble and bronze altar is above the shrine, facing out in the nave, and bears an epigraph on a plaque of lapis lazuli which reads: Sebastiano, Christi militi et martyri, ecclesiae defensori, propulsori pestilitatis ("To Sebastian, the soldier of Christ and martyr, defender of the Church and expeller of bubonic plague").
The apsidal chapel itself is in cream and gold, with two rectangular black marble frames and a matching doorway in the back giving access for the priest saying Mass. The right hand frame has an epigraph describing the commissioning of the chapel, while the left has a niche containing an unhappy pot plant. The conch has three sectors each displaying crossed palm branches, a wreath and arrows.
Epitaph of St Eutychius Edit
The first doorway to the left in the nave is one of the entrances to the catacomb. It has an ornate doorframe with a broken segmental pediment, and matches the surrounding of the niche opposite including the tag Scipio Card[inalis] Burghesius. Note the two little dragons on top of the pilaster strips.
Above is an 18th century fresco of St Philip Neri at prayer in the catacomb.
Immediately to the left of the church entrance is an inscription extolling the martyr St Eutychius, composed by Pope Damasus and executed by the famous 4th century calligrapher Furius Dionysius Philocalus. This used to be for the saint's shrine-niche in the catacomb, in a level abandoned perhaps in the 9th century. It was found by archaeologists in the early 20th century, and moved to here.
Above is a little white marble tabernacle by Mino da Fiesole, 15th century. The Christ-child is shown in front of a perspective renditioning of a barrel-vaulted hall.
Entry to church Edit
The basilica is open:
Daily 8:00 to 13:00, 14:00 to 17:30.
You are not allowed to visit if there is a Mass being celebrated in the body of the church (unless you wish to attend the Mass, of course), but you can if the Mass is in the Albani Chapel. If the latter, waiting until the Mass is finished can be an opportunity to view this chapel, which is otherwise kept locked (but please don't disturb those giving their thanksgiving).
How to get here Edit
As with the rest of the Archeological Park of Appia Antica, the way to get to the basilica is by the 118 bus from Piramide or Circo Massimo metro stations. The Via Appia Antica is open to motor traffic from the city to here, but it is narrow and hazardous to drive down if you are not familiar with it. Very importantly, the bus runs on a one-way loop past the basilica; it will drop you outside the gate, but to catch it back to the city you have to turn left and walk up the road to the San Callisto catacombs stop. (A safer pedestrian route is via the private drive on the left just over the junction with the Vicolo dei Sette Chiese, which will get you to the San Callisto car park.) Beware of the ATAC online route map, it doesn't show this (although their general bus service map does).
If you wish to walk from the city, go down the private driveway through the gate opposite Domine Quo Vadis. Walking down the Via Appia from here is genuinely frightening, because the road is narrow with walls and is busy with traffic. However the San Callisto catacomb is shut on Wednesdays, and apparently this driveway is too.
Via delle Sette Chiese Edit
The Via delle Sette Chiese (actually here called a Vicolo) begins with a junction just to the north of the basilica, and winds its way through Garbetella to end up at San Paolo fuori le Mura. The name of the road does not refer to the churches found on it, but to the seven traditional pilgrimage basilicas. Up to the 19th century, pilgrims would use this route (then a country lane) as a short-cut from San Sebastiano to San Pietro in doing the tour between the seven. It is not particularly recommended that you try to walk this road to imitate them nowadays, unless you are serious about the Seven Churches as a penitential exercise. The road is very busy, and the experience will be nasty at best and perhaps risky.
Mass is celebrated on weekdays at 18:00, and on Sundays and Solemnities at 8:00, 9:00, 10:00 and 12:00.
SS Sebastian and Fabian have their feast-days on the same date, 20 January. Before 1970 they were celebrated together liturgically, but now any priest who wants to say a sanctoral Mass on that day must choose one or the other.
Entrance and museum Edit
The catacombs have their own access arrangements, and the shop and ticket office are entered through a portal to the right of the church's façade (in other words, not in the church). You can only visit as part of a guided tour, and regular ones take place through the day in the major languages. This means that you might have to wait for a tour in your language to start, but next to the shop is a large room which is on the site of the right hand aisle of the paleo-Christian basilica. There are various interesting items of ancient carved stonework to look at here while you wait, including lots of epigraphs and several superb sarcophagi. Hence this space is called the Museo dei Sarcofagi.
When the tour is assembled, the guide will take you down a set of stairs to the left at the far end of this room.
Galleries and arcosolia Edit
The catacombs originally had four levels of galleries, but the first one is mostly destroyed and the bottom one is dangerous. So, the tour passes through the two middle galleries. It demonstrates the typical catacomb layout, consisting mainly of galleries with horizontal niches in their walls called loculi. Each loculus was for a single body (although more than one were often accommodated), and was sealed after an internment. Here, all those in the visitable galleries have been broken open and there are two possible reasons for this. Either it was hoped that the remains contained jewellery, or it was delusively imagined that everybody buried in the catacombs might have been a martyr and so their remains amounted to relics.
Also accessed via the galleries are larger niches for sarcophagi called arcosolia (a solium is a Latin word for sarcophagus), and rooms called cubicula ("bedrooms"). These were funerary chambers sponsored by individual families, or by professional groups, associations and clubs. These were decorated with frescoes or stucco ornaments, although here the accessibility of the catacombs throughout the centuries has meant that most of the decoration has been trashed.
This is a smaller set of catacombs than San Callisto, but the total length of passageways is still about eleven kilometres. You will get to see a very limited portion of these. The most notable of the collection of surviving fresco work is a Nativity, which features the traditional ox and donkey and is claimed to be the oldest such depiction. The guide should also point out a fresco showing a little girl called Liberia, standing in the orans position between a lamb and a dove. The epitaph states that she died aged three years and two days, in 360.
Graffiti showing the dove and a fish will also be shown, but to be fair if you want to see impressive catacomb artworks you need to visit one of the other open catacombs.
Large Villa Edit
The most interesting parts of the tour are those areas excavated under the floor of the church from the late 19th century. It should be remembered that these were not part of the catacombs originally.
The so-called "Large Villa" is a 1st century AD dwelling consisting of several rooms around a central courtyard with a white mosaic pavement. The wall paintings date to around the year 100 AD, and represent a late development of the so-called Fourth Style of ancient Roman mural painting. Most famous is a landscape depiction of seaside villas, in the largest room.
Small Villa Edit
The so-called "Small Villa" was, in reality, a meeting-place for those assembling to take part in funerary rites. It is north of the "Large Villa" and consists of a small courtyard in black and white mosaic. Footings survive for piers that once supported a covered porticus. Below the courtyard, and illuminated by a central skylight, is a perfectly preserved room with geometric wall paintings dating to the first half of the 3rd century. Brick benches line the walls.
Leading north-eastward from these two buildings is a row of so-called columbaria, which were intended for the reception of ashes from pagan cremations. They span the 1st century AD, and the earliest ones were probably the first funerary monuments on the site.
South of this row is the so-called Piazzuola, which was a large cavity in the ground caused by the collapse of a cave-quarry. It had three brick pagan mausolea built inside it in the period AD 125 to 140, which are very well preserved. Left to right, they are called "The Tomb of the Axe", "The Tomb of the Innocentiores" and "The Tomb of Marcus Clodius Hermes". We know the name of the owner of the third one, as his epitaph is still in place.
These mausolea were perfectly preserved by being buried, have rich stucco and fresco decoration inside. The Axe mausoleum has a well-kept stucco vault with a back lunette having a grapevine design. The Innocentiores one has the best vault, with lotus and acanthus leaf decoration and a peacock. The Hermes one has a mosaic floor, and deservedly famous frescoes comprising a Gorgon's head in the vault and a beautiful composition featuring a bowl of fruit and birds including a partridge and a parrot.
Attempts to find Christian motifs in the decoration of these mausolea have been discredited.
The highlight of the tour is the so-called Triclia, which was built on a platform formed by filling in the Piazzuola and its mausolea in the middle of the 3rd century. It is part of the Memoria Apostolorum, the original Christian cult centre here. There is evidence that access was initially maintained when the 4th century basilica was built over it, but this was cut off probably in the 9th century.
The Memoria consisted of a trapezoidal courtyard, 23 by 18 metres. This was paved in brick, and had porticoes with piers on its northern and eastern sides. The walls of these covered porticoes were in red plaster. The triclia is the larger portico one is to the east, and is thought to have been the setting for funerary banquets. In the north-west corner of the courtyard was a re-used vaulted room originally associated with the "Large Villa", now mostly destroyed. A niched aedicule with a pair of columns painted to resemble marble was built against this chamber.
The guide will point out the many graffiti on the surviving red plaster surfaces in the triclia, which are in Greek, Latin and Aramaic or Syriac. These make it clear that the complex was the focus of veneration of SS Peter and Paul, and the niched structure is arguably the place where their relics were kept for a time. Figurative fresco decoration is also discernible, but not enough to make out the scenes.
Crypt of St Sebastian Edit
The last chamber visited before the exit, which is into the nave of the basilica just by the Chapel of St Sebastian, is the Crypt of St Sebastian which is a large rectangular underground room. This was restored in the early 17th century, but the relics of the martyr were venerated here in the Middle Ages under the altar. The bust of the saint is attributed to Bernini. The floor is made up of re-used broken marble slabs, with some mosaic strips.
The catacombs are open Monday to Saturday 10:00 to 16:30, and are closed on Sundays and in December.
Entry is by guided tour only, which takes about half an hour and costs eight euros per adult. The tours are in five languages: English, German, French, Spanish and Italian.
"Romeartlover" web-page with 18th century engraving (the author notes the inaccuracy of this.)
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