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San Sebastiano fuori le Mura

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San Sebastiano fuori le Mura
San Sebastiano fuori le mura exterior
English name: St Sebastian's outside the Walls
Dedication: Sebastian
Denomination: Roman Catholic
Titular church Cardinal Martínez Sistach
Built: 4th century, reconstructed later
Contact data
Address: 136 Via Appia Antica
00179 Rome
Phone: 06 78 87 035
41° 51.353' N 12° 30.946' E

San Sebastiano fuori le Mura is an ancient basilica dedicated to St Sebastian, a 3rd century Roman martyr, and is at Via Appia Antica 136. It is one of the seven traditional pilgrimage churches of Rome. Pictures of the church at Wikimimedia Commons.[1]


The church is built at the site of one of the catacombs, 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 hollow' (referring to a stone quarry). The name was eventually used for all the catacombs. The name San Sebastiano ad Catacumbas is still used at times.

The first church here was a great basilica built in the early 4th century over several pagan tombs and parts of a Roman villa. It may have been constructed during the reign of Constantine, and it had the same plan as those of San Lorenzo fuori le Mura and Sant'Agnese fuori le Mura. That is, it had a semi-circular far end which is a layout technically called circiform.

Initially it was called Basilica Apostolorum, the Basilica of the Apostles, and was dedicated to SS Peter and Paul. This was because there was a tradition that the relics of these two apostles had been transferred here for safe-keeping during a persecution in the reign of the emperor Valerian, 238. Surviving graffiti in the catacombs bear out this tradition.

In the 9th century it was rededicated to St Sebastian, who had been buried here after his martyrdom in 288. (By unreliable tradition he had been tied to a tree or columns and used for archery practice, and this is how he is invariably represented in art.) The change of dedication seems to have happened after the church was sacked in a Muslim pirate raid in 826.

Unlike most of the other catacombs, those here were never lost to view and were visited continuously through the Middle Ages. It is on record that the aisles of the original basilica had been walled up to create the groundplan of the present church in the 13th century, and a portico was added in the 15th century.

The last major rebuilding was started by Flaminio Ponzio in 1608, on the orders of Scipione Cardinal Cafarelli-Borghese who had found the church in a ruinous state. Ponzio died in 1613, and work was continued by Giovanni Vasanzio, who provided the ceiling. The church had been in such a poor condition that its status as a pilgramage basilica had been transferred to Santa Maria del Popolo shortly before the rebuilding, but the dignity was restored after the work had been finished.

The earliest records mentioning the administration of the church, which date from the 12th century, ascribe it to the canons of the Lateran. These were replaced by Cistercian monks at the end of the 13th century, who continued to administer the site when a parish was established in 1714. However, the monks were replaced by Fransiscans, Friars Minor, in 1826.

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 current titular of the church is H.E. Cardinal Lluís Martínez Sistach.

Layout of original basilicaEdit

This is one of six paleochristian 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, which means "in the form of a circus" (an ancient Roman one, that is). 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 presbyterium, 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, perhaps of St Sebastian.

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 raises a doubt as to whether the structure was originally fully roofed so as to form a church. Only the aisles and presbyterium may 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 circiform basilicas.

The basilica was surrounded by chapels and mausolea of various sizes, some rebuilt in differing forms. The left hand exterior wall had a short stretch where the façade should have been, 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. 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 south of the basilica which contained a complicated set of walls focusing on two free-standing edifices. One of this 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 edifices. Proceeding eastwards, the first was round with three apses; two semi-circular lateral ones, and a square main one. Against this edifice 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 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 replaced a row of three smaller ones. On the left hand side of the ambulatory, where the outside wall of the basilica starts to curve, was another exit which led into a small court. To the west of this was a pair of small apsidal edifices attached to the basilica wall, 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.

Exterior of the present churchEdit

The present edifice follows the plan of the original basilica, except that the nave has been narrowed and has side-chapels instead of aisles. The presbyterium is domed, and has an ambulatory (that is, a passage that runs all the way round its semi-circular end). The dome is a very shallow octagonal saucer on a low drum, with a tall lantern having a little lead cupola. The pitched and tiled roof over the entrance bay is slightly higher than the main roof, which runs in one line to the dome and around it. There is a campanile at the start of the ambulatory at the left hand side, a brick tower with single arched soundholes and a pyramidal tiled cap. The convent buildings abut the nave on this side. On the right side of the presbyterium is the Albani chapel dome, of the same design and height as the main dome but slightly smaller.

The façade is from the 18th century, and it's a rebuilding rather than a reconstruction of the original façade. The six columns of the original 15th century 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. 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 pairs of ancient granite Ionic columns. The inner two are grey, and these may 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 the pair at the ends of the arcade. Above the arches is a marble frieze with an inscription commemorating the Borghese rebuilding. The second storey has three identically sized rectangular windows with raised segmental pediments. The central 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 occur elsewhere in the church. There is a dentillate cornice, and a triangular pediment containing another coat-of-arms.

At the back of the church, reached by following the Via delle Sette Chiese just to the north, you can see how the present church follows the plan of the ancient basilica at its semi-circular far end. Also you can ask the friars to admit you to the ambulatory passage, where fabric of the old basilica can be seen. This semi-circular passageway has been converted into a little archaeological museum which seems to be usually closed to the public, but there is no harm in asking.

The name of the Via delle Sette Chiese 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 Paolo fuori le Mura in doing the tour between the seven. It is not recommended that you try to walk this road to imitate them nowadays; it is very busy, and the experience will be horrible at best and perhaps dangerous.

The catacombs are entered to the right of the church's piazza. There is much of interest, and regular tours take place in the major languages. There is a also a small souvenir shop here, and bits of ancient carved stonework to look at while you wait for your tour to start.


San Sebastiano fuori le mura interior
San Sebastiano fuori le mura tomb

On first entering the basilica, those expecting a mighty church like the patriarchal basilicas will be disappointed. The nave has no aisles, but instead arched recesses containing side chapels. It glory is the flat carved wooden ceiling provided by Vasanzio in the 17th century restoration. It is intricately carved, painted and gilded, and especially noteworthy are the Borghese arms (again) and the superb carved depiction of the martyrdom of St Sebastian by Anibale Durante.

Immediately to the left of the entrance, there is an inscription extolling the martyr St Eutychius, composed by Pope Damasus and executed by the famous 4th century calligrapher Furius Dionysius Philocalus. Then there is the chapel above the tomb of St Sebastian, which was prescribed by Cardinal Scipione Caffarelli-Borghese in the 17th century rebuilding. It was finally executed by Ciro Ferri in 1672. At the shrine of St Sebastian is a statue of the dying saint by Antonio Giorgetti, one of Bernini's pupils. It may have been made after a drawing by Bernini himself, and is unusual in showing the saint recumbent, in white marble with gilt bronze arrows.

Next on the left is the Chapel of the Crucifix, formerly the sacristy, built in 1727. Then come two side altars, to St Charles Borromeo and St Francis of Assisi . The latter has an altarpiece by Girolamo Muziano.

On the right side of the nave, there is the Chapel of Relics, decorated in 1625 with the original stone bearing the footprint of Christ from Domine Quo Vadis . Also here is an arrow said to be one of those that killed St Sebastian, as well as the column he was tied to when he was killed.

The sarcophagus of Pope St Fabian (236-250) on show further on was discovered in 1915. Then there are two more side altars, dedicated to St Frances of Rome and St Jerome. Finally, there is the large domed side chapel dedicated to St Fabian by Pope Clement XI, nicknamed the Albani Chapel after his family. It was designed by Carlo Fontana in 1706. The dome is decorated with intricate stucco work, and over the polychrome marble altar is a statue of St Fabian by Francesco Papaleo.

The nave ends with a triumphal arch leading through to the domed presbyterium. The high altar, set in an arched niche rather than an apse, is by Flaminio Ponzio with an altarpiece depicting the Crucifixion by Innocenzo Sacconi. The two flanking bust of SS Peter and Paul are by Nicolas Cordier, nicknamed Il Franciosino.

As mentioned above, you can ask the friars to let you in through a back entrance. This will take you into the ambulatory, which is very well preserved. There are ancient inscriptions and fragments of sculpture there, as well as a model of the ancient basilica. A well in there is of uncertain origins, but it was probably the shrine of St Quirinus, a 5th century bishop and martyr.

Special notesEdit

As with the rest of the Archeological Park of Appia Antica, the way to get here is by the 118 bus from Piramide or Circo Massimo metro stations. The Via Appia Antica is open to motor traffic here, but it is narrow and unsafe 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 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 Callisto car park.) Beware of the ATAC online route map, it doesn't show this (although their general bus service map does).

Saints 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.

In recent times St Sebastian has been adopted as a symbol by gay men, and this because of his traditional iconography. This aspect actually has a long history, although speculations of secret societies dedicated to him for that purpose need to be properly documented. More specifically, Cardinal Scipione Borghese caused scandal in his lifetime because of his gay sexual proclivity, and malicious Roman gossip in the early 17th century alleged this to account at least partly for his interest in the church.

External linksEdit

Official diocesan web-page

Italian Wikipedia page

Sebastiano "Romeartlover" web-page with 18th century engraving (the author notes the inaccuracy of this.)

Info.roma web-page

Roma SPQR web-page (click for gallery)

The Seven Churches
San Pietro in Vaticano | San Paolo fuori le Mura | San Giovanni in Laterano | Santa Maria Maggiore | Santa Croce in Gerusalemme | San Lorenzo fuori le Mura | San Sebastiano fuori le Mura

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