Sant'Alfonso de'Liguori all'Esquilino is a 19th century convent and titular church at Via Merulana 26, just south-east of Santa Maria Maggiore in the rione Esquilino. Pictures of the church at Wikimedia Commons are here. There is an English Wikipedia article here.
On this site used to be the Villa Caetani, built in the 17th century for that noble family and replacing an older property called the Villa Caserta. This estate was purchased in 1853 to become the Generalate or headquarters of the Redemptorist order (the Order of the Holy Redeemer).
The church was designed for this complex in 1855–1858 by George Wigley, an English (not Scottish) journalist who had trained as an architect. He was most famous for his involvement in the foundation of the Society of St Vincent de Paul, as he was one of the original members.
The whole scheme paid for by Fr Edward Douglas (1819-98), who was a priest of the order and a convert. The Scottish noble family of Douglas has held the title of Marquess of Queensberry since the 17th century. Fr Edward used his personal fortune to finance the project, and served as the superior of the order subsequently.
This was the last new church built within the walls of Rome before the suppression of the Papal government by Italy in 1870.
St Alphonsus was the original founder of the Redemptorist order. Originally the church was dedicated to Christ the Redeemer, but the dedication was changed to honour him in the 20th century after a major restoration and re-ordering of the church which was completed in 1900. There was another restoration in 1932, when the entrance staircase was provided.
The church was made titular in 1961, with the title of Sanctissimus Redemptor et Sanctus Alphonsus in Exquiliis which recalls the original dedication.
Vincent Nichols, archbishop of Westminster in England, was appointed as titular cardinal at the Consistory of 22 February 2014.
Our Lady of Perpetual SuccourEdit
The icon of Our Lady enshrined over the high altar is one of the best-known in the Catholic church, and copies of it are to be found worldwide. Hence, the church is often unofficially nicknamed after it.
The icon is in the Byzantine style, and belongs to the Cretan School of icon painting. Hence, it was painted by a Greek artist on Crete in the 14th or 15th century, and was brought from that island to Rome at the end of the 15th century. The tradition of its transfer depends on an anonymous document that used to be kept with it, which claimed that the icon had given rise to several miracles while enshrined in its original church in Crete before it was stolen by a Roman merchant who brought it back home. On his death the icon ended up in the church of San Matteo in Merulana, where other miracles were reported.
The church of San Matteo was destroyed during the French occupation under Napoleon, and the icon was transferred to the church of Santa Maria in Posterula when the Augustinian community originally at San Matteo moved there in 1819. However, they gave up the care of the icon to the Redemptorists in 1866 and the latter decided to enshrine it above the high altar of their church in a place of honour.
After this enshrinement the devotion to Our Lady of Perpetual Succour spread throughout the world, and the icon is now the most familiar of the many specific images of Our Lady venerated in the city of Rome. It was crowned by Pope Pius IX in 1867, and given a special feast-day of 27 June. However, in 1990 a thorough restoration of the icon was undertaken in the Vatican icon workshops, which lasted five years. The jewelled crowns were removed, together with overpainting which had obscured the original Byzantine style somewhat.
The specific style of the icon is known as the Hodegetria, and is extremely ancient. Our Lady is gesturing to the Child with her hand, hence the name meaning "showing the way". As is standard in Byzantine icons, the figures of Christ and Our Lady are identified by Greek letters. In addition, an angel holding the Cross and Nails is depicted on the left, who is identified as St Gabriel the Archangel, and another one on the right is holding the Lance and Sponge. This is St Michael.
The proportions between Our Lady and Christ are not right; the artist clearly wanted to emphasize Mary. The instruments of the Passion give the icon a sense of sadness, emphasized by the response of fear that the Child is showing at the sight of them. For a believer, it is possible to feel Our Lady's need for comfort at the thought of the sufferings her Son will have to endure, and at the same time realize that she above all is able to understand the sufferings of those who come to venerate the icon.
Layout and fabricEdit
The plan of the church is that of a narrow arch, being rectangular with a semi-circular far end. Structurally the central nave with aisles has a total of eight bays, followed by a sanctuary also with aisles of three bays and finally an apse with an ambulatory connecting the aisles.
The roof is pitched and tiled, with one run over the nave. The presbyterium has a separate pyramidal roof. The apse is incorporated into the convent buildings, which are attached to the church at the far end of the presbyterium and to its right hand side. Over the latter range of the convent, where it joins onto the presbyterium at its junction with the nave, is a little campanile parallel to the major axis of the church. This has a very steeply pitched gable roof of its own, over open two Gothic arches side by side for the bells.
As can be deduced from the entrance stairs, the church stands over a crypt.
Wigley's lack of experience as an architect shows in his rather clumsy handing of the neo-Gothic style that he used, and the façade is not very impressive. Mariano Armellini, who could be laudatory of the new style when he wrote his book on Roman churches in 1891, did not like this church and dismissed it with heavy humour: L'architettura della chiesa è piuttosto ostrogotica che gotica. This was the second example of a neo-Gothic church in Rome, after Sacro Cuore di Gesù a Villa Lante.
The main façade is in pink brick with architectural details in travertine, as is the rest of the exterior of the church. It is dominated by an enormous pointed arch supported on a pair of gigantic brick pilasters with imposts but no capitals. The section of the façade between this arch and the roof gable is brought forward to the same plane as the arch, and on this is the coat-of-arms of the order. This has the Cross with the lance and the sponge on a stick, instruments of the Passion, and above it is the all-seeing eye of God.
This top part of the façade is actually false, since it is higher than the nave roof behind.
On the gable itself is a stone Celtic cross, restored in 1964, which is a small reminder of the Scottish origins of the money that paid for the church's construction. On the archivolt of the arch is the motto of the order: Copiosa apud eum redemptio ("With him is fulness of redemption").
Within the arch is a large rose window, with twelve Gothic lights surrounding a six-petalled chrysanthemum. This contains stained glass depicting Our Lady of Perpetual Succour, which is by a French Dominican named Marcellino Leforestier (he also executed the stained glass in the aisle windows which depicts martyrs). The window has a circular molded frame in stone, with a brick band within which is quite an attractive detail.
Each of the very narrow aisle frontages has a six-petalled chrysanthemum window in a circular frame, above a single-light Gothic window without tracery.
The entrance loggia is added to the front of the façade, and is entirely in travertine. It was designed by one Fr Gerard, a Redemptorist. There are three entrances, the central one of which is larger and has a prominent gable supported by blind pilasters. On the tip of this gable stands a marble statue of Christ the Redeemer. There is another pair of pilasters at the corners of the loggia, and these have pinnacles with crockets.
Over the main door is a large pointed tympanum which contains a mosaic copy of the icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour in a mandorla supported by angels. Over the side doors are two other tympani containing bas-reliefs of saints in prayer on a gold mosaic background; the left hand one is St Alphonsus, and the one on the right is St Clement Mary Hofbauer. These sculptures are by Antonio della Bitta.
Layout and fabric Edit
Firstly, as mentioned there is a flight of stairs leading to the entrances. Then comes an entrance loggia, attached to the true façade, and after that there is a nave with aisles of eight bays. The first bay of the nave is a narthexor foyer, with walls blocking off the aisles. Then comes the nave proper with three altars in the aisles on each side, one in every other bay. Although the pillars of the arcades are detached from the side walls, the altars intrude into what would be the aisle walkways. This is because the church is narrow, and the aisles especially so.
After the nave comes the aisled sanctuary of three bays, then the semi-circular apse. Exits to the convent are at the end of the right hand aisle, and at the right hand side of the apse.
The interior is richly decorated in fresco, mosaic and polychrome marble, the result of the restoration in 1900. The Redemptorists executed this restoration themselves; both the architect, Gerard Knockaert from Belgium, and the principal artist Maximilian Schmalzl from Bavaria were members of the order. So was the carpenter who built the ornate Gothic confessionals, Gerardo Uriarti.
The narthex is covered by a gallery on which is the organ, and you enter the nave proper through three pointed arches separated by pillars clad in red marble.
The nave arcades have pointed arches supported on square pillars, which are also clad in red marble. Oddly, the springing of the ceiling vault changes for alternate pillars. Every other pillar has a gigantic attached pilaster clad in green marble and continuing up the wall above to the vault springer, while the pillars in between do not. Rather, the vault springs from floating pilasters attached to the wall of the nave above these. The nave cross-vault itself is in blue, with stars.
Above the arcade arches are sets of three Gothic arches separated by pairs of little red marble columns. These open onto a narrow triforium gallery passageway, and opposite each central arch in this passageway is a single-light Gothic window. Eugenio Cisterna executed the portraits of apostles and saints in tondi on the nave walls above the arcades.
The paintwork on the arch intradoses, in the side chapels and on the nave walls is by Schmalzl. The statue of Jesus the Nazarene to the right of the entrance is by the Belgian sculptor Van der Linden, and the Calvary on the left is from the firm of Mayer in Munich.
The prominent painting of The Coronation of Our Lady as Queen of Heaven on the wall above the triumphal arch of the presbyterium is by Eugenio Cisterna again. Christ and his Mother are accompanied by angels, and by saints of the Redemptorist order.
The apse behind the high altar is not part of the structure of the church, but was inserted into the structural apse so that there is an ambulatory or walkway which runs behind it in a semi-circle. This has an arcade of three arches, which are filled with wooden fretwork screens.
The mosaic in the pointed conch of this internal apse is of Christ in Glory with Our Lady and St Joseph, and was executed in the 1964 restoration. It replaced a fresco by Francesco Rehden which had perished. Also in mosaic is the epigraph on the archivolt of the arch, which reads:Redemisti nos Domine in sanguine tuo, fecisti nos Deo nostro regnum ("You have redeemed us, Lord, in your blood; you have made us a kingdom to our God.")
The wall above the apse conch has the coats-of-arms of Pope Paul VI and Cardinal Ritter in mosaic.
The high altar has a frontal in polychrome marble opus sectile work which incorporates the arms of the order, and the candle shelves above the altar stone are decorated with more stonework in Cosmatesque style. The miraculous icon is now enshrined above the altar in a simple gilded Gothic arch.
A second altar has been placed in front of the high altar, so that Mass can be celebrated with the priest facing the people. Unlike in some other churches in Rome, an attempt has been made to match the decoration of this with that of the high altar but it still gets in the way of the view.
Side chapels Edit
The side chapels are, anticlockwise from the bottom right:
All these have altarpiece statues sculpted by Zambusch from Bavaria, except that of the Holy Family which has a bas-relief. The altars are intricately decorated, and the Gothic aedicules have interestingly varying designs.
The church is advertised as open from 6:50 to 19:30 daily.
As a shrine church of Our Lady, the church has a full liturgical timetable despite not being parochial.
Mass is celebrated:
Weekdays 7:00, 9:00, 18:30;
Sundays 7:00, 8:30, 9:30 (in Polish), 11:15, 16:00 (in English), 18:30.