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Santa Passera is a 13th century church incorporating older fabric at Via di Santa Passera 1, just off the Via della Magliana in the Portuense district and near the river Tiber. Pictures of the church at Wikimedia Commons are here. There is an English Wikipedia page here.
The dedication is famously to a saint who never existed. Nowadays, a dedication to SS Cyrus and John is assumed.
The present church has three storeys. The mediaeval building is on a lower church or crypt dating from the Dark Ages, which itself is over a hypogaeum of the 3rd century.
According to the Roman tradition, this was the place where some relics of SS Cyrus and John were delivered by boat after being transferred from Alexandria in Egypt. These two were Egyptian martyrs of the early 4th century, according to their story a physician and a soldier. Their shrine had been established at the Alexandrian suburb of Canopus, formerly an important pagan sanctuary which was converted to a monastery after the triumph of Christianity in the Roman Empire.
The dedication to Passera is to a non-existent saint, and it is surmised that the word is a corruption of Abba Cyrus (Abba was a Coptic word referring to a monastic elder or holy man, and was the remote ancestor of “abbot”) via the form ba-sir.
The developed Roman legend appears in written form about 1200. According to it, two monks called Grimwald and Arnulf took the relics away in 407 to save them from a threatened "Saracen" invasion. Firstly they arrived at Trastevere, and lodged in the house of a rich widow called Theodora. Warned in a dream, they then went down the Via Portuensis and founded a little oratory on the present site where the relics were enshrined.
The story is anachronistic (Germanic names, Saracens before Muhammed was born), and the plotline fits a 7th century milieu better. It also looks as if two legends were conflated, one involving a Trastevere location and the other, the site of this church.
The site of the church is actually on the ancient Via Campana (the present Via della Magliana), which was a loop of the Via Portuensis that followed the river.
The lowest level of the present edifice is a hypogaeum of the 3rd century, which must have had a superstructure. The second or crypt level contains re-used ancient building material, which might have come from this. There is a travertine limestone column drum, and a panel in Cipollino marble which must have belonged to a high-status building. The alternatives for what the original building here was, are either a very expensive tomb or a small temple.
See Sant'Urbano alla Caffarella for a clearer example of a temple with a hypogaeum being converted into a church.
The problem is the dating of the second stratum, the present crypt or "lower church".
A foundation date is often quoted as 5th century, but this seems too early. The witness given by the surviving fabric is not conclusive, but the evidence of the surviving fresco fragments gives the 8th century as the latest possible date. If the legend of the transfer of relics has some basis in reality, then this would most likely have happened in the 7th century with the Muslim conquest of Egypt. The re-use of the hypogaeum is evidence of a saint's shrine here by the 8th century.
There is an alleged reference to the church in the Life of Pope St Gregory the Great by John the Deacon, but this work dates from the 9th century.
The relics were brought into the city in the 9th century, when the city authorities had lost control of the countryside and the Tiber was liable to be used by marauding pirates. (This was why the original dedication of the church was then forgotten.) In the 17th century, the relics were sent to Naples and are now in the church of Gesù Nuovo there.
The old church was probably abandoned in the 9th century, but cannot have fallen into complete ruin because of the surviving frescoes.
It was turned into a crypt in the early 14th century, when the present church was built over it. The latter was smaller in floor area, and the space left over was utilized for a priest's house. Apparently, the motivation for this rebuilding was because a hamlet of tufa quarry workers had been established in the vicinity.
The hypogaeum was re-discovered in 1904, after apparently having been sealed off at the start of the 18th century.
The church is now dependent on the nearby parish church of Santo Volto di Gesù.
There has been a recent restoration, (2009) which took care not to disturb the tatty appearance of the exterior. However, the two cypresses that used to be growing on the terrace have been removed because their roots were causing damage.
Layout and fabricEdit
The little church is raised over the larger crypt, and has its priest's house attached to the left hand side. The approach is via a double transverse set of stairs leading to a patio, and in the wall supporting the stairways is the separate entrance door for the crypt. The marble lintel over the door has an inscription transcribed as:
Corpora Sancti Cyri renitent hic atque Joannis, quae quondam Romae dedit Alexandria Magna. The church itself is a simple rectangular edifice with a semi-circular apse, with much Roman brick used in its construction. This is especially obvious for the apse, which has lost its rendering. Here you can see a blocked double-arched window, with a small stone Corinthian column under an impost.
The main external walls show evidence of patching, and the rendering is missing in places especially on the façade.
There is a simple modern campanile or bellcote, gabled in brick with two bell-arches side by side. It is over the left hand side wall of the church.
The house has an interesting chimney, with a gabled tiled top incorporating a little triangular pediment.
If you look at the left hand side wall of the church peeping above the single-pitched roof of the priest's house, you can see the brick archivolts of a row of arches. These look as if they might have been for windows, in which case the house was a later addition.
The façade itself has a wide double door with a rustic floating tiled canopy, which slopes, and a round-headed window above. This contains interesting geometic stone tracery, featuring a cross and sunburst.
There is a pair of small blocked rectangular windows flanking the porch roof, and a single small round –headed window to the right of the doors. The rectangular pair have remnants of ancient stone carved frames, presumably from the 3rd century building that once stood here.
8th century fabricEdit
The left hand side wall, supporting the priest's house, has old fabric in its lower courses. This is the side wall of the first church, which interestingly has an angle in it. There are three blocked arches here, all in brick with no imposts.
The material is re-used ancient brick, with irregular travertine fragments and also courses laid in travertine blocks. This is the ancient building technique of opus vittatum, which indicates that the first church was a high-status building and not just a rural oratory.
The simple interior has an original mediaeval wooden truss roof without a ceiling. The church was provided with a set of original 14th century frescoes, and much survives although in poor condition.
Above the apse is the Lamb of God with the symbols of the four Evangelists, hard to make out. On the sides of the arch are depictions of SS Cyrus and John, with below them SS Praxedis and Pudentiana, which have been well restored recently.
The conch of the apse has a decayed fresco of Christ flanked by (left to right) SS John the Baptist, Paul, Peter and John the Evangelist.
The apse wall fresco is better preserved. From left to right, it shows: St Anthony of Padua with a Franciscan nun client, an unidentifiable saint (James the Great?) with a layman client, St Michael conquering a dragon, the Madonna and Child and Christ flanked by SS Cyrus and John.
The left hand side wall has two registers featuring figures of Eastern saints and doctors in Byzantine style. The lower one has, from left to right, SS John Chrysostom, Epiphanius of Salamis, Basil the Great, Gregory Nazianzen and Nicholas of Myra.
The crypt or lower church has its separate entrance below the terrace. It is a rectangular space, with a smaller annexe containing the stairs down to the hypogaeum.
The 8th century frescoes here have perished, although figures of three bishops should still be visible.
Down the stairs from the crypt is what looks like an ancient Roman tomb, thought to date from the 3rd century.
Fragments of original fresco work survive, although deteriorating. On the far wall is an allegorical figure interpreted as Justice (she is holding scales), and also an athlete (boxer?) and a flying bird. The ceiling was done in blue, with eight-pointed stars. The wall by the stairs has a depiction of a sheep. All these are original, 3rd century.
Lost frescoes are a Madonna and Child with SS Cyrus and John, stolen in 1968, which was to the right, and SS Cyrus and Praxedis to the left.
The church used to be advertised as open on weekdays, 9:00 to 13:00. However, online chatroom comments indicate that this has not been the case for some time, and it is perhaps safer to plan your visit at about half an hour before the start of Mass on Sunday.
Apparently the lower church and hypogaeum are only visited by guided tours.
The church is closed in July, August and September.
The easiest way to get there from the Centro Storico is to take the number 8 tram from Piazza Venezia to Trastevere train station, then bus 780 or 780. You need the Vicolo di Santa Passera stop. The church is on this narrow street, which runs between Via della Magliana and Via di Santa Passera.
Mass is celebrated on Sundays at 10:30, except in summer when the church is closed.