Santi Nereo e Achilleo is a 9th century church, much altered since, at Viale delle Terme di Caracalla 28. This is in the modern rione San Saba, or the historic rione Ripa. Pictures of the church at Wikimedia Commons are here. There is an English Wikipedia page here.
The dedication is to SS Nereus and Achilleus (or Achilles), who are always venerated together.
The patrons are 4th century soldier martyrs, which we know because an epigraph in their honour composed by Pope Damasus survives in transcription. As pagans they entered the service of an evil ruler (unspecified), but converted to Christianity and discarded their military kit. This would have displayed pagan emblems and invocations. As a result, they were martyred and buried in the Catacomb of St Domitilla on the Via Ardeatina. The underground basilica there, now restored and dedicated to St Flavia Domitilla (Basilica of Santa Domitilla), was originally dedicated to them.
When the historical facts concerning them were forgotten, they were co-opted into the very confused and fanciful developed legend concerning the catacomb saint. The revised Roman martyrology describes her as the daughter of a consul called Flavius Clemens whom the emperor Domitian put to death for "impiety" (converting to Christianity or Judaism?) at the end of the 1st century. (See San Clemente for more on him.) She herself was deported to the island of Ponza with some companions, and martyred in obscure circumstances. However, the legend has her martyred at Terracina (this is thought to have involved another martyr called Flavia), together with SS Nereus and Achilleus who were patricians baptized by St Peter. The involvement of the apostle and the two saints is pure fiction.
The church was one of the tituli, the first parish churches of Rome, known as the Titulus Fasciolae, the "Title of the Little Bandage". This is the only titulus not apparently named after a person, and the origin of the name is a real puzzle. Horace uses it with the meaning given, and Cicero mentions purpureae fasciolae which were cloth anklets dyed in Tyrian purple and worn as fashion accessories by very rich women. The name might simply have been attached to the locality, and derived from the name of a noted shop or drinking establishment. Nobody knows.
An alternative theory is that Fasciola was a nickname given to a girl slave, and that when she did well as a freedwoman she donated a property to the Church. A variation on this is that the name was originally Fabiola, a freedwoman of the gens Fabius, but this has no documentary support.
The modern taxonomic use of the term as a genus name for liver flukes is not relevant.
The developed legend of Peter's flight from Rome to escape martyrdom, Domine Quo Vadis?, based on the apocryphal Acta Petri, included an imaginative explanation of the name. According to it, Peter put a bandage on his ankle where a fetter had scraped the skin off, and this allegedly fell off at the site of the church. The surviving reference to this is in the Acts of SS Processus and Martinian.
It is uncertain when the original church was built, but an epitaph in the museum of San Paolo fuori le mura dated 377 says that the the deceased man named Cinnamius Opas had been a lector in the Titulus de fasciolae. The acts of a synod held by Pope Symmachus in 499 also mentions this name, and lists it as being served by three priests.
The church was dedicated to SS Nereus and Achilleus some time before the Roman Synod of 595, when the list mentions it as the Titulus SS. Nerei e Achillei. There is some doubt as to why this was done. One suggestion is that the relics of the saints, together with those of St Domitilla, were brought here from the Catacomb of Domitilla in the mid 6th century, which could have marked the abandonment of the catacomb. However, the catacombs (apart from those at San Sebastiano) were apparently stripped of their relics, abandoned and forgotten in a campaign by the Church in the 8th and 9th centuries, when the countryside around Rome was too dangerous for pilgrims owing to Muslim raiders. A 6th century date seems too early.
The church was rebuilt under Pope Leo III in 814, and the entry in the LIber Pontificalis states that this was owing to decreptitude and continual flooding. The new church was not on the old site, but on higher ground "next to" (iuxta) the old one. The site of the old church is unknown, but could have been on the other side of the road nearer the city. Archaeological investigations in 1877 found an ancient arc-shaped wall below the present apse, which was interpreted as part of the old church. However, this does not square with the written source mentioned.
The relics of the martyrs might have been transferred on this date, as others in the catacombs were at this period. The church had already been dedicated to the two saints for more than 200 years, so it would be only natural to translate their relics here. However, the Liber Pontificalis has no mention of this -which seems surprising if such a transfer was ordered by the pope.
The original rebuilding scheme included a surrounding wall and two tower dwellings, a hint that security was a problem then even inside the ancient city walls.
Most of the church built by Pope Leo survives in the present edifice.
In the Catalogue of Turin, c. 1320, the church is mentioned as having a presbyterial title, but with no priests actually serving it. From other sources, it seems that the church was in a state of disrepair in the 14th century owing to the area having become completely depopulated. In fact, it might have fallen into ruin in the late 13th century because it is recorded that the relics of the martyrs were taken to Sant'Adriano in the Forum then.
However, it was restored as a working church under Pope Sixtus IV (1471-1484), in time for the Jubilee of 1475. This project entailed radical alterations. Firstly, the façade and the first two bays of the nave were demolished, being replaced by the present little piazza. Secondly, the ancient columns of the arcade were removed and replaced with brick ones in a Renaissance style. This would have been a tricky undertaking, involving either shoring up the arcade arches or rebuilding the central nave walls, so either the old columns were splitting or the pope wanted to loot them.
That the nave walls were not rebuilt is indicated from the fact that the present rectangular windows replaced round-headed ones the outlines of which are still visible.
The present church is the result of a restoration by Cardinal Caesar Baronius - a great historian as well as titular priest of this church - in the three years 1596 to 1598. This was for the Jubilee of 1600, and was in parallel with a similar project by the cardinal at San Cesareo. He was under the mistaken impression that this was the original funerary basilica of SS Nereus and Achilleus, the catacombs of Domitilla not having been rediscovered by then.
The work was done carefully in order to preserve as much as possible of the ancient church, and to restore ancient elements that had been lost. Some of the mediaeval furnishings that were added were taken from San Paolo fuori le mura, and others from unknown churches undergoing Baroque restorations. Frescoes were commissioned, especially to replace the lost apse mosaic, but also on the side walls. As a result, we have a church which gives a good impression of what a mediaeval Roman church would have looked like, with the interior walls covered in paintings. No naked brickwork here, of the sort that the mediaevalist restorers of the 20th century imagined mediaeval churches to have had.
After the work was completed, most of the relics of the two saints were brought back and re-enshrined.
Cardinal Baronius asked Pope Clement VIII (1592-1605) to entrust the church to the religious congregation to which he belonged, the Oratorians. They still serve the church, although it has never been conventual. His motivation was to preserve his work intact without being spoiled by subsequent restorers, and in that he succeeded. As a quid pro quo, perhaps, the pope permitted the heads of the two saints to be enshrined in the Chiesa Nuova.
The cardinal also left a wall tablet with an epigraph composed by him describing his work, and asking that his successors preserve it intact.
The church has not justified its existence pastorally at any time in its long history since its rebuilding in the 9th century. In the 18th century, it was completely isolated with the ruins of the Baths of Caracalla on one side, the convent of San Sisto Vecchio on the other and nothing but vineyards in all directions. There was a house for one priest, with a little garden, and one suspects that the Oratorians at the Chiesa Nuova sent priests here who needed a rest or were causing "trouble".
The work done on the church since Baronius has been that of conservation, notably in 1905, in 1941 by Muñoz and also at the start of the 21st century. The triumphal arch mosaic was obviously heavily restored some time in the 19th century.
Apart from the road outside becoming vastly more busy (it was widened in 1914), the ambience is still surprisingly countrified. Perhaps as a result, the church is popular for weddings.
Oddly, the church is a detached portion of the parish of the Chiesa Nuova and does not belong to San Saba which is the local parish.
Layout and fabricEdit
The plan is that of a simple basilica, a nave with aisles, no transept and an external semi-circular apse. The fabric is in brick.
The central nave walls originally had arched windows, and these were replaced (in the 15th century?) by rectangular ones, three on each side. You can still see the blocked outlines of the former.
Round the back, flanking the apse, are two ancillary structures which used to be the 9th century tower houses. The left hand one, now the sacristy, contains more original fabric. The right hand one is the priest's house.
Over the right hand side of the far wall of the central nave is the campanile, added by Baronius presumably to replace a mediaeval Romanesque tower campanile. It is in unrendered pink brick, and is in the form of a kiosk with an arched soundhole on each face. On top is a low second storey with an oval aperture on each face, then an ogee curved lead cupola with a ball finial.
The design of the façade, which is from the 15th century rebuilding, is very simple and amounts to a cliff of one vertical surface showing the cross-section of the nave and aisles behind. It used to have a row of three rectangular windows above the single entrance, but Baronius had two of these blocked and the third provided with a Baroque frame having a broken segmental pediment.
The entrance has a prothyrum or porch of two Doric columns in grey granite, supporting a triangular pediment containing a cross with two palm branches in its tympanum. These symbolize martyrdom. The columns are spolia from a high-status structure, presumably although not provably from the Baths of Caracalla adjacent. The original source was the Mons Claudianus quarry in the Western Desert of Egypt.
The lintel of the entrance has a short dedicatory inscription over the original title, titulus Fasciolae, put there by Baronius.
Baronius also commissioned Girolamo Massei to fresco the entire façade, and faded remnants of his Baroque geometrical patterning survives. Above the window pediment is a tondo containing a portrait of Our Lady holding the Christ-Child in her lap. The sites of the two blocked windows used to have frescoes of two saints (Nereus and Achilleus?), and the blank panel under the window had another fresco of the Madonna and Child. The three latter frescoes are now completely gone.
Standing outside the church is a grey granite column without a capital, matching one ouside the nearby church of San Cesareo which was also erected by Baronius. Here, the ancient capital was derivative Corinthian, including lions' masks, and had on top of it a bronze cross on stylized mountains. The capital was stolen in 1984, and never recovered.
If anyone happening to visit one of the mafiosi villas down the Appian Way notices somthing like this in the garden, please inform the police.
The church has a basilical plan, with a central nave and two side aisles. It differs from most other churches built in Rome on this plan, in that it is quite small. The nave now has six bays, but it used to have eight before being truncated in the 15th century restoration.
The five octagonal arcade columns on each side are almost certainly from the 15th century restoration. They are in brick, originally plastered, and have limestone capitals with little acanthus leaf volutes.
The fresco cycle along the central side walls of the nave, commissioned by Cardinal Baronius, have long been attributed to Niccolò Circignani nicknamed Il Pomarancio. It is now considered that this attribution is uncertain, and the work is best describes as "in the style of". The cycle show scenes from the unhistorical developed legend of SS Nereus, Achilleus and Domitilla. Two other young women, SS Theodora and Euphrosine, feature as converts of St Domitilla but never existed.
The scenes are, from the top right: St Peter Baptizes SS Nereus, Achilleus, Domitilla and Her Mother; Pope St Clement Veils St Domitilla as a Virgin; The Emperor Condemns SS Domitilla, Nereus and Achilleus as Christians; from the top left hand side: Domitilla, Theodora and Euphrosine are Imprisoned while SS Nereus and Achilleus are Martyred; Theodora and Euphrosine are Baptized; SS Domitilla, Theodora and Euphrosine are Martyred, and Buried by St Caesarius.
The six saints appear in glory in a panel on the counterfaçade. Above them, SS Peter and Paul flank the window and below them Popes Clement and Gregory flank the door.
In between the arcade arches are lively looking angels.
The floor is an uncommon 16th century survival, being of terracotta with some marble slabs. The superb pietra dura memorial slab in front of the altar is of Cardinal Baccio Aldobrandini, 1665, and features a gymnastic skeleton.
The roof is open with no ceiling, and the church has never had one.
The pulpit on the left hand side, of polychrome marble panels, was inaugurated in 1597. It stands on two stacked ancient statue bases most probably from the baths, one being of African marble and the other of Imperial porphyry. It is thought that the pulpit itself came from San Paolo fuori le Mura.
Triumphal arch mosaicEdit
The apse conch, and perhaps the wall beneath, would have had mosaic work dating from the 9th century rebuilding. However, this had fallen off well before Baronius's restoration. What survives is the triumphal arch mosaic, which had to be heavily restored in the 19th century.
The main scene depicts the Transfiguration, with Christ in a mandorla being venerated by Moses and Elijah. The three apostles Peter, James and John have fallen in fear to the ground, which is depicted as a flowery meadow.
The two side scenes are separate depictions. On the left is The Annunciation, where Our Lady is shown spinning yarn. The old tradition was the thread would be used in weaving the veil of the Temple which was to tear in two when her son was crucified. On the right is an unusual scene, where an angel is delivering a message to Our Lady holding the Christ Child on her lap (the fresco at the top of the outside façade echoes this).
Above the mosaic is a fresco of God the Father, with the epigraph Hic est filius meus dilectus, in quo mihi bene complacui. This replaced lost mosaic.
The paschal candlestick on the right hand side is an enormous, intricately carved marble baluster which is thought to be 2nd century and to have been converted to a candlestick in the 15th century. It stands on a square pedestal with an inscription reading Salvator eius ut lampas accendatur, Isa LXII. This comes from the first verse of Chapter 62 of the book of the prophet Isaiah: "[Until] her [Jerusalem's] saviour is lit like a lamp".
This item is also said to come from San Paolo fuori le Mura, but could not have been a paschal candlestick there because that basilica has a famous one and no church has two.
A pair of screens incorporating lecterns or ambos flanks the high altar, and bound the raised floor area. The fronts bear superb Cosmatesque work around panels of porphyry and green serpentine, and the sanctuary entrance is bounded by a pair of small twisted Cosmatesque columns. Each screen had a twisted candlestick at each end to match, four in all, but recently these have been removed for restoration.
It is thought that this pair of ambo-screens was salvaged from San Silvestro in Capite.
Because there is no transept, the sanctuary occupies the last bay of the structural nave.
Apart from their heads, the relics of SS Nereus and Achilleus are enshrined beneath the high altar, together with those of St Domitilla. Their remains were originally brought here from the Catacombi di Domitilla, where they had been placed in the underground basilica. The floor in the sanctuary was raised by Baronius, to create a proper confessio for the relics beneath the high altar. The aperture for this is immediately below the altar frontal, and is protected by pierced marble screen in a fish-scale pattern.
The altar frontal itself is intricate Cosmatesque work again, the design focusing on a central cross.
The baldacchino is from the 16th century restoration, and has Ionic columns of African marble supporting a pedimented cupola which looks much more recent than it is and is in white marble with gilded highlights. There are angels in the cupola pendentives, and on top four swagged urn finials. The whole thing could be 18th century neo-Classical instead of two centuries earlier.
Behind the high altar are two ancient pagan sacrificial altars taken from some nearby temple. They are decorated with winged spirits, which could of course easily have been redefined as angels when they were moved here. Traces of the ancient paintwork survives on them.
The conch of the apse has a fresco of the saints featuring in the Domitilla legend: Nereus, Achilleus, Simplicius, Servilianus, Caesarius, Domitilla, Theodora, Euphrosina, Felicola and Plautilla. They are venerating the True Cross in its jewelled reliquary case.
The top of the apse wall has a cornice which is ancient carved work featuring masks of pagan deities.
The apse wall shows Pope Gregory the Great chairing a church council. He is delivering his twenty-eighth homily, which he gave in the basilica at the Catacombs of Domitilla. The theme of the homily is that a church should only be dedicated to a particular saint in a place with a connection with said saint. In it the pope states that he preached before the shrine of SS Nereus and Achilleus, so Baronius thought that it was given here. When the underground basilica at the catacombs was discovered in 1874, it was only then realised that it St Gregory had preached there and not at the church to which the relics were translated at a later time.
The throne at the back of the apse is one of the most attractive of several examples surviving in Roman churches, but is actually a palimpsest assembled by Baronius.
It is in the Gothic style, with its back having two nested Gothic arches within a triangular gable with crockets. This triangle is supported by a pair of ancient spirally fluted columns without capitals. The armrests are placed on a pair of marble lions, looking rather bored; it is thought that these once adorned the entrance to the church. See San Marco or San Lorenzo in Lucina for examples in situ.
Baronius had an inscription about Gregory's homily cut into the back of the throne during his restoration.
The aisle walls have frescoes by the same artists or school responsible for the central nave ones. They depict the martyrdom of the apostles, in rather gruesome detail, and recall the more extensive fresco cycle at San Stefano Rotondo al Celio.
The right hand aisle shows the martyrdoms of SS Matthew, Thomas, James the Less, Simon, Jude, Matthias and Paul. Simon is being shown sawn in half lengthways, but the fresco artist got the technique wrong. This torture technique has the victim hung upside down and the sawing begun at the crotch, not at the head.
The left hand aisle shows those of SS Bartholomew, Philip, John, James the Great, Andrew and Peter. At the end of the aisle is a fresco of St Philip Neri, the founder of the Oratorians.
Each aisle contains only one side altar. These have matching frontals richly decorated, with small central portraits. The left hand one shows SS Nereus and Achilleus, the right hand one St Domitilla. The work is thought to have been commissioned by Federico Cesi and Pulcheria Orsini his wife in 1644, and their heraldry features.
The right hand altar is dedicated to Our Lady of Vallicella, a title under which she is venerated at the Chiesa Nuova, and the altarpiece showing the Madonna and Child being adored by angels and putti is by Durante Alberti.
The left hand altar is dedicated to St Domitilla. The impressive altarpiece is by Cristoforo Roncalli, nicknamed Il Pomarancio (not the same as the one putatively responsible for the nave frescoes). It was painted in 1599. The saint is shown accompanied by Nereus and Achilleus, the three being crowned with roses by putti. The artist was obviously inspired by the famous work on the same subject at the Chiesa Nuova by Rubens.
Two interesting points about this painting: The artist thought about the angle of view, and put the viewpoint at the level of the saint's bare feet as she stands on steps. That is why her feet are foreshortened. Also, in the Baroque style he painted his model very realistically -to the extent that her slightly swollen abdomen suggests that she had intestinal worms.
Access and liturgyEdit
Opening times have been advertised as:
10:00 to 12:00, 16:00 to 18:00, except Tuesdays (and, apparently, Wednesdays) and in August. However in recent years it has been found closed in winter, too, from November to Easter.
For some reason the Oratorians are shy of advertising Mass times here.
If you visit at the weekend, you are liable to find a wedding going on.
The patronal feast of the church is on 12 May.