Rome, S Lorenzo fuori le mura

Era 6AD - 13AD
Location Piazzale del Verano, 3, 00185 Roma RM, Italy

S Lorenzo fuori le mura (outside the walls – it’s out beyond Termini and the city walls) was one of the original fourth-century basilica churches built by Constantine the Great in Rome, and one of the seven great pilgrimage churches of the city. It was smaller than the Lateran, but not by much. Its fourth-century mosaics (I bet it did have them) have gone. It was substantially remodelled in the late sixth century by Pope Pelagius II (579-90), and again in the thirteenth century, in more dramatic fashion. According to Pelagius’ own inscription in S Lorenzo, the church was rebuilt at a time of dearth and tumult in the 570s. But dearth or not, there were still enough resources in Rome to build on a grand scale: S Lorenzo incorporated a great deal of high-quality spolia in the form of columns, capitals, and entablature, as well as new capitals whose marble indicates that they were brought from Constantinople.

Pope Honorius III (1216-27) radically developed what was by this time the Benedictine church of S Lorenzo. He commissioned a new church in front of the old; he demolished the apse of the sixth-century church and built a new church going out west from it, thereby re-orientating the whole building. The new nave was built from spolia of great size and splendour. Although it does not seem that any new mosaics were added, the sixth-century mosaics that had been on the outward west face of the Triumphal arch survived to become the inward east face of the new sanctuary arch, looking towards the altar, apse and crossing - so visible not to the congregation but to the priesthood. Make sure you go round the back of the altar to look. The shrine itself appears to have had a late twelfth-century mosaic revetment, seemingly installed by Honorius before he became pope and then later remodelled again. Outside, the mosaic frieze of the portico, a slightly later addition, commemorates the election of Peter II de Courtenay as the Latin Emperor of Byzantium in 1216: Honorius had consecrated him in Rome. All of this may have been to create bigger space for pilgrims to visit the church.

So, those sixth-century mosaics (they are understood as all original and sixth century but it seems likely that the mosaics were damaged when the church was bombed in 1943). At the crown of the arch, a purple-clad Christ is enthroned on a globe symbolising the cosmos. Peter and Paul flank him: Peter, unusually to Christ’s right. Beyond Peter, St Laurence, the patron saint of the church, brings forward Pelagius, the patron of the church, holding a model of his church. On the other side of Paul are St Stephen the first martyr and St Hippolytus, holding a martyr’s wreath. Below, in the spandrels, are the heavenly cities of Jerusalem (below Peter and Laurence) and Bethlehem (below Paul).

Christ is shown majestically appearing to his chosen saints, the titular saints of the church and the apostles of Rome, whilst the patron of the church itself, though visibly in the presence of Christ, stands modestly aside. With this iconography on the arch at S Lorenzo, we can only wonder about what might have been in the apse: Mary and her child perhaps? The Transfiguration? We can only guess.


Churches like S Lorenzo, and their images, allowed popes to advertise their piety, as well as their godliness, invoking divine assistance, affirming a triumphant Christianity and asserting the position and power of the bishop of Rome As popes took on the roles of protectors and providers for the city, beginning to wield the authority previously held by the emperor’s officials and the senatorial nobility, church building was a way of keeping sections of the population in work, and so fed -and thus relatively happy.

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