Rome, S Stefano Rotondo

Era 7AD
Location Via Santo Stefano Rotondo, 7, 00184 Roma RM, Italy

S Stefano Rotundo was one of the largest and most magnificent of all Roman churches. It was built in the fifth century to a rather complicated design.

Pope Theodore, who finished S Venantius, was responsible himself for further work at the fifth-century church of S Stefano Rotundo. This was never a parish church; rather, it was a memorial church, a station church, just round the corner from the Lateran, without its own clergy, reliant on papal and imperial support. It was (and is) also a church designed for large crowds. Like S Maria Maggiore, it stood out in a neighbourhood where other public buildings were falling into ruin. Theodore moved the relics of SS Primus and Felicianus into the church from their catacomb, both to preserve them from the decay outside the city walls and, perhaps more importantly, to bring their intercession into the city. To house them, he had the front wall of the transept arm demolished and replaced by an apse, forming a sort of side chapel to house the relics, and also the body of his father.

The mosaic of the apse has been damaged and restored but the iconography is clear. In the centre of the mosaic is an enormous gem-studded cross with a bust of Christ (unattractively reconditioned) above it. The two martyrs, Primus and Felicianus, stand to the viewers’ left and right respectively, either side of the cross. They wear formal robes with tablia, hold scrolls (these may be repairs) and stand on a green ground sprinkled with flowers, perhaps symbolising paradise. The Hand of God may be descending through a roundel of white stars on a black background, but this is hard to see.

The iconography is a re-arrangement of already-existing themes. The name saints this time stand either side of a jewelled cross, perhaps a little like the way in which S Apollinaris is shown in his church in Classe, though he is positioned below the cross and the overall scene is more complex. A great jewelled cross was also a feature of the mosaic of S Pudenziana and may well have featured in other Roman mosaics. There may well have been something of a personal element for Theodore that can be detected in his choice of imagery. Theodore’s father, buried in the chapel, had been a bishop from Jerusalem and the cross of the mosaic may have evoked the great gemmed cross given by Constantine to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and the large jewelled cross placed by the Byzantine emperor Theodosios II in c420 on the spot where Christ died. There may also have been resonances with the capture of the True Cross by the Persians in 614 and its recapture by the emperor Heraklios in 628. To continue these associations, St Stephen himself had been the first martyr and had met his end in Jerusalem.

Theodore’s patronage is one of the earliest attested relocations of relics from the suburbs into the city itself. Like S Agnese and S Venantius, it seems to indicate an increased awareness of relics and their potential, a concern to make them more accessible, bringing them into the city from threatened areas, be those Dalmatia or Rome’s own suburbs, and so a part of the increasing veneration of the martyrs of the city. It can also be understood in the context of an increase in pilgrim traffic apparent from the mid-seventh century, associated with the loss of the Holy Land to Christians.


That Complicated Architectural Design: The original plan had three concentric rings intersected by the arms of a Greek cross (an equal-armed cross): this plan was perhaps based on that of the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The outer ring and three of the arms were demolished by Pope Nicholas V in 1450, reducing the diameter from 65m to 40m. The one remaining arm of the cross is now the vestibule.

The circular nave has a double ring of columns, 34 on the outside and 22 inside. The wooden floor dates to the 1990s.

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