The Basilica of Santo Stefano Rotondo

I went up the Caelian Hill yesterday with a friend for to visit the round basilica of Santo Stefano Rotondo.  I had not been in the building for some years and it was closed for restorations for quite a while.  It recently reopened after extensive work on the pavement and other restorations. 

The basilica was consecrated in the 5th c. and was once much larger than it is today: there were once three sets of concentric rings, while now there are two.  All around the walls of the basilica are 16th c. paintings of rather gruesome martyrdoms.

Here are a few shots of the place.



And interesting fact I learned from the blogosphere’s "Zadok", whom I met by chance, is that the tomb of the son of King Brian Boru (+1014) of Ireland is in the basilica.  Brian Boru’s March is one of a famous pieces of Irish music everyone should know.

The elegantly carved inscription says that he gave his crown to the Pope.

Another inscription in the basilica indicates that St. Gregory the Great delivered one of his sermons on the Gospel of Matthew here.  I will get to that story soon.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. michigancatholic says:

    Used to be “much larger?” What did they do–move the walls inward? How odd.

    This is one of the churches I’ve always meant to get to when in Rome, but I haven’t made it yet…

  2. Great news that it is open again. Last time I was in Rome, I slogged all the way over there and could only peep through the door to see the works in progress. Thank you for the photos.

  3. Hammerbrecher says:

    Father Z,

    Is the Marini gone??

    I hope so.

  4. CDB says:

    Another church in-the-round…

  5. PMcGrath says:

    No shots of the gruesome martyrdom paintings?

  6. Andrew says:

    I’d like to stand there in that sanctuary and in the silence close my eyes and imagine for a moment that I am present at that occasion when Gregory the Great delivers a sermon, in Latin of course. Could heaven be any closer? Will the day come for the Church when Her sons and daughters will speak her language again? Will some learned cleric deliver a sermon in Latin again, like St. Gregory did? Perhaps! If not – what a loss!

  7. Maureen says:

    Ah, so that’s what happened to Donough/Donnchad.

    Essential World Architecture has some good explanatory info and drawings.

  8. Andrew: I actually preached in Latin once, for a Latin liturgy conference.

  9. Maureen: That was a marvelous link!

  10. Andrew says:

    Fr Z:

    To paraphrase a TV commercial:

    Candles, incense, a cassock, a saturno and a LATIN SERMON:


    For everything else use a credit card.

  11. I was up there last Sunday evening with a group of our postulants and S. Stefano was closed!

  12. AJP says:

    I studied abroad in Rome in 2001 and took a class on the architecture of
    early medieval Rome. My class visited Santo Stefano, but at
    the time it was still under heavy renovation. The floor was all torn up so
    we could only walk around about a third of the church. These new photos are
    just marvelous!


    Actually Santo Stefano was never a true “church in the round.” Nowadays
    the sanctuary is in the middle of the church, but that was not the original
    design. The central “round” part of the church was the nave. Archaeologists
    have found the remains of the original sanctuary area in a side chapel at one end
    of the church. (probably the east end) They also found the remains of a half height wall that bisected
    the round central area. It framed the main processional aisle of the church and
    led to the original sanctuary area. It was not uncommon in early medieval Roman
    churches to wall off the main processional aisle with half height walls. This
    walling technique continued with the schola cantorum area in front of the sanctuary.
    It appears from the photos that there is still a schola cantorum type wall around
    the sanctuary – this is probably very similar to the wall that lined the main
    bisecting aisle.

    So basically Santo Stefano functioned like a Roman basilica – it just had a round
    nave surrounded by round aisles. No one is sure why this shape was chosen, but
    rest assured, Santo Stefano was not a 5th century version of a Vosko church!

    Michigan Catholic,

    Yes, Santo Stefano was much larger. The outer “ring” is no longer extant and hasnn’t
    been for centuries. Originally the outer ring consisted of more side chapels,
    making Santo Stefano’s overall shape look kind of like a Greek cross with a huge
    circle in the middle. In between the side chapels (along the perimeter of the
    circle) were garden porticos. Eventually this part of the church fell into
    disrepair (I’m not sure why). What was left of the chapels and porticos was
    torn down. Places in the next wall that opened either to side chapels or to
    the porticos were walled up, becoming the current external wall of the church.

  13. Fabrizio says:

    Ah, Santo Stefano Rotondo… so dear to every Roman and every Catholic worthy of the name. Like other venerable churches of the Urbs, this one is particularly interesting for the use religious orders would do of the frescoes: they were used to warn novices and seminarians about the fate that might await them as they were sent off as missionaries. I guess back then people used to think that certain places and memories could help priestly formation better than sociology and psychology courses… Another church used for this purpose would be SS. Nereo e Achilleo (two army officers), a church restored by Charlemagne (all bow their heads in gratitude and nostalgia).

    In Santo Stefano Rotondo, we also venerate Primus and Felician, legionaries and martyrs, evangelizers of Bavarian tribes. Primus was forced to swallow molten lead. Felician was nailed to a tree. Not enough to have them compromise on secondary issues like faith, morals and their souls. Brrr…though guys. Semo o nun semo Romani?!?!

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