Postcard from Rome, Italy: Rome’s first church and papal palace

With rumors spreading that the great fire that burned for six days in Rome in the year 64 was ignited to clear away existing structures for construction of his grand palace on the Palatine Hill, Emperor Nero (37-68) found a scapegoat. Christians must have started the fire. So Christians were hunted down and persecuted, with the gruesome brutality one might expect from an emperor who deemed even the lives of his mother and a wife or two disposable.

For the sake of explaining the featured photo of the top of the ciborium erected over the papal altar in the Archbasilica of San Giovanni in Laterano, we will mention only two of the emperor’s victims. Under the orders of the emperor, Saint Peter (30-64 or so) was crucified upside down, the position the martyr requested to demonstrate his humble position in relation to Jesus. Most of the remains of Saint Peter are believed to rest under the Basilica bearing his name. As a Roman citizen, Saint Paul the Apostle (5-64 or so) was afforded a “more humane” death sentence, beheading. Legend has it that his head bounced high three times after its separation from his body, with fountains of water spraying up for the ground at each bounce. His body was buried outside the walls, under what is named, appropriately, the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls. The head might have been retrieved later from amongst a pit of severed heads.

According to tradition, the golden reliquaries encasing the heads of Saints Peter and Paul peer out from that deep-blue golden cage at the top of the ciborium. There is no question that two skulls reside there side by side on high, but some wonder whether they are the actual ones that once rested on the shoulders of Peter and Paul. But that is just being nitpicky. The importance of these relics to the church is illustrated by the fact that only the Pope is permitted to say mass from this altar.

This Gothic-style feature was not added inside Saint John Lateran until the 14th century, the origins of the archbasilica, dedicated to both Saint John the Baptist (BC-28 or so) and Saint John the Evangelist (15-100), are much earlier. Much of the site belonged at one time to the Lateranus family, but a family member was accused of conspiracy by Nero, who used that as an excuse to confiscate the property. Later, Emperor Constantine I (272-337) donated it to the Bishop of Rome, the Pope. In 318, the site became the home of the first church built in Rome and the papal home under Pope Silvester I (?-335).

While the Baptistry dates from the early years, an earthquake in 896 destroyed much of the church. Strangely, this destruction coincided with the one-year reign of Pope Stephen VI. The pope was not fond of his predecessor, Pope Formosus (816-896). Not content to leave final judgment in the hands of Saint Peter at the gates of heaven, Pope Stephen VI had the body of Pope Formosus exhumed and propped up in the Lateran Palace. The corpse was put on trial on numerous charges of prior papal intrigue. Unable to mount much of a defense, Pope Formosus was deemed guilty. His papal robes were removed and replaced with those of a common man, and, before he was reburied, his three “blessing fingers” were chopped off and thrown into the Tiber.

The church was rebuilt after the earthquake, but a series of fires resulted in it having to be resurrected from ashes several times in the 1300s. The fires spared the 13th-century cloisters.

When the papacy returned from Avignon in 1377, the church again was restored but the papal residence was moved to Santa Maria in Trastevere. Pope Sixtus V (1521-1590) hired architect Domenico Fontana (1543-1607) for work on the church, and Pope Innocent X (1574-1655) hired Francesco Borromini (1599-1667) for more interior remodeling. Pope Clement XII (1652-1740) then commissioned Allessandro Galilei (1691-1737) to add the unusual façade fronting an enormous plaza anchored by a 455-ton obelisk.

The ancient obelisk, commissioned by Pharaoh Thutmose III (1481-1425 B.C.) for Thebes, attracted the interest of Emperor Constantine I. He ordered it shipped to Constantinople, but it was waylaid in Rome and erected in the Circus Maximus in 357 instead. Toppled and buried at some point, it was rediscovered, excavated and moved to the plaza by Sixtus V in 1588.

Postcard from Rome, Italy: Glittering mosaics crown basilica full of saintly remains

Pope Paschal I (?-824) was partial to preserving saintly remains; you were introduced to him earlier as the pope who found Santa Cecilia’s remains and moved them to Trastevere. A round slab in the Basilica of Santa Pressede purportedly covers a well where he deposited the remains of 2,000 early Christian martyrs.

Among the relics housed in the church are those of sisters, Saints Pressede and Pudenziana, known for sheltering and caring for persecuted Christians. The sponge Pressede used to cleanse the wounds of bleeding martyrs is believed entombed there as well.

Pope Paschal I openly welcomed monks exiled from Byzantium because of their opposition to practices endorsed by church leaders in Constantinople. He also extended invitations to dissatisfied Byzantine mosaic artists. The results of their refuge in Rome are most clearly visible in the apse and chapels of Santa Pressede.

A later addition to the church is housed In one of the basilica’s most ornate chapels – a portion of a black granite column reputed to be that to which Jesus was bound as he was flogged by Roman soldiers.

Postcard from Rome, Italy: A literal definition of a marriage made in heaven

But bright Cecilia raised the wonder higher:
When to her organ vocal breath was given,
An angel heard, and straight appeared
Mistaking Earth for heaven.

“A Song for Saint Cecilia’s Day,” John Dryden, 1687

Music the fiercest grief can charm,
And fate’s severest rage disarm:
Music can soften pain to ease,
And make despair and madness please:
Our joys below it can improve,
And antedate the bliss above.
This the divine Cecilia found….

“Ode on Saint Cecilia’s Day,” Alexander Pope, 1708

Some time in the first or second century, the daughter of a wealthy family in Rome was betrothed to a young pagan. A Christian, Cecilia was dragging her feet about entering into the arranged marriage, fasting and pleading with God and the Virgin Mary to help her preserve her virginity. Definitely not the vow a prospective groom envisions.

As the musicians played at the feast celebrating the wedding, Cecilia stared upward, focused on serenading the heavens with the song in her heart. Valerian, the groom, was miraculously understanding when she explained her wedding night plans to him did not include consummation of their marriage.

Cecilia claimed she had an angel protecting her. A little suspicious, he asked for proof. She directed him to the third milestone on the Appian Way and to be baptized by Pope Urban I (died in 230). Valerian complied and, upon his return, saw her guardian angel with her, crowning her head with roses and lilies. In addition to his religious conversion, he accepted her vow of chastity.

Valerian’s enthusiasm was so great, his brother followed suit. Christianity was far from the official religion in Rome at the time, so Valerian and his brother busied themselves gathering the bodies of executed Christians and providing them with burials. This chore kept them quite occupied until their dedication attracted too much attention, and they themselves became martyrs.

Cecilia then threw herself more fervently into spreading the word, converting more than 400 pagans to the still somewhat new religion. Until…

… you know where this is leading, she attracted attention of those in power. But Cecilia’s angel did not let her succumb quickly to the efforts to dispose of her. First condemned to death by “spa,” she was locked in the baths with the heat and steam stoked up unbearably high. She emerged unfazed, so a more direct approach was taken.

Chop off her head. The executioner swung his axe three times. Despite profuse bleeding, her head remained in a semi-attached state. This afforded Cecilia time to make arrangements to distribute any remaining wealth to the poor and to donate her home in Trastevere for a church. Pope Urban I complied.

In the 800s, Pope Paschal I rebuilt the church. Desiring to locate Saint Cecilia’s remains and transfer them to her church, the pope searched the catacombs. After a vision, he finally located them and those of her husband and brother-in-law. Saint Cecilia’s original robes, blood-soaked, were at her feet; she was clothed in gold. All three bodies were moved to the church.

While the mosaic in the apse from that period survives, much remodeling followed. Fast forward to the 1500s, Cardinal Niccolo Sfrondrato (1535-1591), later becoming Pope Gregory XIV, was trying to confirm the location of the remains of Santa Cecilia.

Workers uncovered a marble coffin and opened it in front of the cardinal and, even more conveniently, sculptor Stefano Maderno (1576-1636). And there she was. Santa Cecilia incorrupta. The first Catholic saint recorded as emerging in this totally preserved state, further demonstrated by the fact that she had rolled over to a more comfortable position on her side.

Word spread like wildfire in Rome, and the cardinal was fortunate to escape being crushed by the crowds eager to view their patron saint of music, still cloaked in golden cloth. Maderno recorded this miracle by sculpting a realistic depiction of her body for the altar. But her actual body was reinterred elsewhere in the church.

The Mister is wise. A sign on the left side of the church offered entrance to the basement for a couple of euros, and he said, “Never turn down an invitation to visit the crypt.” And he proved so right.

Down underneath the church are ancient crypts and the remains of an old tannery, but then you stumble into a magical space. Arcades and walls covered with glittering mosaics heralding Saint Cecilia’s final resting place.

The Mister’s fingers seem to be gliding across his travel guitar’s strings more effortlessly ever since.