As those who regularly read, “Our Monk in Rome,” already know, I have visited many churches in the Eternal City over the past two years. Have I been in hundreds of churches? Maybe not, but probably I have been to dozens. The city of Rome has some nine hundred Catholic churches, so the possibilities are nearly endless! Who could imagine so many churches, but they are everywhere here. On walks to the Vatican, about twenty minutes away by foot from where I live, I pass no fewer than ten churches. Or is it twelve? In any case, they are all open at one time or another in the course of the day and the week.
There are also many churches here that are now closed or put to other uses, sad to say, though an understandable situation, with the underlying question: who can possibly maintain and keep open nine hundred churches? One of the now closed churches near where I live was dedicated to Saint Rita of Cascia, but is now deconsecrated, meaning it is no longer a sacred edifice, and currently is used as an art gallery, still with the name, “Santa Rita.” I presume it was a State-owned building and the Italian government chose to sell it or lease it to those who run the gallery.
When the doors of “Santa Rita Gallery” are open, I can see garish and uninviting art on display, and my heart says, why go in? I haven’t entered the building so far. This church is just a few hundred yards away from the very active parish that serves our area of the historic center of Rome. The parish has a huge and beautiful church, dedicated to “Santa Maria in Portico in Competelli,” and is staffed by the religious Order of Mater Dei. Priests from India and Italy live and work at the parish.
Another few hundred yards beyond Santa Maria in Portico is another large church, dedicated to Saint Catherine of Siena. The church is rarely open, and I’m told it is a holding place for a lot of religious art. The one time I found it open, I went in, but I didn’t see the sacred art in storage, though I may have overlooked the storage area. There appears to be no other buildings attached to the church for other purposes, just the church structure itself.
I mention all this to give an idea to those who may not have ever visited Rome, that it is definitely a “city of churches.” That should surprise no one, of course, as the city is the symbolic and real heart of the Catholic Church. Other denominations and religions are represented in the city as well, including Jewish, Muslim, Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist, Waldensian, and presumably many other faiths as well.
As might be expected, I tend to gravitate toward the Catholic churches, and to admire the wonderful Christian art to be found in many of them from ancient, medieval, Renaissance and modern times. For me the paleo-Christian art (the earliest being found in the catacombs) and the medieval buildings are the most appealing. Numerous churches still standing in Rome were early Christian or medieval buildings, but a huge percentage of these underwent remodeling in the Baroque period, which extended from about 1600 to 1750. This was an age of great artistic and architectural expansion in the city of Rome and in Italy in general.
To modern sensibilities, or at least to American eyes, Baroque architecture and art is often unappealing. This was confirmed for me when I recently heard an American, with his unmistakable accent, say, upon entering a church as I was leaving, “Oh no, another Baroque church!”
The word “Baroque” is derived from the Portuguese word, “barrocco,” meaning an “oddly-shaped pearl.” That seems to sum up the Baroque period and its output well, treasures that take on various forms and colors. Nonetheless, there are stunning pieces of art from that time, including one known as the Ecstasy or Transverberation of Saint Teresa of Avila, by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. It was sculpted from white marble and found in the Cornaro Chapel at the church of Santa Maria della Vittotia (Our Lady of Victory), near Rome’s main train station, called “Termini.”
The Saint Teresa statue by Bernini is considered to be one of the sculptural masterpieces of the High Roman Baroque, and was made between the years 1647 and 1652, taking five years to complete. Illuminated by natural light above the sculpture, it is a religious and theatrical statement that describes in form what Saint Teresa of Avila personally experienced, of her heart being pierced by the spear of an angel, and her soul then satisfied by nothing less than God. Her pain at being pierced was not physical, Teresa writes, but spiritual. This mystical experience is found in her Autobiography, chapter 29, part 17. The Bernini sculpture is a piece of Baroque-era art that I never tire of seeing or bringing other people to see.
If I had to “pack up and bring home” one of the churches of Rome, I would choose the church of “San Giorgio in Velabro,” not far from where I live, and dating from the seventh century. It is located right next to the massive marble “Arch of Janus,” in an ancient part of Rome where the Tiber used to regularly flood. This is an area between the Palatine and the Aventine hills and was once the Greek quarter of Rome, where Greek-speaking merchants, civil and military officers, as well as Greek monks of the Byzantine Empire, lived. Legend has it that this quarter is where the basket carrying Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome, got caught, and where Romulus traced the sacred trench to mark one of the boundaries of Rome. The area was once called “Valabrum,” as frequent flooding from the Tiber turned it into a giant “vel,” the Latin word for “marsh,” that is still found in the church’s name, “Velabro.”
San Giorgio in Velabro church is near another ancient church, Santa Maria in Cosmedin, still used by Greek Catholics in Rome. Santa Maria in Cosmedin has the famous “Bocca della Verita” (Mouth of Truth), the round former marble drain cover, where hundreds of thousands of tourists visit every year and made famous by the film “Roman Holladay” with Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck, filmed the year I was born! I will leave it to you to look up that date!
What is so appealing about the church of San Giorgio is its simple design and the fact that it was never subjected to Baroque alterations or additions. It is elegant in its simplicity, an uncluttered and prayerful space. It is not a large building and from my perspective, has a “monastic” look and feeling, what one might expect of a monastery church. The unadorned façade and porch of the church dates from the thirteenth century, and the impressive Romanesque bell tower is from around the same period. Though a bit hidden from the usual foot traffic of tourists and pilgrims, the little church of San Giorgio is a perfect place for prayer and inspiration when one visits the city of Rome.
Will I see most of the churches in Rome before my time of work here comes to an end? Not very likely, nor is it one of my goals. Nearly every time I go for an extended walk I come across a church I have never seen before, or one that is not usually open, and I may or may not enter, depending on time or commitment restraints, but I never cease to be amazed at the quantity of churches in the Eternal City. Some churches I have grown to love and others I will never see, but that doesn’t matter, of course. Here one is never deprived of the reminder wherever you go, that Rome is a city of churches!