This church – a titular church and minor basilica – is located on the Caelian Hill. The Caelius (Celio in modern Italian) is east of the Palatine Hill and south of the Colosseum. You can reach the Santi Giovanni e Paolo by taking the Clivo di Scauro, the old road that leads to the summit. While climbing to the top, the visitor cannot miss the series of arches spanning the street. The first arch is the oldest. It may be from the mid fifth century. The other six are some 800 years younger: they were constructed in the thirteenth century. Although the arches are surely decorative and picturesque, they have as very useful purpose as well, as they support the left side of the basilica that we will now explore further, the Santi Giovanni e Paolo.
The church is named after its two patron saints, John (Ioannes) and Paul (Paulus). These are not John the Baptist and the Apostle Paul – or, alternatively, John the Evangelist and the Apostle Paul – but two officials from Constantine the Great’s court. Constantine was, of course, the first Christian (or at the very least the first openly pro-Christian) emperor. John and Paul, two brothers who were apparently eunuchs, served Constatine well and then bought a house on the Caelian Hill for their retirement. When the emperor Julianus the Apostate called upon the brothers to serve him as well, they refused. Julianus had little love for Christianity and wanted to revive the old pagan religion. John and Paul for very obvious reasons failed to show up at the emperor’s court. When they were ordered to renounce their faith, the brothers naturally refused to do just that and they were subsequently martyred. They were buried beneath the house they had bought for their retirement and this house was ultimately converted into a church. And there was more good news: the man that beheaded John and Paul, one Terentianus, later converted to Christianity. At least, that is how the story goes.
But as with many stories pertaining to saints and martyrs, the evidence is quite thin. Constantine died in 337 and Julianus did not become emperor until 361, so there is a gap of at least 24 years between the two emperors. If John and Paul retired around 337 (or earlier) and settled on the Caelius, they would probably have been very elderly by ancient Roman standards by the time Julianus called upon them. This problem can perhaps be solved if we accept that the brothers served at the court of Constantina, Constantine’s daughter, who died in 354.
However, that still leaves us with another problem: although Julianus introduced anti-Christian measures and was openly hostile to the Christian religion, he was careful not to create any new martyrs, as he had learned that the persecutions of his predecessors had only strengthened the position of Christians in his empire. Martyrdom simply inspired new martyrs. No large-scale persecutions seem to have been orchestrated during Julianus’ reign, which spanned less than two years anyway (361-363). Excavations beneath the present church have indeed yielded evidence for Christian worship at this place since the second half of the fourth century. A confessio with frescoes depicting Christian martyrs was discovered, but it does not seem to have been part of a public building. A more plausible interpretation is that this was in fact a small private chapel in a private residence. It was not until the early fifth century that construction of a genuine church began at this site. That still makes Santi Giovanni e Paolo an ancient church, even if we may rightly dismiss the foundation legend.
One of the first things the visitor will notice is that the bell tower is not connected to the church itself. This campanile from the mid twelfth century was built onto the remains of the temple of the Divine Claudius, the emperor who died in 54. It is easy to spot the large travertine blocks at the foot of the tower, which are from the enclosure of the temple complex.
The portico consisting of eight ancient columns was constructed during the reign of the only English pope in history, Adrianus IV (born Nicholas Breakspear), who was pope from 1154 to 1159. A huge, rather modern looking dome is also part of the church. This is the dome of the chapel of Saint Paul of the Cross (1694-1775), the eighteenth century Italian mystic who founded the Order of the Passionists. The Passionists have been at this site since 1773. Paul was beatified in 1853 and subsequently canonised in 1867. Work on his chapel had already begun in 1857 and it was completed by 1880. The dome can be seen from afar, especially from the Palatine Hill, but also from the Circus Maximus, as I noticed when I visited Rome in October of 2011 (see the picture above).
The nave presents an interior that is essentially Late Baroque. It is the result of an eighteenth century restoration by the Lazarists, a religious order from France that was in charge of the complex before it was granted to the Passionists. The church has a cosmatesque floor that was fortunately spared during the restoration (unlike Santa Cecilia’s floor), although large parts of it were replaced with marble tiles. The walls look like they are made of polychrome marble, but in fact they are not. They were actually painted this way in 1911. By contrast, the high altar is made of genuine polychrome marble.
In the apse we find three large eighteenth century paintings dealing with the life and death of the Saints John and Paul. Much more interesting is the colourful fresco in the conch of the apse. It is called Christ the Redeemer in Glory with the Heavenly Host and it was painted in 1588 by Niccolò Circignani, known as Il Pomarancio (two others were known as Pomarancio as well: Niccolò’s son Antonio and Cristoforo Roncalli).
If we look up, we can see the two brothers themselves on a panel that is part of the ceiling. The caption reads:
Of course, this has nothing to do with the Germans. ‘Germanus’ is the Latin word for ‘brother’, so the text can be translated as ‘truly brothers’.
The church is often used for weddings and it looked like it was being prepared for one when I visited the Santi Giovanni e Paolo in November of 2015. I smiled when I read that “Sour comments have been made concerning the effect on the Cosmatesque floor of the spiked (stiletto) heels worn by the women at these celebrations, but these are certain to have no result.”
The most interesting part of the church is actually no longer part of the church. The Passionists started excavating beneath the church in 1887 and found the remains of ancient Roman houses, the so-called Case Romane del Celio. Excavations continued until 1958. Responsibility for the Case was transferred to the Ministry of Home Affairs in the 1980s and the houses are now part of a museum. The entrance fee is 8 Euros, which is not cheap, but the visitor gets good value for money. He or she can enjoy a tour through several rooms of a “magnificent residential complex comprising several Roman houses of different periods”, as the museum’s brochure states.
Immediately to the right of the entrance room, where you buy your ticket, is the Oratorio medievale. The name refers to a medieval chapel that had been here since about the eighth century. It was shut down and filled in when the six supporting arches were built during the thirteenth century. Traces of frescoes can still be seen in this room, but the most interesting one has been moved to the Antiquarium on the other side of the church. On it, we see Christ in the middle, flanked by the archangels Michael (left) and Gabriel (right). The man on the far right has no head. It is presumably Paul, the patron saint of the church. His brother Saint John is missing altogether, but he may have been on the other side. The fresco was moved from its original position in 1955. It was made in the twelfth century and the caption states that it may be a “revival of a more ancient painting” from the eighth century.
The Stanza dei Geni refers to a wonderfully frescoed room where naked youths, birds and erotes have been painted (third or fourth century). The level of detail is quite impressive. One of the birds, a pheasant, has caught a small animal, presumably a mouse. This is biologically correct, as pheasants are not vegetarians. They do eat small mammals.
Further to the east is the Aula dell’Orante. I have to admit I completely missed the orante here on my first visit. In one of the corners, there is a small figure with her arms extended in the orans (praying) position. The original excavators believed they had stumbled upon a Christian house church when they found this room. They concluded this was evidence of organised Christian worship at this location since the third or fourth century. They could not have been more wrong. The orans position was definitely not exclusively Christian, as the posture was also used by pagans and Jews. The orante does not even take up a prominent position among all the fake marble, the vegetations and the animals that are depicted in this room. The name of the Aula is a serious misnomer.
However, even further to the east, we find the confessio which does have Christian themes. This room can be interpreted as the small private chapel mentioned above. The confessio has a series of damaged frescoes from the late fourth century. In the centre is a man – a clean-shaven Christ? – with his arms in the orans position. He takes up a central position, much unlike the figure in the Aula dell’Orante. Above him are two figures with their heads missing. Notice the letter (perhaps a gamma) on the robes of the figure on the right. For the interpretation of the other scenes, I refer to the very reliable Churches of Rome Wiki:
“Abandoning any attempt to match these frescoes to the foundation legend of the church, what we have here is a late 4th century Christian fresco cycle which seems to depict the arrest of three martyrs (two men and a woman) to the top left, and their martyrdom by beheading with a sword to the top right. If this is correct, then this is the earliest depiction extant of any martyrdom. The young man straight ahead is possibly a depiction of the resurrected Christ as the New Adam (see Michelangelo’s take on this very ancient iconographic tradition at the Cappella Sistina). The identity of his worshippers, and of the other six figures depicted, cannot be deduced from what is depicted.”
Although I was impressed by the thought that I had just seen what may be the oldest depiction of a martyrdom, I was even more impressed by the huge fresco in the Ninfeo di Proserpina. It is, in one word, stunning. The fresco measures about five by three metres. The name of the room refers to Proserpina, or Persephone in Greek, who may be the naked woman in the centre of the fresco (a different interpretation is that she is Venus Marina). To her left is a fully dressed figure, while the man on her right is only wearing a loincloth. He seems to be pouring some liquid into the bowl Proserpina (or Venus) is holding. To the left and right of the central figures are erotes in boats. One is easily struck by the serenity of the scene.
- Capitool Reisgidsen Rome, 2009 Dutch edition, p. 190-192;
- Luc Verhuyck, SPQR. Anekdotische reisgids voor Rome, p. 49;
- Santi Giovanni e Paolo on Churches of Rome Wiki.