Rome: San Teodoro

The San Teodoro.

This is a lovely little temple-like church nested against the slope of the Palatine Hill. It is not far from the San Giorgio in Velabro. Like the San Giorgio, it is dedicated to a specifically eastern saint, Saint Theodorus (Theodore in English). As I have discussed previously, there were more Saints named Theodorus. In this case, it is fairly certain that the church is dedicated to Theodorus of Amasea (in present-day Turkey), also called Theodorus Tiro (“the recruit”). The latter name indicates that he was a soldier in the Roman army, and like San Giorgio (Saint George), this Saint Theodorus is often called a “soldier saint”. The San Teodoro used to be a Roman Catholic Church, but it is now used by Rome’s Greek Orthodox community (note the Greek flag on the piazza). Its most interesting work of art is its apse mosaic.

History

We do not know when the original church was founded. The church appears in historical records as late as 774, in which year it was restored by Pope Adrianus I (772-795). In modern sources it is usually called a sixth or seventh century church. Saint Theodorus was certainly known in sixth century Rome, as a Saint Theodorus is depicted in the apse mosaic of the church of Santi Cosma e Damiano on the Forum Romanum. We do not know whether this is the same Theodorus, but the other Theodorus (usually called Theodorus Stratelates) may in fact have been the same saint. It is therefore possible that the San Teodoro was built somewhere between 526/530 (when the Santi Cosma e Damiano was founded) and 680. In that year Pope Agatho (678-681) was said to have appointed the first titular deacon of the church.

The San Teodoro, seen from the Palatine Hill.

There is no evidence that the church was built into or on the foundations of a pagan temple, many of which were round (cf. the so-called Temple of Romulus on the Forum Romanum, or the Temple of Hercules Olivarius on the Forum Boarium). Since the early history of the San Teodoro is not documented at all, we do not know why the builders wanted it to be circular in shape. Here we are faced with the same puzzle as at the church of Santo Stefano Rotondo on the Caelius. The circular plan may have been an imitation of the rotunda of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, but this is just speculation.

The church was restored twice in the eighth century and then again in the ninth. In the second half of the fifteenth century, it was apparently ruinous and had to be completely rebuilt by Pope Nicholas V (1447-1455). Fortunately, its most prized possession, the apse mosaic, survived the rebuilding, although it was altered (see below). Pope Clemens XI (1700-1721) decided to restore the rebuilt church in 1703. The San Teodoro had always been surrounded by a cemetery, and this was slowly turning into a swamp, threatening the foundation and fabric of the church. The pope’s favourite architect, Carlo Fontana (1638-1714), solved the problem by replacing the cemetery with the charming little piazza that we can still admire today. Fontana also gave the church a Baroque makeover, but was not allowed to replace the dome.

As stated above, tradition dictates that the San Teodoro has been titular since 680. Pope Sixtus V (1585-1590) suppressed the title, but it was recreated in 1959. The last titular deacon of the church died in 2000. Since that year, the church has been used for Greek Orthodox services and this was still the case when I visited the San Teodoro in 2013 and 2017.

Interior

Interior of the church.

This is now an Orthodox church, so obviously there is an iconostasis separating the sanctuary from the nave. The interior of the church is fairly plain and simple. The decorations, mostly icons, are really not that interesting. The one true treasure of the church is its apse mosaic, which dates from the middle of the sixth or seventh century. Unfortunately, the light inside the church is not ideal and the iconostasis prevents visitors from getting closer to the mosaic. It can therefore be difficult to fully appreciate its beauty.

The mosaic features Christ in the centre, holding a staff in his left hand. He is seated on a globe, much like in the famous San Vitale in Ravenna. The Hand of God is above him. Christ is flanked by Saints Paul and Peter. There are two more saints in the scene. The one on the left (i.e. Christ’s right) is presumably Saint Theodorus. This identification is fairly certain, but it needs to be said that he does not look anything like the Saint Theodorus depicted in the Santi Cosma e Damiano. The saint is depicted as a young man, with blond flowing hair. This part of the mosaic was remade during Pope Nicholas’ fifteenth century rebuilding and the stylistic differences between Theodorus and the other figures in the mosaic are hard to miss. Tesserae in mosaics sadly have a tendency to come off after a while, and it seems likely this part of the San Teodoro mosaic was already crumbling by the time Pope Nicholas rebuilt the church. ‘Reconstructive surgery’ may have been required for Theodorus’ face!

The apse mosaic.

It is remarkable though that the figure on the right (i.e. Christ’s left) looks much more like the Saint Theodorus in the Santi Cosma e Damiano mosaic. The shoes are completely identical and both figures have a beard and a cloak covering much of the body. The motifs on the two cloaks are different, but the tablion (rectangular inset on the cloak) looks much the same. But this figure on Christ’s left cannot be Saint Theodorus, as the principal saint of a church was always depicted on Christ’s right.

So who is he? Internet sources identify him as Saint Cleonicus, a saint who was apparently “associated with St. Theodore”. While this seems like an educated guess, I find it telling that the information panel outside the church simply calls him “a saint”. Apparently his identity is still very much in doubt. It also needs to be said that there were more saints associated with Saint Theodorus, among them two men named Eutropius and Basiliscus. The latter is actually called a nephew of Saint Theodorus in some sources, so it may just as well be him in the mosaic. Let me put forward an alternative theory. It is not supported by any hard facts, but here goes: since there were two soldier saints named Theodorus, the one on the left (Christ’s right) is Theodorus Tiro and the one on the right (Christ’s left) is Theodorus Stratelates. Remember that the San Giovanni in Laterano in Rome is also dedicated to two Saint Johns, the Evangelist and the Baptist. Both are depicted in the apse mosaic.

The Capitoline Wolf.

An artefact that used to be in the church, but was moved to the Palazzo dei Conservatori on the Capitoline Hill in the fifteenth century, is the Capitoline Wolf. I still remember seeing it for the first time in the Capitoline Museums in 1996. At that time it was already widely accepted that the twins Romulus and Remus had been added to the bronze sculpture in 1471. However, the majority of scholars still accepted the theory that the wolf itself was a fifth century BCE Etruscan sculpture. This theory is now discredited. Radiocarbon and thermoluminescence dating have conclusively demonstrated that the wolf was made in the eleventh or twelfth century CE. No one seems to know how the Capitoline Wolf ended up in the San Teodoro. This is as big a mystery as when exactly the church was founded.

Sources

  • Capitool Reisgidsen Rome, 2009 Dutch edition, p. 201-202;
  • San Teodoro on Churches of Rome Wiki.

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