There are two churches in Trastevere that anyone should visit: the Santa Maria in Trastevere and the Santa Cecilia in Trastevere. The San Crisogono, also in Trastevere, cannot hope to match those two in terms of art of history, but it is interesting in its own right. The church is hard to miss, as it is located on the busy Viale di Trastevere that runs from the railway station to the Tiber and splits Trastevere in two. The San Crisogono can be a little difficult to visit sometimes, as it is a very active parish church. I have found a mass going on here more than in any other church in Rome. It is moreover closed during much of the afternoon, only reopening around 17:15. Usually it is not a problem to walk around quietly if the religious services are held in one of the chapels, but if you want to have the church to yourself and take pictures, it is probably best to arrive way before mass starts.
The San Crisogono is actually a twelfth century rebuilding of an older, presumably fourth century church. What is special is that the present church was erected slightly more to the north than the previous one: it only partially overlaps it. The history of the fourth century building is hazy. Whether it was a church from the start is uncertain. There is some literary evidence that it has been a church since at least 499, as it is listed as a titular church (Titulus Chrysogoni) in the acts of a Roman synod of that year. The first solid evidence of Christian worship is a fresco of a jewelled cross, dateable to the sixth century (see below). The somewhat muddled history of the church seems to match the relative obscurity of the person it is dedicated to, Saint Chrysogonus of Aquileia. He was said to have been martyred during the persecutions of the emperor Diocletianus (284-305), but virtually nothing about his life is known.
The first church was altered and redecorated on several occasions. Frescoes were added in the sixth century, and then again in the eighth during the pontificate of Pope Gregorius III (731-741). After the Benedictines settled at the monastery next door in the tenth century, they commissioned new frescoes for the church as well. At least one of them, from the early thirteenth century, features their patron, Saint Benedictus (see below).
The old church was partially demolished in 1123 and what was left standing was filled up with earth to create a new construction site. A cardinal named Giovanni da Crema (died ca. 1135) was responsible for this decision and for the subsequent erection of a new church. As stated above, the new church is not exactly above the old one. The so-called basilica paleocristiana can be visited by going down a flight of stairs in the sacristy, which is near the end of the left aisle (the admission charge was 3 euros when I was last in Rome). The stairs lead to the apse of the old church, which only had a single nave. The right side of this nave is under the left aisle of the current basilica.
If you visit the San Crisogono, a name that is hard to miss is that of cardinal Scipione Borghese (1577-1633). Borghese’s name features prominently on the facade of the church and also on the triumphal arch inside. The cardinal had the church restored and given a Baroque makeover in 1620. Work was completed in 1626, as is evidenced by the date in Roman numerals on the facade (MDCXXVI). The architect responsible for the restoration was Giovanni Battista Soria (1581-1651).
The church and adjacent monastery were given to a branch of the Order of the Most Holy Trinity and of the Captives in 1847. Members of the Order are known as Trinitarians and they are still here today. The Order was founded by the Frenchman John of Matha (1154-1213) and approved by Pope Innocentius III in 1198. Its principal aim was to ransom Christians held captive in Muslim territories. The Trinitarians first settled at the complex of San Tommaso in Formis, which is just a small church on the Caelian Hill. A replica of the famous Cosmatesque mosaic of the San Tomasso can be found in the sacristy of the San Crisogono. The Order had already left the Caelius when its members settled at the San Crisogono complex after 1847. Their emblem of a Greek cross composed of a vertical red bar over a horizontal blue bar can be seen everywhere: on the facade of the church, over the side entrance and in many of the paintings inside.
This a big church, and to save energy, most of the lights are usually off. As a result, it can be pretty dark inside, especially in autumn or winter. The San Crisogono has a very nice medieval Cosmatesque floor, which was partly restored during Soria’s renovations in 1620-1626. The Baroque ceiling is also impressive, as are the grey and red columns used in the nave. The columns date back to Antiquity and they were likely pilfered from an important building.
The most interesting work of art in the church is a late thirteenth century mosaic in the apse that is usually attributed to Pietro Cavallini (ca. 1259-1330) or his workshop. This is not a traditional apse mosaic – which would cover the conch and most of the rest of the apse – but actually a small rectangular panel in a seventeenth century frame. The original location of the mosaic is not known; it was Giovanni Battista Soria who put it here when he worked on the church interior in the 1620s. Soria was also responsible for the ornate baldachin above the altar.
The mosaic features a large Madonna and Child in the centre. The Madonna is labelled MP ΘY, which is an abbreviation of the Greek words Μήτηρ Θεοῦ, or Mother of God. Saint Chrysogonus – the caption actually reads S. CHRYSNUS – is depicted on the left. The saint on the right is labelled S. IACOBUS. Since he is holding a book, he might be James, son of Alphaeus, often equated with James the Less.
I have visited the San Crisogono many times, and yet I had never gone down into the Early Christian church. A visit to the basilica paleocristiana was therefore still on my list when I was back in Rome in January 2017. After paying an admission charge to the custodian, I went down the stairs and started to explore the damp and smelly rooms, some five metres below the present church and the adjoining convent.
Although fragments of the wall frescoes dating from the sixth to tenth centuries have survived, I need to warn you: they are in a terrible condition and things are only getting worse. It is kind of sad to see a steady stream of water trickling down some of the walls, no doubt further damaging the frescoes. There are no captions and the fragments are virtually impossible to interpret for non-experts, so you really need an authoritative source of information if you want to fully appreciate what is down here. I myself recommend the descriptions from the excellent Churches of Rome Wiki.
The stairs take you to the apse of the old church. There is a very deteriorated fresco here which apparently features San Crisogono himself, but he is unrecognisable. The right wall of the old church has more frescoes. One of them depicts Saint Benedictus healing a leper. This fresco is more or less preserved and can be interpreted fairly well. We see Benedictus on the left and the leper on the right. The skin of his legs and body is clearly affected by the disease: it is full of spots (compare this fresco to those in the Chapel of Saint Sylvester at the Santi Quattro Coronati complex). Since Benedictus is shown with a halo, it seems fair to assume that the fresco was made after 1220, the year in which he was canonised. The style also suggests that the work dates from the thirteenth century. This is puzzling: what is a fresco from the thirteenth century doing in a church that was demolished in the twelfth century? Was this room still in use, perhaps as a crypt? I am afraid I do not know the answer. The condition of the other frescoes on the right wall is much worse and the light down here is not very good either.
Near these frescoes one can also find a large Roman sarcophagus with naval motifs. The deceased – a man – is shown inside a shell and the others figures in the scene are tritons and nereids. The sarcophagus is clearly non-Christian and must predate the church by hundreds of years.
On the left side of the old church we can find a large piece of frescoed wall. The images here overlap each other and are from at least two restorations. The lower part with the jewelled cross and the vela (curtains) is from the sixth century. The tondi with busts of saints and the other images were done two centuries later. Although the faces in the tondi are still discernible, no doubt the damp down here will continue to affect the forms, shapes and colours of the frescoes. This is very unfortunate, but as we say in The Netherlands: we still have the pictures.
- Capitool Reisgidsen Rome, 2009 Dutch edition, p. 210-211;
- San Crisogono on Churches of Rome Wiki.
Update 11 January 2022: images have been improved.