The Santi Nereo e Achilleo is another one of those interesting Roman churches that never seem to be open. If you visit in winter, as I did back in 2017, you may expect the doors to be shut all week. In July of 2018, a memo was posted on the door in four languages, explaining potential visitors that they were welcome on Tuesdays and Thursdays in the morning. Another good time to visit would be just prior to a wedding; the church is a popular location to get married, and I believe a wedding was being prepared when I visited, although no one was actually in the church at that moment. I had the basilica all to myself.
The original church was called the titulus fasciolae, the “titular church of the little bandage”. The name refers to a popular legend that Saint Peter, while fleeing from captivity, lost the bandage that was draped around his ankle to nurse the injuries caused by iron chains. At the spot where the bandage fell to the ground, a church was built in the second half of the fourth century. It should be stressed that this was not the Santi Nereo e Achilleo. The titulus fasciolae was constructed close to the present church, but not on the same spot. The remains of service structures that have been found in the vicinity may have belonged to the original church.
The present church was built in 814 by Pope Leo III (795-816). It is basically his church, though much altered, that we can still admire today. The Santi Nereo e Achilleo is dedicated to two fairly obscure soldier saints called Nereus and Achilleus. It is located just north of the enormous Baths of Caracalla. On the other side of the road we find the church and convent of San Sisto Vecchio (of great historic interest, but closed for years because of badly needed repairs). This was all countryside until well into the nineteenth century. The first image in this post may give the impression that the church is still in the lush green country, but it is actually on the Viale delle Terme di Caracalla, where one may expect heavy traffic all day.
Two important restorations of the church need to be mentioned here. Pope Sixtus IV (1471-1484) was responsible for the first, executed just prior to the Jubilee of 1475. Sixtus had the ancient columns of the nave removed and replaced with modern ones. Another major intervention was the fact that he had the church truncated by removing the first two bays and creating a little square in front of it (see Rome: Santi Quattro Coronati for a similar example).
Next was a restoration ordered by cardinal Caesar Baronius (1538-1607), the great church historian who also happened to be the titular priest of this church. His project was started in 1596 and completed two years later. The church was then granted to the Congregation of the Oratory, also known as the Oratorians. This was a religious order founded by the popular “Apostle of Rome” Filippo Neri (1515-1595), one of the giants of the Counter-Reformation. Baronius had joined the order at a young age and was buried in the principal church of the Oratorians, the Chiesa Nuova.
So to sum up, the Santi Nereo e Achilleo is basically Pope Leo III’s church, structurally altered by Pope Sixtus IV and then thoroughly restored by cardinal Baronius. Baronius was chiefly responsible for the exterior and interior decorations of the church. The frescoes on the facade of the church, executed by Girolamo Massei (ca. 1540-1620), are now all but gone. Fortunately the interior decorations have fared much better. Let us take a closer look at these below.
The Santi Nereo e Achilleo is a very dark church, so you need to bring along a high-quality camera if you want to take good pictures. The heavily restored mosaics of the triumphal arch are probably the oldest art in the church. They date back to the ninth century. What we see here, in the centre, is a skilful depiction of the Transfiguration of Christ as described in three of the four Canonical Gospels. Christ is flanked by Moses (right) and Elijah (left), while Peter, James and John have fallen to the ground in awe. The Transfiguration is a popular theme in Christian art. See for instance Raphael’s famous painting (previously in the church of San Pietro in Montorio, now in the Pinacoteca of the Vatican Museums) or the more symbolic representation of the event in the church of Sant’Apollinare in Classe in Ravenna. To the left of the Transfiguration we see an Annunciation scene with the Virgin Mary and an angel, while on the right an angel visits a Madonna and Child.
The church must have had an apse mosaic once, but this is long gone. It was replaced with an apse fresco that features Nereus, Achilleus and others involved in their legend, such as Saint Domitilla, sometimes identified as a granddaughter of the Roman emperor Vespasianus. The best one can say about the apse fresco is that it is very colourful. View of it is in any case hampered by the huge sixteenth century baldachin.
The frescoes of the nave and of the aisles were traditionally attributed to Niccolò Circignani (ca. 1530-1597), nicknamed Il Pomarancio. One can understand why. Especially the torture and execution scenes bear close resemblance to Pomarancio’s Sufferings of the Martyrs, a fresco cycle that can be found in the church of Santo Stefano Rotondo. Filippo Neri was very fond of that cycle and used to take his followers to the latter church contemplate on mortality and eternal life. It would be technically possible for Pomarancio to have painted the frescoes in the Santi Nereo e Achilleo as well. Baronius’ restoration project took place between 1596 and 1598, and the artist passed away in 1597. But the frescoes are now generally attributed to a follower or an imitator. The torture and execution scenes are just as grisly as those in the Santo Stefano, especially the one with the martyr – Saint Simon the Zealot – who is sawn in two with a large hacksaw.
What is interesting is that the church has a painting of Saints Domitilla, Nereus and Achilleus that is definitely the work of a Pomarancio, but in this case a different artist also nicknamed Il Pomarancio. His real name was Cristoforo Roncalli (ca. 1553-1626) and he was responsible for the altarpiece that can be found in the left aisle. What is even more interesting is that the painting bears a striking resemblance to a painting by Rubens of the three saints in the Chiesa Nuova. Roncalli certainly cannot have been inspired by the Flemish master, as he painted his altarpiece in 1599 while Rubens was active in the Chiesa Nuova in 1606-1608, almost a decade later. Since both churches are administered by the Oratorians, it is not inconceivable that Rubens saw Roncalli’s work before starting to paint his own.
The church of Santi Nereo e Achilleo has several more works of art that deserve our attention. Take a look for instance at the throne in the apse and the two choir screens, all with nice Cosmatesque decorations. The pulpit has nice marble decorations as well. An intriguing object is the huge ancient spindle which has been turned into a Paschal candlestick (see the image above). And then there is the floor. When I visited the church, it looked like the bride and groom would be asked to kneel on a large marble slab with a skeleton which commemorates cardinal Baccio Aldobrandini (1613-1665). Also mentioned on the slab is his relative Olimpia Aldobrandini (see Rome: Palazzo Doria Pamphilj). She was the cardinal’s heir and therefore responsible for placing the slab.
- Capitool Reisgidsen Rome, 2009 Dutch edition, p. 194;
- Santi Nereo e Achilleo on Churches of Rome Wiki;
- The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 1, p. 384.
 The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 1, p. 384.