I had not planned to visit the San Silvestro in Capite. It is another one of those Roman churches that are not mentioned at all in most travel guides. I do not blame them: there are certainly more interesting churches in the Eternal City. However, that does not mean that visits to the San Silvestro are dull. On the contrary, there is a lot to see. The picturesque atrium for instance, the impressive ceiling fresco and the relic of part of the head of Saint John the Baptist. The Latin word for head is caput, so the ‘in Capite’ part of the church name refers to the head of Saint John. San Silvestro is Pope Sylvester I (314-335), the man who was bishop of Rome during much of the reign of Constantine the Great, the first Christian Roman emperor.
In Antiquity, the part of the city where we now find the church was known as the Campus Agrippae. If we take a look at the Atlas of Ancient Rome, we may come to the conclusion that the church was built over the western part of the enclosure of the Temple of Sol Invictus, traditionally inaugurated by the emperor Aurelianus on 25 December 274, now the day on which Christians celebrate the feast of Christmas. The temple itself may have been located a little bit more to the east. In spite of numerous archaeological finds, it is still difficult to pinpoint its exact location. Less than 100 metres to the west, we find the Via del Corso, the ancient Via Lata.
The San Silvestro has always been a conventual church, i.e. a church connected to a monastery. The first monastery was founded during the pontificate of Pope Stephanus II (752-757) and completed during that of his successor, Pope Paulus I (757-767). The monastery had a church attached to it that was dedicated to Saint Dionysius. There is some confusion as to which Saint Dionysius this was. One plausible theory argues that it was the Parisian bishop Saint Denis, who was martyred in the third century. If this is correct, then the dedication can be interpreted in the light of certain historical events of that time. In 751, the Longobards or Lombards had overrun the Exarchate of Ravenna. They were now threatening Rome and the Eastern Roman Empire was powerless to intervene. Pope Stephanus II then turned to a new power in the West for protection: Pepin the Short’s Franks. Pepin proved to be more than willing to come to the Pope’s aid. This marks the beginning of what is sometimes called the Frankish Papacy. The decision to dedicate the church to Saint Dionysius may have been an attempt to please the Frankish king.
However, in the twelfth century we suddenly find the church dedicated to Saints Stephanus, Dionysius and Sylvester. The Stephanus mentioned must be Pope Stephanus I (254-257), while Sylvester is obviously Pope Sylvester I (314-335). Since both were popes, it can be argued that the Dionysius that is part of the trio may well be Pope Dionysius (259-268), who is also considered a saint. This casts some doubt on the theory of an initial dedication to the Parisian Saint Dionysius. On the other hand, the facade (made in 1703) only mentions as Stephanus and Sylvester as popes (PP = papa) and has statues of these two men only. Dionysius is omitted, which may indicate that he was Saint Denis after all! How confusing. In any case, the decision to rededicate the church was probably influenced by the arrival of the relics of the aforementioned popes around this time.
The church was completely rebuilt between 1198 and 1216. By that time, the adjacent monastery had been administered by Benedictine monks for several centuries. These were kicked out by Pope Honorius IV (1285-1287) in 1286. Honorius then gave the complex to the nuns of the Second Order of Saint Francis, also known as the Poor Clares. Three hundred years later, the Poor Clares hired the architect Francesco Capriani da Volterra (1535-1594) to rebuild their monastery, including the church. Capriani started with the convent in 1588 and then worked on the church between 1591 and 1601. Between 1667 and 1697, various artists worked on the interior of the church, which was given a proper Baroque makeover. Among these artists were Carlo Rainaldi (1611-1691) and Mattia de Rossi (1637-1695). In 1703, Domenico de’ Rossi (1659-1730) gave the church its current street facade. The text on the facade reads:
DEO IN HON. BEAT. SILVESTRI ET STEPHANI PP DIC.
(“dedicated to God in honour of the blessed Popes Sylvester and Stephanus”)
So Dionysius is gone and Sylvester nowadays takes precedence. How odd.
In 1849 and again in 1876, the Poor Clares were evicted and their monastery was turned into the Central Post Office of Rome. The church was granted to the Irish Pallotines in 1890. They are still here.
Exploring the San Silvestro
The church is located on a fairly large piazza, the Piazza di San Silvestro. This is probably the best spot to admire the medieval campanile, the oldest part of the church that is still standing (see the image above). It was erected in 1198. From the piazza, we can also take a closer look at the facade that de’ Rossi added in 1703. It is fairly simple and unimpressive, executed in yellow and white. It is topped by statues of Popes Sylvester and Stephanus and Saints Franciscus and Clara of Assisi. The most interesting feature can be found just above the entrance. Here we see a so-called Mandylion, the face of Christ on a piece of cloth. According to tradition this relic was in possession of King Abgar V of Osroene, who was a contemporary of Christ. It later found its way to Constantinople and disappeared when that city was sacked during the Fourth Crusade in 1204. A relic of the Mandylion has been kept in this church since at least 1517. It is now in the Vatican. A rival Mandylion can be found in Genoa.
As mentioned above, the other famous relic that is kept here is part of the head of Saint John the Baptist. To see it, we must go through the central portal… only to find ourselves inside an atrium (see the second image in this post). It is usually nice and quiet here. Many archaeological finds have been put on display on the walls. Some look truly ancient, others fairly modern. Many of the fragments were unearthed when a crypt was dug for the church in 1906. I tried to visit this church to investigate a rumour that there is a Roman era mosaic down there. Unfortunately, the crypt turned out to be closed.
The relic of the head has its own chapel directly to the left of the actual church entrance. It is probably of great spiritual importance to pilgrims, but sceptics will no doubt consider it fake. I was more interested in the church itself. The rich Baroque interior is certainly impressive. Much of the stucco work is gilded. There are quite a few good frescoes as well. I for instance liked the apse fresco, which shows the Baptism of the emperor Constantine. It was painted by Ludovico Gimignani (1643-1697). The fresco features Sylvester as being in charge of the baptismal ceremony. Nice try, but that story is absolute rubbish: Pope Sylvester did not baptise Constantine. We all know that it was Eusebius of Nicomedia who did the honours in 337, when Constantine was on his deathbed, two years after Pope Sylvester had died. Even more impressive than Gimignani’s work is the large ceiling fresco of the Assumption of the Virgin by Giacinto Brandi (1621-1691), painted in 1682.
Although the (pseudo) original is long gone, images of the Mandylion are omnipresent in the church. The altar aedicule, a work by Rainaldi, has one in the tympanum for instance , and so does the relic shrine that is part of it. The wooden pulpit not only features the face of Christ, but also the head of Saint John on a plate. I turned out to be the only visitor that day. Perhaps this had something to do with the restorations that were going on; you may notice a crane and a workman in some of the photos in this post. However, the church was open to the public as usual and the restoration project gave me no trouble at all.
 The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 2, tab. a.t. 9.
 Sometimes called Stephanus III, but not to be confused with the man who was pope from 768 until 772, the ‘real’ Stephanus III. The problem is that there was a pope-elect called Stephanus who died in 752 before his inauguration. He is sometimes called Stephanus II, but is generally not considered a ‘real’ pope.