My first visit to the church of San Sebastiano fuori le Mura on the Via Appia was actually by accident. My friend and I had booked a guided tour at the nearby Catacombs of San Callisto and still had to wait an hour or so before it started. We decided to go for a walk and found the San Sebastiano some 700 metres down the road. We did not think much of the church back then, but then again we had not really done our homework and knew virtually nothing about the history of the building. So basically we had no idea what to look for. Several years later, I returned to the San Sebastiano on my own, this time well-prepared. I can now conclude that it is not the most spectacular church in Rome, but certainly worth a visit because it is very interesting from a historical perspective.
Visitors should realise that this is the spot where the word ‘catacombs’ originated. The most widely accepted etymology is that this word derives from Greek ‘kata kumbas’ (κατά κύμβας), which means ‘at the hollows’. The term refers to the pozzolana quarry that could be found at this location in Antiquity; the Romans used pozzolana to make their famous concrete (opus caementicium), which is immensely durable. Obviously the mining activities led to holes or caves in the ground. Starting towards the end of the first century CE, the quarry was also used for burials. The quarry collapsed in the mid-second century CE, which probably resulted in a huge mess and a large gap in the earth. The ground level was then raised again by three metres, three mausoleums – al non-Christian – were built into the quarry and this project may also have marked the start of the digging of tunnels used for burials, the catacombs as we know them today. People looking for this particular burial site were presumably told they could find it on the Via Appia ad catacumbas. The word ‘catacomb’ later became commonplace for all subterranean cemeteries. It should be stressed that these were by no means exclusively Christian.
About 100 years later, we have the first evidence for Christian activities at this location. Possibly in 258, a complex intended for the veneration of the apostles Peter and Paul was constructed here. Part of it was a building with a porch called the Triclia, which may have been used for funerary banquets. According to one theory, the relics of both apostles were kept here for several years after having been translated from the Ager Vaticanus (in the case of Saint Peter) and a cemetery on the Via Ostiense (in the case of Saint Paul). The reason for moving the relics to this new and safer spot seems to have been the persecutions instigated by the emperor Valerianus in 257-258. Later, during the reign of the emperor Constantine the Great (306-337), the relics were presumably returned to their original locations and the emperor had great new basilicas built over their tombs, i.e. Saint Peter’s Basilica and San Paolo fuori le Mura.
By the beginning of the fourth century, the Triclia mentioned above had apparently become dilapidated. A large basilica measuring about 74 by 28 metres was then built over its ruins. It is generally referred to as the Basilica Apostolorum, the basilica of the apostles. It should be noted that this basilica was probably not a church, but rather a so-called funerary basilica. This means that it was not used for celebrating mass, but instead for certain funerary rites, likely processions around the tombs and tomb slabs and possibly also funerary meals. The basilica was ‘circiform’, i.e. it was built in the shape of a Roman circus, with a large semi-circular end running around the apse. There are several other examples of funerary basilicas in Rome, for instance those at San Lorenzo fuori le Mura, Sant’Agnese fuori le Mura and Santi Marcellino e Pietro ad Duas Lauros. One notable difference is that, unlike the other three examples, the Basilica Apostolorum was actually converted into a proper church later on. The other three were abandoned and replaced with consecrated churches just a stone’s throw away.
It is not entirely clear who was responsible for construction of the Basilica Apostolorum. One plausible, yet unproven theory is that it was built by Rome’s Christian community with full support of the aforementioned emperor Constantine, who was known for his Christian sympathies (although he did not formally convert to Christianity himself until he was on his deathbed). According to another theory, the basilica was built during the pontificate of Pope Damasus I (366-384). There is convincing evidence that he was active here (see below), but rather than building the basilica he may have been responsible for its conversion into a proper church. It has recently been argued that it may actually have been Constantine’s predecessor Maxentius who donated the terrain on the Via Appia to Rome’s Christian community and permitted its members to build the Basilica Apostolorum there. Maxentius was not a Christian himself, but he did not persecute Christians either, although obviously Constantine tried to portray his rival as an enemy of the faith.
I would recommend people visiting the church to first of all go and have a look at the scale model of the basilica that is on display at the church museum (see the image below). It gives a good impression of how the Basilica Apostolorum was surrounded by mausoleums. To the right of the basilica stood the so-called Mausoleum of the Five Sarcophagi. To the left we see the dome of a circular building that was partly cut into the rock and that resembled the mausoleum of Constantine’s daughters elsewhere in Rome. It is known as the Mausoleum of the Uranii and it is no longer there. However, if you look up the San Sebastiano on Google Maps and turn on satellite view, you can still see the contours of the building.
Behind the Mausoleum of the Uranii were two rectangular buildings with an apse facing away from the basilica. The first of these buildings is gone and the second was replaced with the monastery attached to the San Sebastiano. Tucked away behind the basilica is the so-called Platonia, an oddly shaped shrine for the Croatian Saint Quirinus of Sescia (modern Sisak), who died in 309 and whose relics were brought to Rome in the fifth century. The Platonia still exists, although I doubt it can be visited. Its seventeenth century façade is a nice piece of architecture.
The name of the building was changed from the Basilica of the Apostles to the church of San Sebastiano by the mid-seventh century at the latest, and probably earlier. Part 12 of the Chronography of 354 already mentions a feast of Saint Sebastian in Catacumbas alongside a feast of Saint Peter at the same location. This suggests that by the mid-fourth century, the soldier-saint Sebastian was venerated here, alongside Saints Peter and Paul. Sebastian was martyred in the third century and is usually depicted as a scantily clad young man with a body riddled with arrows (although there are much older images of Sebastian showing him as an aging, bearded man). Tradition dictates that the future saint survived the ordeal of the arrows, was healed by Saint Irene of Rome, but was later clubbed to death and buried in the catacombs that would be named after him. His alleged relics have been here ever since.
In the ninth century, the Roman countryside was overrun by brigands and raiders, making it unsafe for pilgrims to leave the relative safety of the city to travel to the various catacombs that were located outside the city walls. Many of these catacombs were abandoned and the relics that were kept there were taken to churches in the city. This is a process that I have discussed before (see for instance Rome: Santa Prassede). But while the other catacombs were abandoned and lost, the San Sebastiano catacombs were not. They remained an important destination for pilgrims for many centuries, a status that was gradually eroded after the rediscovery of the much more spectacular Catacombs of San Callisto in the mid-nineteenth century. Another reason for San Sebastiano’s popularity among pilgrims was the fact that it was included as one of the original Seven Pilgrim Churches of Rome by San Filippo Neri (1515-1595), a saint I have discussed before on this website (here and here). The San Sebastiano only lost its status as a Pilgrim Church in 2000, when for some obscure reason it was replaced with the Santuario della Madonna del Divino Amore.
The San Sebastiano pretty much owes its present appearance to a rebuilding in the seventeenth century by the architect Flaminio Ponzio (1560-1613), perhaps most famous for his Cappella Paolina in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore. Ponzio had been hired by cardinal Scipione Borghese (1577-1633), who has appeared on this website before (see here and here for instance). The architect started work in 1608, but died before the rebuilding could be completed. The finishing touch therefore had to be added by a Dutchman from Utrecht named Jan van Santen, who had italicised his name to Giovanni Vasanzio (ca. 1550-1621). The Ponzio-Vasanzio project provided the church with its present façade, which is pretty plain and not much to look at. Much better is the façade of the Platonia mentioned above. You can see it from the Via delle Sette Chiese to the north of the San Sebastiano. The façade of the Platonia mentions the year 1609 and the names of Scipione Borghese and Pope Paulus V (1605-1621). The façade of the church only mentions Borghese’s name and the year 1612.
Things to see
The interior of the San Sebastiano is hardly spectacular (see the image above). We see a single nave with walls in off-white which contrast sharply with the colourful wooden ceiling. It must be said that the ceiling is gorgeous. It dates to 1613, so it was part of the Ponzio-Vasanzio rebuilding mentioned in the previous paragraph. At the centre of the ceiling, there is a superb wood carving of a blond Saint Sebastian wearing just a loincloth. He is tied to a tree trunk and bleeding from wounds caused by three arrows. In the sky above him is an angel holding a martyr’s crown and palm branch. The image of Saint Sebastian is attributed to Annibale Durante, a Flemish artist from the seventeenth century about whose life we know virtually nothing. It is not inconceivable that he and Vasanzio were old acquaintances, as both would presumably be able to communicate in Dutch and it was Vasanzio who hired the artists to do the ceiling (Ponzio was already dead by the time they got to this part of the project).
If we explore the San Sebastiano clockwise, we first see the epitaph of a certain Saint Eutychius on the wall directly to the left of the entrance (see the image above). He is another one of those obscure martyrs whose relics are kept here and have been venerated for centuries. The epitaph is a good once: it was dictated by Pope Damasus I (366-384) and carved into stone by the famous fourth century calligrapher Filocalus, the man responsible for the Chronography of 354 mentioned above. Obviously the slab that the text was chiselled into is not in its original position; it used to be in the catacombs down below, where the relics of Eutychius were kept. Above the epitaph is a small tabernacle attributed to Mino da Fiesole (ca. 1429-1484).
To the right of the inscription is the chapel containing the tomb of Saint Sebastian. The chapel was executed by Ciro Ferri (1634-1689) in 1672. The true highlight here is the beautiful sculpture of the saint, again hit by three arrows (made of gilded bronze) and resting his head on a suit of segmented Roman armour (lorica segmentata). Apparently there is confusion about who sculpted this Sebastian: was it Antonio Giorgetti (1635-1699), who was a student of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, or was it his younger brother Giuseppe Giorgetti? There seems to be consensus now that the sculpture is in fact Giuseppe’s work, after a design by Ferri.
In the sanctuary we find an altar which was made from an ancient sarcophagus dating back to the fifth century. It was clearly a Christian sarcophagus, as we see three scenes that are distinctly Christian: the arrest of Saint Peter (left), Christ and his two chief apostles (centre) and the raising of Lazarus from the dead (right). There is no longer any image of the deceased on the lid of the sarcophagus. Either the object never had such an image, indicating that it was never used for a burial, or it was removed a long time ago.
On the right side of the nave, at the back, we find the large Albani Chapel. It was commissioned in the early eighteenth century by Pope Clemens XI (1700-1721), who had been born Giovanni Francesco Albani and was actually of Albanian descent. The chapel was designed by Carlo Fontana (1634/38-1714), who worked on the chapel between 1706 and 1712, before leaving and letting others finish it around 1714. The Albani Chapel replaced a previous chapel designed and constructed by Flaminio Ponzio (see above). Both were dedicated to Pope Fabianus (and the Albani Chapel still is). Fabianus was bishop of Rome from 236 until 250 and was martyred during the persecutions launched by the emperor Decius (249-251). He was buried in the Crypt of the Popes in the catacombs of San Callisto, but his remains were later translated to the San Sebastiano. The reason may have been that Fabianus and Sebastian share a feast day (20 January).
The relics of Pope Fabianus were enshrined under the altar of the Albani Chapel, but parts of them ended up in the Chapel of the Relics, also on the right side of the nave. This chapel will no doubt be of greater interest to religious pilgrims than to casual tourists and history enthusiasts. However, it does contain a piece of basalt stone with the alleged footprints of none other than Jesus Christ himself. The footprints were originally in the small church of Domine Quo Vadis about a mile further to the north. The name of the church refers to a (surely fictional) incident that is supposed to have taken place here. It is mentioned in the apocryphal Acts of Peter. Saint Peter tried to flee from Rome to escape from the persecution of Christians by the emperor Nero. While walking along the Via Appia, he suddenly met Christ who was going the other way. Peter asked the Saviour Domine Quo Vadis? (“My Lord, where are you going to?”) Christ, apparently as fluent in Latin as Peter, answered Eo Romam iterum crucifigi, “I am going to Rome to be crucified again”. Now obviously Peter was not going to let that happen. He turned around, went back to Rome and was crucified there himself (see Rome: San Pietro in Montorio).
The footprints were taken to the San Sebastiano in the early sixteenth century; the Domine Quo Vadis now only has a copy. Unfortunately for pilgrims the footprints have nothing to do with Christ, nor with Christianity. They were originally a votive offering by a pagan traveller who had returned safely from a journey.
The final highlight in the church is the bust of Jesus Christ as the Salvator Mundi (Saviour of the World), which is generally attributed to Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680). It can be found directly to the right of the entrance. The sculpture was Bernini’s last work, executed in 1679 when the artist was already an octogenarian. The Salvator Mundi was somehow lost during the eighteenth century, but was ‘rediscovered’ in the monastery adjacent to the San Sebastiano as late as 2001. There can be no doubt that it is a splendid sculpture.
- Cambridge Dictionary of Classical Civilization, Paperback edition 2008, p. 171;
- Capitool Reisgidsen Rome, 2009 Dutch edition, p. 265;
- Fik Meijer, Via Appia, p. 116 and p. 119-121;
- Henk Singor, Constantijn, p. 271 and p. 283;
- Information panel in the church museum;
- Luc Verhuyck, SPQR. Anekdotische reisgids voor Rome, p. 42 and p. 45;
- San Sebastiano fuori le Mura on Churches of Rome Wiki.
 Cambridge Dictionary of Classical Civilization, Paperback edition 2008, p. 171.
 Henk Singor, Constantijn, p. 271 and p. 283.
 He is still vilified as the man who had Saint Catherina of Alexandria executed. The execution is supposed to have taken place in Alexandria, which was way outside the territories controlled by Maxentius (see Milan: San Nazaro in Brolo).