Rome: The church of the Frisians

The church of the Frisians.

The church of the Frisians has been the Dutch national church in Rome since 1989. Its official name is the church of Santi Michele e Magno. San Michele is of course Saint Michael the Archangel, who was credited with ending a terrible plague in Rome in 590. The archangel appeared on top of Hadrian’s mausoleum and put his sword back in the scabbard to indicate that the plague was over. The mausoleum was henceforth known as the Castel Sant’Angelo. It can be found at a distance of some 600 metres from the church.

San Magno is Saint Magnus of Trani, a rather obscure saint from the second or third century. The exact link between this Magnus and the medieval Frisians is not entirely clear[1], but in the twelfth century one of the saint’s arms ended up in Esens in East-Frisia in present-day Germany. This demonstrates that Frisia in the Middle Ages covered a much larger area than just the current Dutch province of Friesland. Frisians in those days were all the people living along the coast of the North Sea, which ran from West Flanders and the Netherlands through Germany all the way on to Denmark. At some point the word ‘Frisian’ also became a synonym for a trader, so that a merchant from England could also be considered a Frisian. The church of the Frisians was therefore open to all merchants and sailors from the north.[2]

The church of the Frisians, seen from the dome of Saint Peter’s Basilica. The Castel Sant’Angelo is visible in the top left corner.

History

Interior of the church.

At the end of the eighth century, several Germanic peoples – the Frisians, Franks, Saxons and Longobards – founded so-called scholae around Saint Peter’s Basilica as accommodation for pilgrims from their own territories. The word schola is difficult to translate, but an adequate description would be a foreign community that had its own buildings, including a chapel or church. The church of the Frisians was likely built as the chapel of the Schola Frisonum. It is first mentioned in a document published in 854 by Pope Leo IV (847-855). In 1084 the church, which had been built against the slope of the Janiculum, probably sustained heavy damage during the Sack of Rome by the Normans of Robert Guiscard. The Normans have been blamed for damaging other churches in Rome as well, and sometimes it is debatable whether they were truly guilty (see Rome: San Clemente). However, we can as yet be fairly certain that they did damage the church of the Frisians. The Frisians were loyal supporters of the emperor Henry IV, while the Normans for their part had come to Rome to save Henry’s enemy Pope Gregorius VII (1073-1085). So in other words, the Frisians were a legitimate target for Robert Guiscard and his men.

In the twelfth century the church of the Frisians was completely rebuilt. On 30 January 1141 the new church was consecrated by Pope Innocentius II (1130-1143). The campanile next to the church was completed shortly after. The Schola Frisonum was formally ended in 1446 when it was dissolved by Pope Eugenius IV (1431-1447). Between 1755 and 1759 the architect Carlo Murena (1713-1764) led a large restoration project which gave the church its present appearance. Around this time the church must also have been provided with a new organ. The organ is now attributed to Johannes Conradus Wörle (1701-1777); it was previously thought that his student Ignatius Priori (1748-1803) had made it. The organ is in the back of the church, on a balcony that sports the Dutch and Frisian flags, hanging side by side. Dutch visitors – both Catholics and non-Catholics – will immediately feel at home here, especially if they have Frisian roots.

Balcony with the Dutch and Frisian flags.

Things to see

Funerary monument for Anton Raphael Mengs.

The church of the Frisians cannot boast of any great works of art. The altarpiece featuring Saints Michael the Archangel and Magnus was painted by Niccolò Ricciolini (ca. 1687-1772), a relatively unknown artist. In the left aisle we furthermore find a funerary monument for the German painter Anton Raphael Mengs (1728-1779) and his wife, a work of Vincenzo Pacetti (1746-1820). A very interesting object is the tombstone of a Frisian man named Hebe, which was incorporated into the inner wall near the entrance. An image can be found here. The inscription on the tomb – full text here – is usually dated to 1004, since the text seems to refer to the second year of the pontificate of Pope John XVIII (1003-1009). However, the website of the church quotes a professor who asserts that Hebe died in the second year of the pontificate of Pope John IX (898-900), so in 899. That would make the inscription at least 100 years older.

The church of the Frisians has its own Holy Stairs, a Scala Santa (or Sancta in Latin), which people are expected to climb on their knees. The stairs are a replica of the Scala Santa from the palace of Pontius Pilatus in Jerusalem, which can nowadays be found next to the Lateran palace (see Rome: Triclinium Leoninum). The stairs of the church of the Frisians lead to the Borgo Santo Spirito, the street running parallel to the Via della Conciliazione, which is the street connecting Saint Peter’s Basilica to the Tiber.

Sources

Notes

[1] Frisians serving in Charlemagne’s army probably found the remains in the town of Fondi in Lazio.

[2] Luit van der Tuuk, De Friezen, p. 175.

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