Rome: Sant’Anastasia

Church of Sant’Anastasia.

People standing in front of the church of Sant’Anastasia will probably not realise that this is one of the oldest churches in the city. The history of the church possibly goes back to the first quarter of the fourth century, when Christianity had just become an allowed religion (religio licita) again. Unfortunately virtually nothing from that era has been preserved. I myself discovered the church more or less by accident, when I was looking for a place to rest after a long walk on a cold winter day. I ended up on the square in front of the church, where I found a couple of benches. Back then – it was in 2017 – the church was still open 24 hours a day and seven days a week. This was the result of a decision taken by the priest of Sant’Anastasia in 2001 to institute a Perpetual Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. Regretfully this decision has recently been reversed, for in 2020 the church was granted to the Syro-Malabar Church, that has its roots in India (Syro refers to the liturgical language used, which is Syriac). During my visit in January of 2022, which also happened to take place in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, the church was only open on Sundays. The Perpetual Adoration is clearly a thing of the past now: the sign with the words Adorazione Perpetua had been dumped in an alley next to the church.

Early history

The church is situated just north of the famous Circus Maximus, at the foot of the Palatine Hill. During the reign of the Roman emperor Augustus (27 BCE-14 CE) his domus or palace stood on that hill. The domus Augusti was actually a whole complex, comprising a public part (domus publica), a private part (domus privata), a temple of Apollo, a library or curia and many other rooms, galleries and courtyards. A large part of the complex was supported by a substructure that had been built against the Palatine Hill. The southern courtyard probably had a balcony or maenianum, that would later serve as the substructure of the Sant’Anastasia. The balcony allowed Augustus and his successors to watch the races in the Circus Maximus. Deep inside the substructure, against the slope of the Palatine, may have been the Lupercal, the cave in which in according to tradition the she-wolf had suckled the twins Romulus and Remus.[1] The domus Augusti must, by the way, not be confused with the domus Augustana, which is the much larger palace that was built by the emperor Domitianus (81-96).

The church seen from the Circus Maximus.

In the age of the Severan emperors (193-235) an apartment block or insula was built against the aforementioned maenianum. On the ground floor of the insula there were tabernae or shops, where presumably snacks and other stuff were sold to the visitors of the adjacent Circus, which could accommodate approximately 250,000 spectators. The complex was probably imperial property, as a set of stairs in the insula gave access to the maenianum. At the start of the fourth century a Christian chapel or small church was built on this platform, possibly by a woman named Anastasia. The emperor Constantine (312-337) had a half-sister named Anastasia.[2] She was most definitely a Christian woman, which is demonstrated by her name alone: Anastasia refers to the anastasis or Resurrection of Christ. It is not inconceivable that it was the half-sister who founded the chapel, although we do not have any direct evidence to back up this assumption. The location of the chapel was remarkable. The little building, presumably in the shape of a Greek cross with a circular apse, stood close to the imperial palace. And so the titulus Anastasiae clearly indicated that a new era had begun, a Christian era.

No more ‘Adorazione Perpetua’.

According to the Atlas of Ancient Rome it was in this church that Christmas was celebrated on 25 December for the first time, probably in 326. I do not know where the authors got the year 326 from. It may have been derived from the assumption that the emperor Constantine himself was involved in the founding of the titulus Anastasiae and that he attended the Christmas celebration here. After 326 Constantine never visited Rome again. According to the so-called Chronograph of 354 the 25th of December was the birthday of Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun. The Chronograph has another entry for 25 December as well: NATVS CHRISTVS IN BETLEEM IVDEAE, or ‘Christ born in Bethlehem in Judea’. This is the oldest known reference to the birth of Christ on 25 December, and at the same time a strong indication that by the mid-fourth century this date was generally accepted by Christians as the date for Christmas. More about this date here. Previously the birthday of Christ had been celebrated on 6 January, now the date for Epiphany.[3]

Later history

Pope Damasus I (366-384) had a fresco painted in the apse of the church, which was replaced with a mosaic by Pope Hilarius (461-468). Then at the end of the fifth century the relics of another Anastasia arrived in Rome. It is to this Saint Anastasia that the church is dedicated, so not to Constantine’s half-sister, who was never venerated as a saint. Little is known of Anastasia, but she was from the Balkans, possibly from Sirmium, and she was martyred during the persecution of Christians instigated by the emperor Diocletianus (284-306). Her feast day is, remarkably, the 25th of December. At the time of the arrival of her relics Rome and most of Italy were administered by the Ostrogothic king Theoderic (489-526). It is possible that during his reign the small, almost square church was enlarged and changed into a rectangular basilica with a nave and aisles. An alternative theory is that this change was effected during the pontificate of Pope Leo III (795-816), who launched a renovation project that was continued by Pope Gregorius IV (827-844). However this may be, the enlargement of the church led to the disappearance of the insula from the third century. The left aisle of the church now rested on the remains of the apartment block, but the right aisle was built over an alley (vicus). Here arches and pillars had to be built to provide new foundations.

Interior of the church.

The new and enlarged church was still in effect on the first floor of the apartment complex. While the older chapel could be reached by using a set of stairs in the insula, the new building also had a staircase, which was built against the façade. On the ground floor the tabernae continued to operate for several more centuries. Its connection with the imperial palace ensured that the Sant’Anastasia remained an important church for a very long time. Moreover, this was the church where the ashes for Lent were distributed. A problem arose, however, when the relics of Saint Anastasia were translated to Zadar in present-day Croatia in the eighth century. Without its relics the church had little religious significance. Later it did manage to acquire rather dubious new relics, but these failed to draw fresh hordes of pilgrims to the Sant’Anastasia. The church was nevertheless restored under the popes Innocentius III (1198-1216) and Sixtus IV (1471-1484). Between 1598 and 1618 it was provided with a new façade. On this occasion the square in front of the church was raised, a project that left the shops (closed for centuries by now) and staircase underground. With the square raised and the staircase gone, a climbing tour was no longer necessary to enter the church.

The new façade had a portico, which was unfortunately destroyed by a tornado in 1634. Pope Urbanus VIII (1623-1644) subsequently hired the architect Luigi Arrigucci (1575-after 1652) from Florence to build a new façade. What we see today, is Arrigucci’s creation. Under the direction of the architect Carlo Gimach (1651-1730) the interior of the church was then also remodelled. Gimach was from the island of Malta and had Maltese, French and Palestinian roots. He is buried in this church. More restorations were ordered in the nineteenth century under the popes Pius VII (1800-1823) and Pius IX (1846-1878), while in the twentieth century the American cardinal James Francis McIntyre (1886-1979) had much work done. In spite of all these efforts, the church suffered from instability. As was already mentioned, it had been built on a platform or balcony, on the remains of an apartment block and over an alley. After hundreds of years these foundations proved to be insufficient and the church had to be closed for twenty years. It was not until 2000 that the doors were reopened, and the next year – perhaps to make amends – the Adorazione Perpetua was instituted.

Things to see

No matter how interesting the history of the Sant’Anastasia may be, people looking for art with a capital A have no reason to visit this church. The façade of the church is plain and simple. It basically consists of brick and decorations made of limestone. In the large triangular pediment we see the coat-of-arms of Pope Urbanus VIII, featuring the three bees of the Barberini family (his real name was Maffeo Barberini). The church has two bell-towers, but only the one on the left actually has bells. Above the entrance are the words ADOREMUS – ‘let us adore’ – but putting this invitation into practice is easier said than done these days.

Ceiling of the church.

The church has a Baroque interior, where we see the whitewashed walls contrast sharply with the colourful ceiling and the floor. Unfortunately the medieval Cosmatesque floor was lost in the eighteenth-century renovation. This renovation had been commissioned by the Portuguese cardinal Nuno da Cunha e Ataíde (1664-1750), whose coat-of-arms features prominently on the triumphal arch, where it is supported by two angels and a putto. The angels are holding a scroll that has the cardinal’s name on it and the year 1722. Below the red cardinal’s hat we read the letters IHS, which suggests that the cardinal was a Jesuit. The coat-of-arms on the floor is that of James Francis McIntyre. Along the walls are Roman columns that must have once had a supportive function, but now only serve decorative purposes. The columns are not identical and must therefore have been taken from several different buildings as spolia.

The beautiful ceiling in blue, red and gold has all kinds of intricate patterns. The text on the ceiling refers to the seventeenth year of the pontificate of Pope Pius VII (so to 1817) and the central scene depicts the martyrdom of Saint Anastasia. The scene was painted by Michelangelo Cerruti (1663-1749).

Onorio Longhi (1568-1619) designed the high altar of the church. Below the altar is a recumbent statue of Saint Anastasia made by Ercole Ferrata (1610-1686). A photo of the statue can be found here. It is generally assumed that the sculptor was inspired by Bernini’s statue of Blessed Ludovica Albertoni in the church of San Francesco a Ripa. The altarpiece was painted by Lazzaro Baldi (ca. 1624-1703). More works by him can be found elsewhere in the church. Other artists who were active here include the Frenchman Étienne Parrocel (1696-1775/1776), Pier Francesco Mola (1612-1666) and Domenichino (1581-1641).

Sources

  • Andrea Carandini (ed.), The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 1, p. 261-262 and ill.10;
  • Andrea Carandini (ed.), The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 2, Tab. 71-72 and 88b;
  • Henk Singor, Constantijn, p. 114;
  • Luc Verhuyck, SPQR. Anekdotische reisgids voor Rome, p. 183-184;
  • Sant’Anastasia on Churches of Rome Wiki.

Notes

[1] For a reconstruction, see Andrea Carandini (ed.), The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 1, ill. 10 and part 2, Tab. 72.

[2] Constantine had her husband, one Bassianus, murdered in 316. He was said to have been involved in a plot against the emperor.

[3] Henk Singor, Constantijn, p. 114.

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