It is highly unlikely one will find hordes of tourists at the church of San Pancrazio. This is easily explained, as the church is very far from the historical centre of Rome and does not possess any great artistic treasures. What the church did have in terms of art was largely stolen, destroyed or otherwise lost in the past. Nevertheless, I would still recommend a visit to the San Pancrazio because of the interesting history of the building. That history goes back a long way, probably even to the beginning of the fourth century. In those days there was a martyr named Saint Pancratius or Saint Pancras, to whom the church is dedicated. According to tradition he was martyred along the Via Aurelia in Rome when he was just fourteen years old. His martyrdom is said to have taken place in 303 or 304, so he must have been a victim of the persecution of Christians instigated by the emperor Diocletianus. After his death by decapitation he was buried in a set of catacombs that had been in existence since the first century CE. Soon a cult began to flourish there dedicated to the veneration of Saint Pancratius.
History of the church
The first church on this spot was built during the pontificate of Pope Symmachus (498-514). It was administered by the clergy of the church of San Crisogono in Trastevere. Pope Gregorius the Great (590-604) then founded a monastery at the San Pancrazio and appointed a certain Maurus as its abbot. Initially the monks also administered the church, but later lost control again when it was returned to the staff of the San Crisogono at an unspecified moment. This caused the church and the adjacent monastery to be strictly separated until 1205. In the meantime the San Pancrazio had become a popular destination for pilgrims, who came to Rome in droves to pray at Pancratius’ grave. During the pontificate of Pope Honorius I (625-638) the church was rebuilt. Honorius had a crypt or confessio built below the high altar where the relics of the martyr were enshrined. This explains the presence of a raised choir in the church. Pancratius’ head was not kept here: it was taken to the cathedral of San Giovanni in Laterano.
From the eleventh century, at the latest, the adjacent monastery was inhabited by Benedictines, who also controlled the church starting in 1205. Between 1244 and 1249 their abbot had the interior of the San Pancrazio thoroughly renovated and embellished. Unfortunately virtually nothing is left of the beautiful Cosmatesque decorations that were made on that occasion. Between 1255 and 1438 the church and monastery were administered by Cistercian nuns, who in their turn were succeeded by Augustinian friars of the Congregation of Saint Ambrose. These Ambrosians left in 1517, and the church was subsequently made titular. In the meantime a large restoration of the building had been ordered by Pope Sixtus IV (1471-1484).
The next important restoration took place between 1606 and 1609. In September of 1606 Ludovico de Torres (1551-1609) had been created cardinal and had been granted the San Pancrazio as his titular church. Together with his nephew Cosimo de Torres (1584-1642) he launched a project that, among other things, led to the current façade and the current wooden ceiling of the church. Moreover, the cardinal had the remains of Pancratius taken from the crypt and enshrined in a porphyry sarcophagus below the high altar. Ludovico de Torres left his name above each of the three entrances of the church. There we read the words LVDOVICVS CARD MONTIS REGALIS. The last two words refer to the fact that the cardinal was also archbishop of Monreale on Sicily. Remarkably, his uncle – also called Ludovico – and his aforementioned nephew Cosimo also served as archbishops of Monreale.
Cardinal Ludovico de Torres died after less than three years in that office, which makes it rather improbable that he ever completed his large restoration programme. The cardinal did manage to finish the reconstruction of the side aisles of the building. These had been sacrificed at some point during the Middle Ages, much like at the church of San Vitale elsewhere in Rome. Since the latter church was remodelled during the pontificate of Pope Sixtus IV, so in the last quarter of the fifteenth century, it has been assumed that the intervention at the San Pancrazio took place around the same time. However, it cannot be ruled out that the aisles were sacrificed as early as 1255, when the Cistercian nuns settled at the complex. In any case, since 1606-1609 the San Pancrazio is a classical basilica again, with a central nave and side aisles.
In 1662 the church was acquired by Discalced Carmelites, and they are still here. Unfortunately the complex was looted in 1798 by French troops and then severely damaged in 1849 by the forces of the Italian revolutionary Garibaldi. On the latter occasion the relics of Saint Pancratius were lost. Fortunately there was still the head of the martyr, which had been taken to the cathedral of San Giovanni in Laterano ages ago (see above). To compensate for the loss of the other body parts, a piece of the head was donated to the San Pancrazio in the nineteenth century, and then in 1973 the entire skull. The church has been parochial since 1931, which explains why I found a handful of worshippers when I wanted to visit the church during my stay in Rome in January of this year. The church, which is about 56 metres deep, is evidently much too large for the small groups of churchgoers that continue to frequent the building. The size of the building is, however, indicative of the popularity of Saint Pancratius in the seventh century.
Things to see
Among the church possessions looted by the French were two pulpits with Cosmatesque decorations. Of these just a small piece has been preserved, which has been attached to a pillar in the left aisle (see above). The Cosmatesque floor has been lost as well; the current floor dates from 1934 and is better left undiscussed. Very interesting (and clearly modern) is the lectern in the choir which also sports Cosmatesque decorations (see above). Part of it is a little statue of Saint Pancratius himself, a fourteen-year-old boy. The apse fresco was painted in 1959 by Luigi Ciotti. It replaced a seventeenth-century work by an anonymous painter. Apparently the painter Luigi Ciotti has also remained relatively unknown. I have not been able to find any information about him, but he should definitely not be confused with the priest and anti-Mafia activist of the same name.
The head of Pancratius is no longer kept below the high altar, but has been moved to a niche in the right aisle. In the niche we find a reliquary in the shape of a bust of the martyr. Pancratius’ skull is kept inside. The sculpted relief above the niche depicts how Pancratius is decapitated by the sword. In the sky we see a hovering putto with a laurel wreath and palm branch, the regular attributes of a Christian martyr. Close by is a sign with the Latin text:
HIC FVIT DECOLLATVS SANTVS PACRATIVS
(“This is where Saint Pancratius was decapitated”)
The spelling PACRATIVS, without the ‘n’, is remarkable, while the font used suggests that the sign is both original and quite old. The sign by the niche is clearly not old: it has the same text, but now in Italian.
The church has a splendid wooden ceiling, which reminded me of that of the church of San Sebastiano fuori le Mura. One important difference is that the latter ceiling has been painted and that in the San Pancrazio has not. It is conceivable that there were in fact plans to paint it, but perhaps the untimely death of cardinal Ludovico de Torres, a lack of funds or other reasons threw a spanner in the works. In the centre of the ceiling we again see an image of Saint Pancratius, now with a sword and palm branch. Above and below the part featuring the saint we see carved little towers, which are a reference to the De Torres family. The family was originally from Malaga in Spain, but both Ludovico de Torres and his nephew Cosimo had been born in Rome. The ceiling furthermore features the coat of arms of Pope Paulus V (1605-1621).
The towers return in the choir, where we find frescoes that are attributed to Antonio Tempesta (1555-1630). They are not impressive, but in a church where so much art has been lost anything is welcome. On the left Saint Pancratius himself and his uncle (PATRVVS) Dionysius have been depicted, and on the right Saint Calepodius with another Saint Pancratius, the rather legendary first bishop of Taormina on Sicily. Calepodius is seen as the first priest of the church of Santa Maria in Trastevere. He was martyred in 232 and a Roman catacomb was named after him. In the past it has often been confused with the catacomb of San Pancratius. This latter catacomb should be open to the public, but it was unfortunately closed the last time I visited Rome.
The chapel to the left of the choir is the Cappella del Santissimo. Here we find the most important work of art in the church, an altarpiece by the Venetian painter Iacopo Negretti, nicknamed Palma il Giovane (ca. 1548-1632). The rather dark work represents the Ecstasy of Teresa of Ávila (1515-1582). She was beatified in 1615 and canonised in 1622, while the work dates from 1618. An angel is about to pierce the heart of the saint with his spear. The same event was immortalised by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) in his famous statue of Teresa for the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria. However, it is hard to deny that Palma’s version of the Ecstasy is a lot more chaste.
Further reading: Churches of Rome Wiki.