06 May 2020

A lockdown ‘virtual
tour’ of a dozen
churches in Rome

The Dome of Saint Peter’s Basilica, seen across the Tiber, towers above the skyline of Rome (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

The lockdown introduced as a response to the Covid-19 pandemic continues to grip most of Europe, and the latest discussions indicate there may be no travel from Ireland to other parts of Europe for the rest of 2020.

But I can still travel in my mind’s eye. And, so, in the spirit of my recent ‘virtual tours’ over the past month or so, I invite you to join me this evening on a virtual tour of a dozen or more churches and basilicas in Rome.

This ‘virtual tour’ takes us through two sovereign territories – Italy and the Holy See – and Vatican sovereignty extends to 13 other buildings speckled across Rome. These extraterritorial anomalies include Castel Sant’Angelo, a number of historical papal palaces, including the Lateran Palace and the Palace of the Holy Office, significant basilicas, including Saint John Lateran, Saint Mary Major and Saint Paul Outside the Walls, and some pontifical colleges, including Propaganda Fide close to the Spanish Steps and the Gregorian University.

1, Saint Peter’s Basilica:

Saint Peter’s Basilica, as a work of architecture, is the greatest building of its age (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The imposing size of Saint Peter’s Basilica and the history of the Papal power make it difficult to grasp that the Vatican has been a sovereign state for less than 80 years and that it is such a tiny independent entity.

The three Lateran treaties in 1929 established the territorial extent of the new state, which is totally landlocked within the City of Rome by a land border of 3.2 km. With a land area of 0.44 sq km (108.7 acres), the Vatican State is comparable in size to a small farm in Ireland and easily outpaced by Europe’s next smallest states, Monaco and San Marino.

The sovereign territory is so tiny that any visitor to Saint Peter’s and the Vatican Museums visits the state many times over, constantly stepping in and out of Vatican and Italian territory.

Queues line up in Saint Peter’s Square in pre-pandemic days to visit Saint Peter’s Basilica (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Papal Basilica of Saint Peter in the Vatican (Basilica Papale di San Pietro in Vaticano) was designed principally by Donato Bramante, Michelangelo, Carlo Maderno and Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Saint Peter’s is the most renowned work of Renaissance architecture and the largest church in the world.

Despite popular perceptions, this is not the cathedral of the Diocese of Rome – this title continues to be held by the Basilica of Saint John Lateran. But Saint Peter’s remains one of the holiest places in the Roman Catholic Church and in world Christianity. Catholic shrines.

Tradition says this is the burial site of Saint Peter, and Saint Peter's tomb is said to be directly below the high altar. Many popes have been buried at Saint Peter’s since the Early Christian period.

A church has stood on this site since the time of Constantine the Great. The construction of the present basilica began in 1506, was completed in 1615, and it was consecrated in 1626. As a work of architecture, it is the greatest building of its age. It is one of the four churches in the world that hold the rank of major basilica, all four of which are in Rome, the other three being Saint John Lateran, Saint Mary Major, and Saint Paul outside the Walls.

2, Santa Maria in Trastevere:

Santa Maria in Trastevere, in the heart of Trastevere (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Trastevere is my favourite part of Rome, and the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere is my favourite churches in Rome. This church is one of the oldest in Rome, it is often the first church I visit when I am in Rome, and I enjoy having lunch by the walls of the church.

The first church here is said to have been as built ca 220 or 221 by Callixtus I (217-222), who founded a house church here on the site of the Taberna meritoria, a refuge for retired soldiers. Callixtus I died in 222 and is said to be buried under the High Altar.

The area was made available to Christians by the Emperor Alexander Severus after he settled a dispute between the Christians and tavern owners, saying: ‘I prefer that it should belong to those who honour God, whatever be their form of worship.’

Pope Julius I (337-352) rebuilt the church in 340, when it became one of the original 25 parishes in Rome, and the basic floor plan and wall structures from that time.

The church was restored in the fifth century and again in the eighth century and was rebuilt in 1140-1143. Pope Innocent II razed the church along with the recently completed tomb of his former rival, the Antipope Anacletus II, and arranged for his own burial on this spot.

The nave of the church preserves the plans of the original basilica and stands on the earlier foundations. The lintel of the entrance door and the 22 granite columns with Ionic and Corinthian capitals that separate the nave from the aisles came from the ruins of the Baths of Caracalla or the nearby Temple of Isis on the nearby Hill of Janiculum.

The mosaics in the apse of Santa Maria in Trastevere (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Inside, there is a number important mosaics from the late 13th century by Pietro Cavallini illustrating the ‘Life of the Virgin’ (1291), including a portrayal in the apse of the ‘Coronation of the Virgin.’

Domenichino’s octagonal ceiling painting, The Assumption of the Virgin (1617) is in the coffered ceiling he designed.

The Avila Chapel designed by Antonio Gherardi, and his Chapel of San Cecilia in San Carlo ai Catinari are two of the most architecturally inventive chapels of late 17th century Rome. In the dome, there is an opening or oculus from which four putti emerge carrying a central tempietto, all of which frames a light-filled chamber above, illuminated by windows not visible from below.

The relics in the church include the head of Saint Apollonia and a portion of the Holy Sponge. Those buried in the church include Pope Callixtus I, Pope Innocent II, the Antipope Anacletus II, Cardinal Philippe of Alençon and Cardinal Lorenzo Campeggio. Here too is the tomb of Cardinal Pietro Stefaneschi, the last of his line, who died in 1417.

The Romanesque campanile dates from the 12th century. Near the top, a niche holds a mosaic of the Madonna and Child. The mosaics on the façade, dating from the 12th century, depict the Madonna feeding the Christ Child, flanked by ten women holding lamps. The façade of the church was restored in 1702 by Carlo Fontana, who replaced the ancient porch with a sloping tiled roof with the present classicizing one. The balustrade above includes statues of four popes.

During 19th century restorations, scholars identified the faces carved on the columns as those of Isis, Serapis and Harpocrates, and the offending faces were hammered off in a wilful act of defacing and destruction.

The past cardinal priests who have held the honorary titulus of Santa Maria in Trastevere have included Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore whose parents came from Co Mayo, Pope Leo XII, Cardinal Józef Glemp of Warsaw, and Cardinal Henry Benedict Stuart, whose coat of arms in the church is topped by a crown instead of a cardinal’s hat – Stuart royalists regarded him as the King Henry IX of England, the last Stuart pretender.

In normal times, this is a friendly and welcoming church, with strong links to the local community and the Community of San’Egidio. The Piazza di Santa Maria in Trastevere is surrounded by bars and restaurants.

3, Santa Maria della Scala, Trastevere:

Santa Maria della Scala in the heart of Trastevere, south of the Porta Settimiana (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

If Trastevere is my favourite quarter of Rome, and the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere my favourite church there, then Santa Maria della Scala in Trastevere is a very different sort of church. With its unassuming façade, few tourists call in on their way from the Vatican through the Porta Settimiana along the Via della Scala into the heart of Trastevere.

Yet, this church has a richly decorated baroque interior, is a good example of a time of great building activity that lasted from the end of the 16th century through to the early 17th century, has links with Garibaldi’s struggle to unify Italy, and hides a secret story about how Caravaggio shamed the local friars.

Santa Maria della Scala, or Our Lady of the Staircase, shares its name with a better-known church in Siena. This is a titular church, that gives its title a cardinal, yet it was built in 1593-1610 to honour a miraculous icon of the Virgin Mary.

Tradition says that the icon was placed on the landing of a staircase of a neighbouring house, where a mother prayed before it and found that her disabled child was cured. The icon is now on display in the north transept, alongside a baroque statue of Saint John of the Cross.

This church was built on the site of a house once owned by Antonio Stinco from Ancona, who bequeathed it to a Casa Pia founded by Pope Pius IV in 1563 for women wishing to ‘convert to an honest life,’ or repentant prostitutes. Saint Charles Borromeo, who was involved in the project, is commemorated in the dedication of a small oratory that once stood next to the church.

The project was initiated by Pope Clement VIII in 1593, with Cardinal Tolomeo Gallio, who was the patron of the Casa Pia. They chose Francesco Capriani da Volterra as the architect. But Capriani died the following year having completed only the nave and side chapels.

In 1597, the unfinished church was entrusted by the Pope to the Discalced Carmelites, much of the artwork in the church has Carmelite themes. The friars contracted Matteo da Città di Castello and Ottaviano Nonni Il Mascherino to build their convent next door, which became one of the most important Carmelite houses.

Nonni died in 1606 and so the work was probably finished by Girolamo Rainaldi, who had worked on one of the side chapels in 1604. The cardinal died in 1607, but his nephew Monsignor Marco Gallio agreed to continue funding and the church was completed in 1610.

The Carmelite friars continued the decorative work throughout the first half of the 17th century. In 1650, almost 50 years after the church was completed, Carlo Rainaldi designed the tempietto-shaped baldacchino with 16 slender jasper Corinthian columns and a high altar.

In 1664, the church was made titular, and Paolo Savelli became the first cardinal deacon. The church was restored in the 1730s, and much of the decoration dates from then.

The façade of the church is restrained but it is large and in some ways it dominates the little piazza in front. The plan of the church is based on a Latin cross, with short transepts that do not extend beyond the walls of the nave aisles. The central dome has a shallow pitched and tiled saucer on an octagonal drum without windows. This has a tall lantern, with its own smaller octagonal cap.

Inside, there are three chapels on each side of the single, three-bay nave, and a transept with a domed crossing, with an altar in each end of the transept. The sanctuary has a single bay, and is continued by a choir with an apse behind the high altar, which has a free-standing, domes baldacchino. This baldacchino has 16 slender Corinthian columns of Sicilian alabaster. The statues of the four Evangelists look like bronze, but are terracotta – the originals were looted in 1849.

The apse of the choir has a painting of the Virgin Mary as Queen of Heaven, flanked by paintings of the Baptism of Christ, the Marriage at Cana, the Last Supper and the Ascension by Lucas de la Haye (Fra Luca Fiammingo), a Carmelite friar. The apse conch has a fresco of Christ with his mother and Saint Joseph, and Carmelite saints.

The side chapels are dedicated to Saint John the Baptist, Saint Hyacinth, Our Lady, Saint Joseph and Saint Anne, Saint Teresa of Jesus, Our Lady of the Staircase, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, the Assumption, the Crucifix or Saint John of the Cross.

The church stands next to a Carmelite monastery that served in the 17th century as the pharmacy of the Papal Court.

In 1849, during the last stages of the Roman Republic’s resistance to the invading French forces, Santa Maria della Scala was a field hospital for Garibaldi’s soldiers. The convent was sequestered by the Italian government in 1873 and turned into a police station, but the Carmelites continue to administer Santa Maria della Scala.

Santa Maria della Scala has a richly decorated baroque interior (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The other paintings in the church include ‘The Death of the Virgin’ by Carlo Saraceni, replacing a more controversial original work by Caravaggio. According to some legends, Caravaggio used the body of a prostitute who had drowned in the Tiber as the model for the dead Virgin Mary. An alternative version says the model was one of the artist’s mistresses. In addition, there are debates about what happened to the Virgin Mary’s body after her death, and the Carmelites at Santa Maria suspected Caravaggio’s treatment of the topic lacked decorum and was close to what they regarded as heresy.

Caravaggio’s original work made its way to the Louvre. However, his altarpiece of ‘The Entombment of Christ’ survives in the Chiesa Nuova or the Church of Santa Maria in Vallicella.

Cardinal Ernest Simoni Troshani became the cardinal of this church in 2016. He is a Franciscan-educated priest who was never consecrated a bishop. He spent 28 years in prison camps in Albania and was sentenced to death twice.

4, Chiesa Nuova, or the Church of Santa Maria in Vallicella:

The Chiesa Nuova or the Church of Santa Maria in Vallicella is closely associated with the life of Saint Philip Neri (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Chiesa Nuova (New Church), known formally as Santa Maria in Vallicella, is closely associated with the life of Saint Philip Neri, and inside I have received a warm welcome and been told the story of both the church and the saint, his emphasis on love and his priorities for the poor and the marginalised in 16th century Rome.

The Chiesa Nuova faces onto the main thoroughfare of the Corso Vittorio Emanuele and the corner of Via della Chiesa Nuova. The first church on this site was built by Saint Gregory the Great, and by the 12th century the church was dedicated to Santa Maria in Vallicella (Our Lady in the Little Valley).

Since the 16th century, this has been the main church of the Oratorians, a congregation of secular priests founded by Saint Philip Neri in 1561. At that time in the Counter-Reformation, a number of similar new religious organisations were founded, including the Society of Jesus or Jesuits. Pope Gregory XIII recognised Saint Philip Neri’s priests as a religious congregation in 1575 and gave them this church and the small convent next door.

With the help of Cardinal Pier Donato Cesi and Pope Gregory XIII, Saint Philip Neri rebuilt the church. When Cardinal Cesi died, his brother Angelo Cesi, Bishop of Todi, continued to support the project. The first architect, Matteo di Città di Castello, was replaced later by Martino Longhi the Elder. The nave was completed in 1577, the church was consecrated in 1599, and the façade, designed by Fausto Rughesi, was completed in 1605 or 1606.

The ground plan of the church follows the Counter-Reformation design of churches established by the Jesuits in the 1550s at the nearby Gesù (Chiesa del Santissimo Nome di Gesù all’Argentina) on the Piazza del Gesù. The church has a single main nave with transepts and side chapels, leading towards the High Altar.

Saint Philip Neri intended a plain interior with whitewashed walls, but after his death, mainly in the period from 1620 to 1690, it was filled by patrons with works of art, including masterpieces by some of the great artists of the day in Rome. Today, the church is renowned for its altarpieces by Barocci, its ceilings by Pietro da Cortona, and the slate and copper altarpiece by Peter Paul Rubens.

Caravaggio’s altarpiece, ‘The Entombment of Christ,’ was commissioned by Alessandro Vittrice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Perhaps the best-known painting in the church is Caravaggio’s altarpiece, ‘The Entombment of Christ,’ although this has not remained in the chapel it was intended for. Caravaggio was commissioned by Alessandro Vittrice, a nephew of one of the friends of Saint Philip Neri, and depicted the entombment in a radically naturalistic format, foreign to the grand manner found in the remaining altarpieces. The original is in the Vatican Pinacoteca.

Saint Philip Neri is buried in the chapel to the left of the choir, in a tomb decorated with mother-of-pearl. Beside the church, the Casa dei Filippini or the House of the Oratorians includes the Oratory designed by the baroque architect Francesco Borromini.

Two fleeting thoughts have passed through my mind as I sat in a pew at the back of the church thinking about its story and its beauty.

The first was of the long line of stucco artists in Rome who handed on their art from one generation to the next, and there was something similar to a line of apostolic succession that eventually brought the art of the stuccodore to my ancestors in Co Wexford in the mid-18th century.

The second was an amusing thought about the way the word presbytery is used in architecture. The chancel is the space around the altar, and includes the choir and the sanctuary, and in architecture this area is sometimes called the presbytery. The word chancel derives from the French use of the Late Latin word cancellous (‘lattice’), referring to the latticed form of a rood screen. The word presbytery, on the other hand, designates the area in a church reserved for the priests. I wondered whether the link between the Roman presbyteries, the priests and the Mass was ever to the fore of the minds of Calvinist Reformers in Scotland and Ireland in the 16th and 17th centuries as they decided to name their churches.

5, San Giovanni in Laterano, or Saint John Lateran:

The Basilica of Saint John Lateran is the cathedral church of Rome … it is here that the Pope has his cathedra as Bishop of Rome (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Archbasilica of Saint John Lateran (Arcibasilica Papale di San Giovanni in Laterano), sometimes known simply as the Lateran Basilica, is the cathedral church of Rome. It is here that the Pope has his cathedra as Bishop of Rome.

This is the oldest of the four major papal basilicas in Rome, the other three being Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, Santa Maria Maggiore or Saint Mary Major, and Saint Paul Outside the Walls. Among these four, Saint John Lateran has precedence as the oldest church. As the cathedral of the Pope as Bishop of Rome, it ranks above all other churches in the Roman Catholic Church, including Saint Peter’s Basilica.

The large Latin inscription on the façade reads: Clemens XII Pont Max Anno V Christo Salvatori In Hon SS Ioan Bapt et Evang; ‘Pope Clement XII, in the fifth year [of his Pontificate], dedicated this building to Christ the Saviour, in honour of Saint John the Baptist and Saint John the Evangelist.’

Saint John Lateran is about 4 km north-west of the Vatican, but the church and its adjoining buildings have extraterritorial status from Italy as one of the sovereign properties of the Holy See, under the Lateran Treaty in 1929.

The basilica stands on the site of the Castra Nova or New Fort of the Roman imperial bodyguards, built by Septimius Severus in AD 193. After the Emperor Constantine defeated Maxentius at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, the guard was abolished and the fort was demolished.

The Lateran Hill takes its name from a palace built by the Laterani family, and the Lateran Palace passed by marriage to Constantine I, who donated it to the Bishops of Rome, who made the place their residence and the church on the site their cathedral.

At an early stage, the basilica was so splendid that it was known as the Basilica Aurea or ‘Golden Basilica.’ The Vandals stripped it of all its treasures, but Pope Leo I restored it ca 460, and it was again restored by Pope Hadrian.

The Lateran was almost totally destroyed by an earthquake in 897, and it is reported that ‘it collapsed from the altar to the doors.’

The basilica and the Lateran Palace were re-dedicated twice. Pope Sergius III dedicated them to Saint John the Baptist in the 10th century in honour of the newly consecrated baptistery. Pope Lucius II dedicated them to Saint John the Evangelist in the 12th century.

From the time of Pope Miltiades, every Pope lived in the Lateran Palace until the reign of the Pope Clement V, who moved the seat of the Papacy to Avignon in France in 1309 following a fire at the Lateran a year earlier.

While the Papacy was in exile in Avignon, the Lateran Palace and the basilica began to deteriorate, and they were damaged severely in two fires ravaged in 1307 and 1361, losing their former splendour. When the Popes returned to Rome, they regarded the basilica and the Palace as inadequate. The Popes lived at the Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere and later at the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore.

Eventually, the Vatican Palace was built beside Saint Peter’s Basilica, and the Popes began to live there.

Several attempts were made to rebuild the basilica. Eventually, Pope Sixtus V commissioned his favourite architect, Domenico Fontana, to supervise the project. The original Lateran Palace was demolished and replaced with a new building.

Inside the basilica, the nave features the original Cosmatesque mosaic floor and gilded wooden ceiling which survived the fires and Borromini’s renovations in the mid 17th century.

The baldacchino or canopy over the High Altar, attributed to Giovanni di Stefano from Siena, was erected for Pope Urban V. Its upper section houses the silver reliquaries of the heads of Saint Peter and Saint Paul.

The papal cathedra or throne sits in the elaborate apse, rich in decoration and mosaics.

The apse, decorated with a large mosaic, was made in 1291 by Jacopo Torriti and others at the initiative of Pope Nicholas IV. Unfortunately, in the 1880s, Pope Leo XIII decided to enlarge the apse. The new apse was decorated with a mosaic that depicts the same scene as the old one, but without the style and technique of Torriti’s work.

Pope Innocent X commissioned further renovations of the interior by Francesco Borromini. Borromini created 12 niches that were filled in 1718 with statues of the Apostles, sculpted by the most prominent Roman sculptors of the day. Each statue was sponsored by an illustrious prince, with Pope Clement XI sponsoring the statue of Saint Peter and Cardinal Benedetto Pamphili sponsoring the statue of Saint John the Evangelist.

Pope Clement XII commissioned a new neo-classical façade by Alessandro Galilei and this was completed in 1735. Galilei removed all vestiges of the traditional, ancient, architecture of the basilica was removed, and it has often been described as the façade of a palace rather than a church.

Pope Clement XII also placed an ancient statue of the Emperor Constantine in the portico. The arms and the lower part of the body are a Renaissance addition. This statue is very similar to another ancient one at Piazza del Campidoglio. Art historians today suggest they might portray one of Constantine’s sons.

The portico contains the bronze doors of Curia Julia, the hall where the Roman Senate had its meetings. These were used for the central entrance to the basilica, but because of they were smaller in size they were placed inside a bronze frame that was decorated with the heraldic symbols of Pope Alexander VII. At least six Popes are buried here and in 1907and Leo XIII, who in 1907 was the last pope not to be buried in Saint Peter’s Basilica.

In the mediaeval cloisters in Saint John Lateran (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

A great monastery was attached once to the Lateran, and the 13th century cloisters survive. These cloisters are surrounded by graceful, twisted columns of inlaid marble that are the work of Vasselletto, father and son, and the Cosmati.

The cloisters were built in the early 13th century and completed by 1234 on the site of previous cloisters, and retaining the original well in the centre. The cloisters were used by a community of Canons Regular, who followed the rule of Saint Augustine and were in charge of liturgy in the basilica.

These must be the most beautiful cloisters in Rome. The ambulatory houses a ninth century well and small garden, making this a secret oasis in the centre of Rome.

The octagonal baptistery stands apart from the basilica. It was founded by Pope Sixtus III, perhaps on the site of an earlier baptistery, and there is a legend that Emperor Constantine I was baptised there.

The Lateran Palace was designed for Pope Sixtus V by Domenico Fontana who rebuilt aqueducts, relocated obelisks, revived conduits and fountains, and opened new streets and vistas. The Palace was completed in 1589, but the Popes preferred to live in Palazzo del Quirinale and eventually this large building was used as a hospital or a hospice. The palace still belongs to the Holy See and houses an historical museum of the Papal State.

The mosaics on the Tribune of Triclinio Leoniano beside the Scala Santa (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Beside the basilica, Fontana also built the Scala Santa, a palace housing what is said to be the staircase from Pontius Pilate’s house in Jerusalem. According to tradition, this staircase was brought to Rome by Saint Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine. Pious people only climb it 28 steps on their knees, to avoid stepping on the footsteps of Christ.

During World War II, the Lateran and its buildings were used under Pope Pius XII as a safe haven from the Nazis for numbers Jews and other refugees.

The President of the French Republic is ex officio the ‘first and only honorary canon’ of the basilica, a title held by the heads of state of France since King Henry IV. In a similar way, the King of Spain is ex officio an honorary canon of Saint Mary Major.

6, Santa Maria Maggiore, Saint Mary Major:

The Basilica of Saint Mary Major stands on the summit of the Esquiline Hill (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore or Basilica of Saint Mary Major is a Papal basilica, along with Saint John Lateran, Saint Peter’s, and Saint Paul outside the Walls, and is also the largest Roman Catholic church in Rome dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Of all the great churches in Rome, this church has the most successful blend of different architectural styles, and has magnificent mosaics.

Under the Lateran Treaty of 1929, Saint Mary Major stands on Italian sovereign territory and not the territory of the Vatican City State. However, the Vatican fully owns the basilica, and in Italian law it enjoys full diplomatic immunity.

This ancient basilica enshrines the image of Salus Populi Romani, depicting the Virgin Mary as the protector of the Roman people.

The Basilica is sometimes known as Our Lady of the Snows, with a feast day on 5 August. The church has also been called Saint Mary of the Crib because of a relic of the crib or Bethlehem brought to the church in the time of Pope Theodore I (640-649).

A popular story says that during the reign of Pope Liberius, a Roman patrician named John and his wife, who had no heirs, decided to donate their possessions to the Virgin Mary. On the night of 5 August, at the height of summer, snow fell on the summit of the Esquiline Hill. That night, this couple resolved to build a basilica in honour of the Virgin Mary on the place that was covered in snow.

However, this story only dates from the 14th century and has no historical basis. Even in the early 13th century, a tradition had common currency that Pope Liberius had built the basilica in his own name, and for long it was known as the Liberian Basilica. The feast of the dedication was inserted for the first time into the General Roman Calendar as late as 1568.

Despite appearances, the earliest building on the site was the Liberian Basilica or Santa Maria Liberiana, named after Pope Liberius (352-366). It is said Pope Liberius transformed a palace of the Sicinini family into a church, which was known as the Sicinini Basilica.

Pope Sixtus III (432-440) replaced this first church with a new church dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Santa Maria Maggiore, one of the first churches built in honour of the Virgin Mary, was built in the immediate aftermath of the Council of Ephesus in 431, which proclaimed the Virgin Mary the Mother of God.

The Coronation of Mary depicted in the apse mosaic (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The present church retains the core of this structure, despite several later building projects and damage caused by an earthquake in 1348, and Saint Mary Major was restored, redecorated and extended by successive popes, including Eugene III, Nicholas IV, Clement X and Benedict XIV.

When the Popes returned to Rome after the papal exile in Avignon, the Lateran Palace was in such a sad state of disrepair, and Saint Mary Major and its buildings provided a temporary Palace. Later they moved to the Palace of the Vatican on the other side of the River Tiber.

The interior of Santa Maria Maggiore underwent a broad renovation in 1575-1630, encompassing all its altars. In the 1740s, Pope Benedict XIV commissioned Ferdinando Fuga to build the present façade and to modify the interior. The 12th-century façade was masked during this rebuilding project, with a screening loggia added in 1743. However, Fuga did not damage the mosaics of the façade.

The Athenian marble columns supporting the nave may have come from the first basilica, or from another antique Roman building. The 16th century coffered ceiling is said to be gilded with the first gold brought back from the Americas by Christopher Columbus and presented by Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain to Alexander VI.

The canopied high altar is reserved for Mass said by the Pope, the basilica’s archpriest and a small number of priests.

The unique treasure in Saint Mary Major is be the fifth century mosaics, commissioned by Sixtus III. They include some of the oldest depictions of the Virgin Mary in Christian art, celebrating the declaration of her as the Theotokos or Mother of God at the Council of Ephesus in 431. The nave mosaics recount four cycles of sacred history featuring Abraham, Jacob, Moses and Joshua; seen together, they tell of God’s promise to the Jewish people and his assistance as they strive to reach it. Christ’s childhood, as told in apocryphal Gospels, is illustrated in four images in the triumphal arch.

In the 13th century, Nicholas IV, the first Franciscan pope, decided to destroy the old apse and build the present one, placing it several meters back in order to create a transept for the choir between the arch and the apse. The decoration of the apse is the work of the Franciscan friar Jacopo Torriti, and the work was paid for by Cardinals Giacomo and Pietro Colonna.

Under the High Altar, the Crypt of the Nativity or Bethlehem Crypt has a crystal reliquary designed by Giuseppe Valadier and said to contain wooden relics from the Crib of the Christ Child in Bethlehem. Th crypt is also the burial place of Saint Jerome, who translated the Bible into Latin or Vulgate version and died in 420.

In 1995, a new, rose window in stained glass was created for the main façade by Giovanni Hajnal. It reaffirms the declaration of the Second Vatican Council that Mary, the exalted daughter of Zion, is the link that unites the Church as the New Covenant to the Old Testament and the Covenant with the Children of Israel. To symbolise the Old Testament, Hajnal used the two tablets of the Ten Commandments and the seven-branched Menorah or candlestick, and for the New Testament he used the Cross, the Host and the Chalice of the Eucharist.

The church is served by Redemptorist and Dominican priests. In the portico, there is a fine statue by Bernini and Lucenti of King Philip IV of Spain, one of the benefactors of the church. The King of Spain is ex officio a lay canon of the basilica, as the President of France is ex officio an honorary canon of Saint John Lateran.

7, The Pantheon, Santa Maria ad Martyres (Saint Mary and the Martyrs), Santa Maria Rotonda:

The Pantheon is Rome’s best-preserved ancient temple (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Pantheon is Rome’s best-preserved ancient temple, and has been in continuous use, first as a temple, and then as a church, throughout its 2,000-year history. This magnificent building has an awe-inspiring dome, and for many people it is a symbol of Rome itself.

Although the Pantheon is now a church, this is a former Roman temple, first built by Marcus Agrippa during the reign of his father-in-law Augustus (27 BC-14 AD). The present building was completed by the Emperor Hadrian (118-125 AD) and was dedicated ca 126 AD.

This is one of the best-preserved of all Ancient Roman buildings, and it has been in continuous use throughout its history.

The building is circular with a portico of large granite Corinthian columns (eight in the first rank and two groups of four behind) under a pediment. A rectangular vestibule links the porch to the rotunda, which is under a coffered concrete dome, with an oculus or central opening to the sky.

Now, 2,000 years after it was first built, the dome of the Pantheon remains the world’s largest dome not built of reinforced concrete. The height to the oculus and the diameter of the interior circle are the same, 43.3 metres, so the whole interior would fit exactly within a cube. The dimensions make more sense when expressed in ancient Roman units of measurement: the dome spans 150 Roman feet and the oculus is 30 Roman feet in diameter.

The interior of the dome was possibly intended to symbolise the arched vault of the heavens. The oculus at the dome’s apex and the entry door are the only natural sources of light in the interior. Throughout the day, the light from the oculus moves around this space in a reverse sundial effect. The oculus also serves as a cooling and ventilation method. During storms, a drainage system below the floor handles the rain that falls through the oculus.

Brick arches embedded in the structure of the wall act as internal buttresses, distributing the weight of the dome.

Inside the Pantheon … it continues to be used as a church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The name of the Pantheon is derived from the Ancient Greek Pantheion (Πάνθειον), either because the statues of so many gods were once placed around this building, or because the dome resembles the heavens. Another explanation that is now questioned says the original temple was dedicated to all the gods.

The inscription on the front of the temple reads: M-Agrippa-L-F-Cos-Tertium-Fecit, M[arcus] Agrippa L[ucii] f[ilius] co[n]s[ul] tertium fecit, ‘Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, made [this building] when consul for the third time.’

However, the first Augustan Pantheon built by Agrippa was completely destroyed by fire, except for the façade, in the year 80 AD. Domitian rebuilt the Pantheon, but it was burnt again in 110 AD. The present building probably dates from 114, four years after the temple was destroyed by that second fire.

The building was repaired in 202 by the joint emperors Septimius Severus and his son Caracalla.

Since the seventh century, the Pantheon has been used as a church dedicated to Saint Mary and the Martyrs, but known informally as Santa Maria Rotonda. In 609, the Byzantine Emperor Phocas gave the building to Boniface IV, who converted it into a church dedicated to Saint Mary and the Martyrs It is said 28 cartloads of relics of martyrs were removed from the catacombs and placed in a porphyry basin beneath the high altar.

The conversion of the temple into a church may have saved the building from being abandoned and falling into ruin. Yet, much fine external marble has been removed over the centuries, and capitals from some of the pilasters are in the British Museum in London.

At his own request, the painter Raphael was buried in the Pantheon when he died in 1520. He had lived for many years with his model and lover, La Firnarina, but he turned her away from his deathbed and she was kept away from his burial. His fiancée, Maria Bibbiena, a niece of his patron, Cardinal Dovizi di Bibbiena, is buried to the right of his sarcophagus – she died before they could marry.

In the early 17th century, Pope Urban VIII removed the bronze ceiling of the portico. Most of the bronze was used to make bombards for the fortification of Castel Sant’Angelo, and it is also said that the bronze was used by Bernini in his baldacchino or canopy above the high altar in Saint Peter’s Basilica. Pope Urban VIII also replaced the mediaeval campanile with twin towers or turrets, ridiculed as ‘the ass’s ears’ and removed in the late 19th century.

The present high altars and the apses were commissioned by Pope Clement XI and designed by Alessandro Specchi. On the apse above the high altar is a seventh century Byzantine icon of the Virgin and Child, given by the Emperor Phocas to Pope Boniface IV in 609.

The marble interior has largely survived, and the marble floor, restored in 1873, preserves the original Roman design.

The Fontana del Pantheon in the Piazza della Rotonda in front of the Pantheon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Along with Raphael, those buried here include painters, composers and architects, as well as two kings of Italy, Vittorio Emanuele II and Umberto I, and King Umberto’s wife, Queen Margherita, and their tombs have become shrines for Italy's sad and dwindling number of royalists.

The Pantheon is owned by the Italian state but continues to be used as a Catholic church, and weddings take place here from time to time.

In the Piazza della Rotonda in front of the Pantheon, the Fontana del Pantheon was commissioned by Pope Gregory XIII. The Macuteo obelisk, which dates from the reign of Ramses II in Egypt, is set in the centre on a plinth with four dolphins decorating the base.

8,Trinità dei Monti, Spanish Steps:

The Spanish Steps, the 135-step stairway built in the 1720s to link the Spanish Embassy in Rome and the Church of Trinità dei Monti (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The church of the Santissima Trinità dei Monti, often called merely the Trinità dei Monti, stands at the top of the Spanish Steps which lead down to the Piazza di Spagna. The church and its surrounding area, including the Villa Medici, are French state property.

Saint Francis of Paola, a hermit from Calabria, founded a monastery for the Minimite Friars here in 1494. Louis XII of France began building the Church of the Trinità dei Monti next to this monastery in 1502 to celebrate his successful invasion of Naples.

The present church was eventually built here and was consecrated in 1585 by Sixtus V, whose Via Sistina connected the Piazza della Trinità dei Monti outside the church to the Piazza Barberini across the city. This has been a titular church since 1587 and has been held ever since by a French cardinal.

The double staircase in front of the church was designed by Domenico Fontana. The Obelisco Sallustiano in front of the church is one of the many obelisks in Rome, and was moved here in 1789.

The kings of France were patrons of the church until the French Revolution and the church continued to be the church of the Minimite Friars until its partial destruction in 1798. During the Napoleonic occupation of Rome, the church was despoiled of its art and decorations. After the Bourbon restoration, the church was restored in 1816 at the expense of Louis XVIII.

By diplomatic Conventions in 1828, the church and monastery were entrusted to the Religieuses du Sacré-Coeur de Jésus (Society of the Sacred Heart), a French religious educational order.

Early in the 21st century, the order decided to withdraw from the Trinità and in 2005, the Vatican and the French Embassy agreed to transfer the church, convent and school to the Monastic Fraternities of Jerusalem. These communities were founded in 1975 by Brother Pierre-Marie Delfieux with the aim of promoting the spirit of the monastic desert in the heart of cities.

The communities’ Rule of Life, advices, ‘Be vigilant to keep in your heart a true concern for communion with all the sons of Abraham, Jews and Muslims, who are like you worshippers of the one God and for whom Jerusalem is equally a holy City.’

9, San Clemente:

In the courtyard of San Clemente, linked with the Irish Dominicans (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

For many Irish people visiting Rome, an important church to visit is San Clemente, between the Coliseum and Saint John Lateran. It has been associated with the Irish Dominicans since 1677. In 1857, the Irish prior, Father Joseph Mullooly excavated the basilica and found a fourth century church, a temple of Mithras and a Roman house.

The Basilica of Saint Clement is a minor basilica dedicated to Pope Clement I. It is a three-tiered complex of buildings that includes the basilica, built ca 1100, a fourth century basilica that had been the home of a Roman nobleman, dating from the first century and with a basement that had briefly served as a mithraeum or place for worshipping Mithras, and an earlier home of a noble family built on the foundations of a villa destroyed by fire in 64 AD.

The first basilica on the site is known to have existed in 392, when Saint Jerome wrote of the church dedicated to Saint Clement or Clement I, a first-century convert to Christianity. The current basilica was rebuilt in by Cardinal Anastasius ca 1099 to ca 1120. Today, this is one of the most richly adorned churches in Rome.

Irish Dominicans have been the caretakers of San Clemente since 1667, when Urban VIII gave them refuge there. They remained there, running a residence for priests studying and teaching in Rome. The Dominicans conducted the excavations in the 1950s in collaboration with Italian archaeology students.

One chapel has a shrine with the tomb of Saint Cyril of Saints Cyril and Methodius who translated the Bible into Slavic language, created the Glagolitic alphabet and brought Christianity to the Slavs. The current Cardinal Priest is Archbishop Adrianus Johannes Simonis, former archbishop of Utrecht in the Netherlands.

10, The Church of Santo Spirito in Sassia:

The Church of Santo Spirito in Sassia was first built by King Ine of Wessex (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Church of the Holy Spirit in the Saxon District (La chiesa di Santo Spirito in Sassia) is a 12th-century titular church in Borgo Santo Spirito, on the banks of the River Tiber, close to the main entrance to the Vatican.

The Saxon district in question is not Saxony in Germany but Wessex or the West Country in England. The church stands on the site of the Schola Saxonum or King Ine of Wessex. This ‘Saxon School’ was founded in 727 as a charitable institution for West Saxon pilgrims from Wessex. It included a hostel and a chapel dedicated to Santa Maria.

The church was rebuilt in the 12th century and later restored several times. In a procession instituted by Innocent III, the veil of Saint Veronica was carried from Saint Peter’s Basilica, and the Pope then celebrated Mass in this church.

The hospital attached to the Church of Santo Spirito in Sassia is the oldest in Rome and was founded by Innocent III (1198-1216). In his dream, the Pope saw an angel who showed him the bodies of Rome’s unwanted babies dredged up from the River Tiber in fishing nets. As a result, the Pope decided to build a hospital for paupers.

Sixtus IV joined the church to the neighbouring hospital in 1475. In the Middle Ages, unwanted infants were passed into the hospital through a revolving, barrel-like door, the rota. When Martin Luther visited the hospital in 1511, he was shocked by what he saw. But he exaggerated the reports he heard and claimed the unwanted babies were the Pope’s own children. It was the sort of exaggeration and misinterpretation that would shape Luther’s preconceptions in the run-up to the events in 1517 that sparked the Reformation.

After the sack of Rome in 1527, the church was rebuilt in 1538-1544 and the hospital survives to this day, continuing to care for the poor and the homeless.

‘I was ill and you visited me’ … one of two sculptures by the Canadian sculptor Timothy Schmalz (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

There are two statues by the Canadian sculptor Timothy Schmalz at the entrance to Santo Spirito Hospital. He believes ‘Christian sculpture acts for many as a gateway into the Gospels and the viewer’s own spirituality.’ The artist says: ‘I describe my sculptures as being visual prayers.’ One of the most photographed features at Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, is his large bronze statue of the ‘Homeless Jesus.’

One of his statues outside Santo Spirito Hospital depicts Christ as an impoverished patient lying on a makeshift bed on the steps of the hospital. The words beneath him read: ‘Ero malato e mi avete visitator. I was ill and you visited me’ (Matthew 25: 36).

‘I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink’ … one of two sculptures by the Canadian sculptor Timothy Schmalz (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In 2016, he donated the second bronze statue on the same steps, showing ‘Christ the Beggar’ sitting nearby, with the words: ‘Ha avuto fame e mi avete dato da mangiare, ho avuto sete e mi avete dato da bere. I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink’ (Matthew 25: 35).

The bowl and cup in front of ‘Christ the Beggar’ could be a chalice and paten. True Communion with Christ is giving food and drink to those who hunger and thirst.

11, Chiesa del Gesù:

The Church of the Gesù on the Piazza del Ges, is the mother church of Jesuits (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Church of the Gesù, on the Piazza del Gesù, is the mother church of the Society of Jesus or Jesuits. Officially the Chiesa del Santissimo Nome di Gesù all’Argentina (Church of the Most Holy Name of Jesus at the Argentina), its façade is ‘the first truly baroque façade,’ introducing the baroque style into architecture.

The church has become the model for many Jesuit churches around the world, especially in the Americas. Its paintings in the nave, crossing, and side chapels became models for Jesuit churches throughout Italy and Europe.

This church was first planned in 1551 by Saint Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits. Although Michelangelo offered to design the church for free, the endeavour was funded by Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, a grandson of Pope Paul III. The main architects were Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola, architect of the Farnese family, and Giacomo della Porta.

The church was built on the site of the Church of Santa Maria della Strada, where Saint Ignatius of Loyola once prayed. It was consecrated by Cardinal Giulio Antonio Santorio on behalf of Pope Gregory XIII in 1584.

The Gesù was the home of the Superior General of the Society of Jesus until the Jesuits were suppressed in 1773. The Jesuits later regained the church, and the adjacent palazzo is now a residence for Jesuit scholars studying at the Gregorian University in preparation for ordination.

12, All Saints’ Church:

All Saints’ Church on the Via del Babuino is one of two Anglican churches in Rome (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Many Anglican visitors to Rome go out of their way to visit the Anglican Centre in the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj on Piazza del Collegio, and All Saints’ Church on the Via del Babuino, one of the two Anglican churches in Rome.

An Anglican congregation has been worshipping in Rome since 1816, and All Saints’ Church on Via del Babuino dates from 1882.

All Saints’ Church is a Gothic revival red-brick building about 100 meters from the Spanish Steps. The church, which has many Irish connections, was designed by George Edmund Street (1824-1881), who also redesigned Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

The electric lighting was a gift in 1909 from Alfred Chenevix Trench (1849-1938), son of Archbishop Richard Chenevix Trench of Dublin and proprietor of the publishing house Kegan Paul Trench. The Stations of the Cross commemorate the Revd Peter Marchant from Dublin, who was chaplain from 1991 to 1995.

A plaque commemorates ‘Lt-Col Baron JW Keen, and … his brave comrades in arms … who fought with Garibaldi in Italy’s struggle for freedom ...’ The plaque was unveiled in 1920 by Garibaldi’s daughter-in-law, and some of the few surviving ‘Redshirts’ were present in their uniforms. Born Constance Hopcraft, she was present when the foundation stone of All Saints’ was laid in 1882. When her daughters died in 1958 and 1962, they were given Anglican funerals; their deaths marked the end of the long connection between Garibaldi and the church.

Other monuments recall Hugh Cairns, Earl Cairns, a leading politician from Cultra, Co Down, and Sir John Conroy, an Irish baronet who died in Rome in 1900 – his grandfather, Sir John Conroy from Co Roscommon, has been labelled ‘Queen Victoria’s nemesis’ and was alleged to have had an affair with Queen Victoria’s mother, the Duchess of Kent. The English author AN Wilson even suggests he may have been Queen Victoria’s actual father.

The church has a regular weekly schedule of masses and prayer services and is also used for concerts. It is part of the Diocese in Europe in the Church of England.

The Anglican Centre in Rome is in the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj on Piazza del Collegio (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The second Anglican church in Rome is Saint Paul’s Within the Walls, also known as the American Church in Rome, a church of the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe. Saint Paul’s, on Via Nazionale in Castro Pretorio, was also designed by George Edmund Street in the Gothic Revival style. Street was commissioned in 1872, the cornerstone was laid in 1873, and the church was built in polychrome brick and stone. The church opened in 1876 and was completed in 1880.

The church contains four mosaics that are the largest works of the Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones. Street approached Burne-Jones in 1881 but died the same year. The rector, the Revd Robert J Nevin, then travelled to England to confirm and expand the commission.

Burne-Jones was inspired by the mosaics of Ravenna, which he had visited in 1873. He designed cartoons that he sent to Venice. The Venice and Murano Glass and Mosaic Company mounted tesserae onto the cartoons, and the resulting assemblies were then installed in the church. The work was a collaboration between Burne-Jones and William Morris.

The Anglican Centre in Rome is in the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj on Piazza del Collegio, and the Chapel of Saint Augustine of Canterbury is at the heart of the centre. Although Morning Prayer and the Tuesday Eucharist have been suspended in present circumstances, Morning and Evening Prayer are normally said here, every day in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, and the Eucharist is celebrated every Tuesday at 12:45, with a core community drawn from the two Anglican or Episcopal churches in Rome. Every Eucharist is followed by lunch in the salone.

Archbishop Ian Ernest is the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Personal Representative to the Holy See and Director of the Anglican Centre since last September. Before that he was Bishop of Mauritius and Primate of the Anglican Church of the Indian Ocean.

The steps below San Pietro where Hugh O’Neill and Rory O’Donnell were buried after their exile from Ireland (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

This is a very selective and individual choice of churches in Rome. I have visited so many more, and hope to visit even more in the future, such as the Castel Sant’Angelo, which has served as fortress, a private chapel and a prison for successive popes and is now a museum. Or I could have extended my ambit, and included the Great Synagogue of Rome.

There are many churches in Rome that have Irish associations too. The fourth century Church of San Stefano Rotondo has a marble, Latin tablet commemorating Brian Boru’s son, King Donnchadh of Munster, who went to Rome on a pilgrimage in his late 70s and died there in 1064.

San Pietro on the Janiculum Hill, not far from the Villa Spada, the Irish Embassy to the Vatican, is the burial place of Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone, and Rory O’Donnell, Earl of Tyrconnell, whose exile from Ireland in the early 17th century became known as the ‘Flight of the Earls.’

San Patrizio a Villa Ludovisi, on Via Boncompagni, is a titular church in Rome and was one of the national churches in Rome of Ireland until 2017 when it became the national church of the US.

This was once the church of the Irish Augustinians, who had a church in Rome since 1656. The church was built in the early 20th century to designs in a Romanesque-Byzantine revival style by Aristide Leonori and opened in 1911.

Traditionally, it was the titular church of an Irish cardinal. But in 2017, the Paulist Fathers moved here from Santa Susanna, and the current Cardinal-Priest is Archbishop Thomas Collins of Toronto.

Since that move three years ago, the National Church of Ireland is the Church of Sant’Isidoro a Capo le Case, part of the Franciscan church and monastic complex in the Ludovisi district on the Pincian Hill.

The monastery was founded on Via degli Artisti in 1625 by Luke Wadding from Waterford. He founded the Irish College three years later, and Saint Patrick’s Day was placed on the Church Calendar mainly due to his influences.

The monastery was dissolved for a time by Napoleon I and from 1810 to 1820 its monastic buildings housed the artistic colony known as the Nazarenes. It became a monastery again after Napoleon’s defeat and remains so to this day.

San Isidoro has monuments to the Irish artist Amelia Curran (1775-1847), and to Octavia Catherine Bryan, who died on her wedding day in 1846 at the age of 18. Cardinal John Henry Newman’s sermon at her funeral was his first as a Roman Catholic.

The Pontifical Irish College, on Via dei Santi Quattro, serves as a residence for clerical students and was designated a Pontifical college in 1948. It is the last Irish college in continental Europe. The rector of the Irish College is Monsignor Ciaran O’Carroll. The college is managed by a board of trustees chaired by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin.

Until the recent pandemic, over 250 Irish couples were married in the college chapel every year.

The Great Synagogue of Rome was built in the 1870s after Italian Unification (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Some recent ‘virtual tours’:

A dozen Wren churches in London;

Ten former Wren churches in London;

More than a dozen churches in Lichfield;

More than a dozen pubs in Lichfield;

A dozen former pubs in Lichfield;

A dozen churches in Rethymnon;

A dozen restaurants in Rethymnon;

A dozen churches in other parts of Crete;

A dozen monasteries in Crete;

A dozen sites on Mount Athos;

A dozen historic sites in Athens;

A dozen historic sites in Thessaloniki;

A dozen churches in Thessaloniki;

A dozen Jewish sites in Thessaloniki.

A dozen churches in Cambridge;

A dozen college chapels in Cambridge;

A dozen Irish islands;

A dozen churches in Corfu;

A dozen churches in Venice.

Castel Sant’Angelo was built as a mausoleum for the Emperor Hadrian, has been used by popes as a fortress, a chapel and a prison, and is now a museum (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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