The Basilica of St. Lawrence Outside the Walls
The history and development of the Basilica of St. Lawrence (San Lorenzo) Outside the Walls.
The history and development of the Basilica of St. Lawrence (San Lorenzo) Outside the Walls.
The Papal Basilica of St. Lawrence outside the Walls (San Lorenzo fuori le Mura) is one of the 7 pilgrim churches of Rome and was originally one of the 5 Patriarchal churches of Rome. Although today it is less popular as a tourist destination, in the early Christian period the burial complex around the tomb of St. Lawrence was visited by thousands of pilgrims as well as being an important burial site for the pious who wished to be buried close to the saint. The basilica is located in the east of Rome, not far from Termini, the central train station, and is surrounded by a large burial complex, which dates back nearly 2,000 years.
Located just outside the walls of the ancient city of Rome, on the Via Tiburtina, originally this area was home to the estates and villas of wealthy Roman citizens. The basilica is on the site where two of these estates met, that of the emperor Lucius Verus, and an estate belonging to a Christian woman named Cyriaca. Under the reign of the emperor Valerian, in the mid-3rd century, there was a period of renewed persecution of Christianity when the emperor ordered all the senior members of the church to be arrested. St. Lawrence was one of seven deacons of the Roman church at the time, an extremely important position and while the other six were rounded up and killed, St. Lawrence escaped. He was later found and arrested but kept alive so that he might lead the authorities to the treasury of the church. Lawrence quickly gave away the church’s money to the poor, so that it would not end up in the hands of the emperor, which allowed him to refuse to hand over the wealth of the church when asked by Roman authorities, instead he brought forward the poor and the sick of the city and declared that they were the Church’s true treasure. For his impertinence he was sentenced to a horrific death by being roasted alive on a gridiron in AD 258. Although not as well known today, St. Lawrence is depicted in many Renaissance and Baroque works of art, typically holding the symbol of his martyrdom, the grill or gridiron, as can be seen in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment or in the statue of the saint in the basilica itself, to the left of the end of the nave.
According to tradition, St. Lawrence was martyred along the via Tiburtina and was entombed in the catacombs in a hillside close by, most likely on the estate of Cyriaca, whose property was later confiscated by the Roman authorities. The emperor Constantine inherited these lands and, after making Christianity legal, built a shrine to St. Lawrence in the catacombs and a U-shaped funerary hall next to the hill to provide shelter for services and burials taking place in the cemetery and catacombs.
In the 5th century pope Sixtus III built the first basilica on the site, perhaps by extending parts of Constantine’s funerary hall, but by the 6th century there were so many pilgrims coming to visit the tomb of St. Lawrence in the catacombs that the steps into the hillside and the structure of the catacombs itself was being worn away and was in danger of collapse. Pope Pelagius II decided to build a second basilica directly over Constantine’s shrine to St. Lawrence. This was done by cutting away the hill, destroying some of the catacombs in the process, and partially enclosing the walls of the church on the north, east, and west in the hillside. The pope also introduced an upper gallery, a feature which was common during the Byzantine period, but is quite rare in Rome. Primarily, this was to allow pilgrims to enter from the top of the hill, through a door in the upper portion of the wall on the north side of the church, directly onto the second floor of the church and to look down from the viewing gallery directly into the shrine of St. Lawrence, located at the center of the choir below.
Evidence from 7th century pilgrimage documents reports there were 2 basilicas on the site, one major and one minor. The minor basilica is most likely pope Pelagius II’s basilica, and the major basilica, which was referred to as being dedicated to Our Lady, is either Sixtus III’s earlier basilica or Constantine’s funerary hall. In the 8th century there is mention of the church of Our Lady being damaged by a series of Lombard raids, but it is still unclear exactly what happened to the 5th century basilica and Constantine’s building between the 8th century and the 12th century. By 1200 AD this complex of buildings and burial sites was enclosed in a crenelated wall, creating a small, fortified village, which was known as Laurentiopolis.
In the late 12th century Pope Honorius III undertook another building campaign. He joined the two previous basilicas by knocking down the back end or apse area of the 6th century church and using the rest of the structure, the choir and the nave, as the chancel and altar area of the new building. Then, by extending the nave of the earlier structure he created a unified interior, with a new west façade as the entrance. Both of the previous churches were aligned on different axes making the connection between the two of them very apparent both on the inside and the outside of the basilica. A bell tower or campanille was added as a free standing structure in the 12th century but was incorporated into fabric of the new basilica by Honorius III, and clearly indicates the point where the structure meet on the south side of the building. Not only is there a slight misalignment between the two interiors, there is also a split level as the floor of the 6th century basilica was raised to allow for a crypt to be constructed beneath it to allow access to the confessio of the saint. Remarkably, each of the various building phases are still clearly visible today, making this basilica an archaeology enthusiast’s dream.
Building work did not stop with pope Honorius III, in the late 15th century Cardinal Carafa commissioned a restoration and re-decoration of the interior, which included a series of frescoes on the walls of nave and the restoration of parts of the magnificent mosaics on the triumphant arch in the chapel area.
In the 17th century disaster struck when part of the ceiling collapsed on the eastern end of the church and badly damaged the baldacchino or canopy over the high altar. Cardinal Boncompagni paid for the restoration of the baldacchino but it was rebuilt with an egg-shaped dome, rather than to the original design. The Chapel of St. Cyriaca, located below ground level at the north of the basilica was given a Baroque revamp and a flat, coffered ceiling was installed in the nave. The fortified walls around the complex were demolished, as the sub-urban area around the basilica had now become safe and respectable.
By the 18th century the area in front of the basilica was in much need of attention, as it resembled little more than a stony field. The site was cleared and levelled and a column was erected with a bronze statue of St. Lawrence on top.
In the 19th century the hill was cut back several meters to allow for space at the north and east side of the basilica, and the cemetery of Campo Verano, to the south, was officially opened in the 1830s. In the middle o the 19th century Blessed Pope Pius IX asked architect Virginio Vespagniani to restore the church. Vespagniani’s approach was to strip back all the additional decoration and restore the church to its original Byzantine-mediaeval bones. The Baroque decorations were removed, which included destroying the egg-shaped dome on the baldacchino and replacing it with the present one you see today. The Baroque ceiling was also removed, exposing the 13th century roof structure. The side aisles of the sanctuary were excavated down to the original 6th century floor level and a chapel was created at the east end of the church of Pope Pius IX, who was later buried there. Frescoes were added to the interior and mosaics to the exterior façade above the narthex.
On 19 July, 1943 disaster struck for a second time. During an allied bombing raid targeting the city’s railway, a bomb was dropped just outside the narthex of the basilica, which was completely destroyed by the explosion. Luckily the main façade remained standing. Another bomb came in through the roof of the nave and destroyed the Cosmatesque floor. Much of the frescoes on the walls dating from the 19th century were damaged beyond repair and the tomb of Cardinal Fieschi was blown to pieces. The structure of the church survived, however, and by 1949 it was reopen, fully restored. The attitude to restoration in the mid-20th century was to preserve as much of the original structure as possible. The current aspect of the basilica, although much altered and recreated, is as close as possible to how it would have looked in the 6th and 13th centuries.
The colonnaded narthex or entry portico, which originally dates from the 1220s, was completed reconstructed after the bomb, although this was done using the original marble columns and entablature with carved decoration and inscription, which were pieced back together. The wall of the façade above the portico is simple brick and it is believed to be much as it was in the 13th century. As you walk into the portico you will notice there are 3 steps down, indicating how much modern street level has risen in Rome over the centuries. The interior walls of the portico are covered in a series of fresco cycles. These originally date from the 13th century, were restored in the 19th century and had to be reconstructed and restored again in the 20th century after the bombing. They depict scenes from the live and martyrdom of Saint Lawrence and Saint Steven. There are 3 portals, leading into the church proper, the central door is flanked by 2 marble lions dating from the 13th century. There are also 2 ancient sarcophagi. The one of the left is believed to date from ancient Greece, while the smaller one of the right is 4th century Christian.
Once inside the church you are transported back in time. The interior decoration of the 13th century nave and side aisles are simple and bare and very much in keeping with the Byzantine style of the chancel and altar area beyond the triumphant arch. There is no transept, which is strange for a church dating from the 13th century. The walls of the nave are separated from the side aisles by a screen of 11 columns either side. These are spolia and may have been salvaged, or recycled from the earlier buildings on the site such as Constantine’s funerary hall, or ruined ancient Roman buildings from the surrounding area. The capitals and entablature above, running all the way along the nave, are beautifully carved. On the 8th column along, behind the ambo on the right of the nave, you will see an intricately carved ionic capital, which includes a lizard and a frog.
Many historians have speculated on the meaning of these funny animals and some believe they represent the names or signatures of the 2 slaves who worked on the Portico Octavia as their names in Latin meant Lizard and Frog, and they are recorded by the historian Pliny in the 1st Century AD. This is unlikely to be the case as these capitals date from the 4th century. If you look closely at the other columns you will notice that some of them are pockmarked, caused by shrapnel during the explosion in 1943.
The floor of the nave is 12th century Cosmatesque. Unfortunately, the central panel was destroyed in the bombing. It originally featured knights fighting on horseback but this part of the floor was damaged beyond repair and has since been replaced with a more simplified ancient-Roman style panel. The triangular sections surrounding it include dragons and griffins. These are original but had to be carefully pieced back together after the bomb.
Just inside the door on the right of the nave you will see the beautifully carved sarcophagus, now the resting place of Guglielmo Cardinal Fieschi, who died in 1256. This was originally an ancient Roman sarcophagus and the figures depicted are of a pagan wedding feast. While it is most definitely an impressive work of art, the theme of marriage and the bacchanal revelry that goes with it seems like a strange choice for a Cardinal’s tomb.
On either side of the nave, in front of the triumphant arch you can see two structures in marble and inlaid in mosaic work with steps going up to a raised platform area. These are known as ambos, a raised pulpit where the Gospel (on the right) and Epistles (on the left) were read and sermons were given. The ambo on the right is particularly impressive with Cosmatesque inlaid marble detailing and a twisted solomonic column acting as a Paschal candle stick.
At the end of the aisles are two small chapels. The one on the right was originally the sacristy, but it was converted into the chapel of St. Tarcisius, a early-Christian Roman martyr and probably a deacon, like St. Lawrence. The chapel on the left is dedicated to St. Cyriaca and marks the entrance area to the catacombs and was originally part of Pope Pelagius II’s 6th-century church. It is rarely open to the public today.
The sanctuary or shrine to St. Lawrence and St. Steven is constructed on 2 levels. The high altar is on a raised platform, with stairs leading up to the 6th century basilica. The confessio itself is below the nave floor level with stairs leading down.
Upstairs, in what is now the sanctuary of the basilica, you are standing at the back end of the original basilica of Pope Pelagius II, with a central nave, and side aisles. Today the aisles function as an ambulatory space and they extend all the way round the back wall of the church into the area that was originally the 6th century narthex or entrance to the basilica. At the end of the aisles there are steps leading down to the original floor level dating back to the Byzantine basilica, with the shrine to Blessed Pope Pius IX to the left. This chapel also contains an interesting relic connected with St. Lawrence. On the sidewall you will see a slab of stone with a red-brown stain, believed to have been caused by the blood of the saint when his body was laid out on the stone after his death.
The 19th century sacristy is located to the right hand side of the aisle at the back of the church. If you walk through the sacristy you will find a door leading out to the 12th century cloister. This cloister is one of the oldest in Rome, although not as elaborately decorated as the cloister at San Giovanni in Laterano, and contains fragments of sculpture and inscriptions from the catacombs. There are also fragments of a number of sarcophagi as well as part of the bomb that damaged the building and the casing of another bomb, which, fortunately, proved to be a dud. There is an entrance to the catacombs of St. Cyriaca, which extend 5 levels underground, located in the cloister, but the catacombs are no longer open to the public.
The baldacchino, covering the high altar, is signed by the Cosmati family and dates from 1148, although the dome on top is not original. From the high altar, looking towards the back of the church you will also see the magnificent papal chair, decorated in Cosmatesque inlaid polychrome marble. It is dated 1254, and it is a remnant of the former importance of San Lorenzo as one of the 5 patriarchal basilicas of Rome.
If you stand at the back of the church, near the papal chair, and look back towards the high altar you will be able to get an idea of the orientation of the original 6th century basilica. It was much smaller than the 13th century extension and terminated just beyond the triumphant arch. The apse was demolished in the 13th century but the amazing 6th century mosaics were kept. Originally designed to be facing the congregation, they now look towards the sanctuary space. The figures of St. Lawrence and Pope Pelagius are the only ones which are completely original as the rest of the mosaic was restored in the 15th and 19th centuries. What is unusual about this part of the basilica is the upper gallery. It was a common feature of the Byzantine church, often used to separate the congregation by gender (it was known as the women’s gallery) and found more often in the Eastern church.
Descending the stairs from the high altar back into the nave you can walk down again into the confessio. Here St. Lawrence is enshrined, together with St. Steven, whose body was taken from Constantinople in the 6th century by Pope Pelagius II, when he built the church. The shrine itself is in its original iron cage, but the decoration of the crypt area was altered in the 17th century and again in the 19th century.
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