The churches of Rome

posted at 2:00 pm on May 8, 2011 by Ed Morrissey

One cannot go to Rome without touring the churches.  To do so is to miss a great deal of amazing and beautiful art, and to miss the fact that art plays such a large role in Roman life that its operating churches are filled with it, some going back almost a millenium.  In other cities, these would be museum pieces; in Rome, it’s the local church where the neighborhood gathers for Mass.

We spent a great deal of time in Rome’s churches, which made our trip seem more like a pilgrimage rather than a vacation at times, especially when we attended the beatification of Pope John Paul II last Sunday in the Vatican, two among two million who came to celebrate.  I’ll focus on the four most interesting churches with separate slideshows and brief descriptions.  Keep in mind that all of these are working churches, and that they do not charge people for entry to their remarkable entry, so these are simultaneously churches and public museums.  (Some have their own museums, which do charge a small fee for entry.)

St. John Lateran

This church is actually the official seat of the Bishop of Rome, not the Vatican or St. Peter’s Basilica.  The Lateran Treaty (1929) which allowed the Vatican to exist as its own sovereign state also allowed the Pope to retain control of a few churches in the rest of Rome, and this is one of those churches.  The church is covered in frescoes and mosaics, from the medieval period through the Renaissance and Baroque.  It has a small museum (which did not allow pictures) that had an entrance fee of one euro each and no English-language guide; I could get through it with my rudimentary Italian, and it had beautiful liturgical pieces and other artifacts from over a millenium of operation in this church.  Bear in mind that I wouldn’t use a flash in these churches, due to the frescoes, and it was difficult to get clear shots as a result, but the beauty of the interiors is obvious.

In an annex to the main church are the Holy Stairs or La Scala Sancta.  St. Helena, mother of the first Christian emperor Constantine, traveled to Jerusalem and brought back many artifacts, including the steps to Pontius Pilate’s palace, which tradition holds are the same that Jesus used to walk to his condemnation.  Pilgrims go up the stairs on their knees, which both Marcia and I did — and ended up getting assistance from a very sweet and amazingly fit nun in her 60s.  Talk about a humbling experience! At the top of the steps is an ancient papal reading room known as the Sancta Sanctorum.  The last few shots show these.

Santa Maria Maggiore

One of the oldest and most important churches in Rome, its main architecture goes back to the 5th century. Its facades are from the Baroque period.  It is, I believe, the oldest church building in Rome outside of the Pantheon, which was converted to Christian use and not built for that purpose, obviously.  The church has had additions since its 5th century construction (the Roman columns along the naves are original, for instance).  The mosaics along the nave and the apse tell stories from the Old Testament that relate to Abraham, Moses, and the harbingers of the coming of Christ, as well as some New Testament (and Apocrypha) scenes.  The frescoes are Renaissance additions made by sealing windows along the nave, and are all New Testament depictions.  Like most basilicas, this has a number of chapels and a baptistry, the latter of which has an amber covering over a window that makes for a beautiful setting.  The artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who is so important to Vatican, Roman, and other church architecture and art, is buried near the altar of this church.

The lower altar is a masterpiece of mosaics that are exquisite and stunning — and very, very difficult to photograph correctly.  While I was trying to get good shots, a group of Polish students (teens and preteens) gathered around and sang a beautiful hymn in Polish.  It was a beautiful experience, and one I will not soon forget

The Pantheon

This is more known for its mind-boggling architecture rather than as a place of worship, and I suspect that’s true for Romans as well.  Of all the churches we visited, this one was the least church-like.  It also had a number of important pieces of art, but the setting seems more sterile and, well, touristy.  It’s definitely worth the visit for its architecture, though, and spend a few euros to get the audio guide when you visit.  The artist Raphael is buried here, and his sarcophagus is easily viewed.

Santa Maria in Trastevere

This is the one church that I knew I had to make time to see in Rome (other than the Vatican, which I’ll discuss in a later post).  It’s the site of the first more-or-less officially tolerated, openly Christian church in Rome, dating back to the early third century.  The current building goes back to the 12th century using a fourth-century floor plan.  Unlike St. John Lateran or Santa Maria Maggiore, this church didn’t get a Renaissance or Baroque facade.  It is squeezed into a neighborhood between residential buildings, facing a small square with trattorie and other small shops.  It’s easily the most humble church from the outside that we visited in Rome, but the interior is amazing.

Most of the art are mosaics from the medieval period, but there are some Renaissance additions along the nave.  It has a portrait of Peter’s crucifixion that seems to date from the early Renaissance in an area just outside of a chapel, and a very early mosaic of a Madonna, which was undated but obviously ancient.  While we visited, no services were taking place, but a cantor sang a chant a cappella, which gave the visit a definite liturgical feel.  We enjoyed this tremendously despite being out of the way, across the Tiber, from the rest of the sights we intended to visit that day.  In fact, our next visit after this was a brief look at Campo di Fiori, and then the Pantheon.

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Thank You.
Davvero grande foto,grazie.

Col.John Wm. Reed on May 8, 2011 at 2:17 PM

This begs the question, if everyone followed AllahPundit’s belief system, what would the art look like, and/or, would there even be any. Would it be of the natural world, or repeated scenes from the Garden of Earthly Delights?

Paul-Cincy on May 8, 2011 at 2:18 PM

OT: Ed, please tell Marcia many of us missed her eagerly anticipated column on Friday.
Thanks and Blessings to the Morrisey family.

OmahaConservative on May 8, 2011 at 2:20 PM

You should try to visit San Peitro in Vincoli church. I has the chains that St Peter was bound in when he was arrested in Jerusalem and brought to Rome. It also has a wonderful Michaelangelo sculpture on “horned Moses”, one of his most famous.

sdillard on May 8, 2011 at 2:22 PM

Those are some terrific photos of some of the most magnificent and historic churches in Europe, Ed. You really out did your self as a photographic journalist. Thanks again for sharing your vacation with all of us. One question though; how much is the Italian Tourist Board paying you for promoting Rome? :-)

I’m willing to bet more than a few people will be planning a trip to Italy based on your experiences.

simkeith on May 8, 2011 at 2:25 PM

This begs the question, if everyone followed AllahPundit’s belief system, what would the art look like, and/or, would there even be any.

The best that can be produced by such a worldview is Francis Bacon, or in literature Beckett and Pinter. No good art is produced in Europe today (to my knowledge).

aengus on May 8, 2011 at 2:26 PM

This begs the question, if everyone followed AllahPundit’s belief system, what would the art look like, and/or, would there even be any. Would it be of the natural world, or repeated scenes from the Garden of Earthly Delights?

Paul-Cincy on May 8, 2011 at 2:18 PM

This.

IrishEi on May 8, 2011 at 2:30 PM

Wow, Ed, I halfway feel like I took the tour myself. I get the sense of why they built churches like that, to evoke the sensation and imagination associated with a spiritual life.

It also reminds me of this disorder found in Florence, Italy, I forget what it’s called, where you find people wandering around the city, dazed by the many varied works of art throughout the city. Kind of overdosed on art.

Paul-Cincy on May 8, 2011 at 2:31 PM

OT: Cheney is looking MUCH better these days!

IrishEi on May 8, 2011 at 2:31 PM

IrishEi on May 8, 2011 at 2:30 PM

Although Warhol was a secret Catholic. But when you’ve reached the point where the mass, popular culture is un- or anti- Christian then you’re well into secularism regardless of how many people go to church (or claim to).

aengus on May 8, 2011 at 2:33 PM

aengus on May 8, 2011 at 2:33 PM

True. Sadly, I probably should have linked to the Piss Christ or Madonna with elephant dung.

IrishEi on May 8, 2011 at 2:39 PM

Ed, did you and Marcia attend any Masses while in Rome? If so, were they conducted in the Italian vernacular or in Latin?

aengus: When the Splendors of the Vatican was on display in Pittsburgh, PA, recently, there was an additional room holding artifacts from local churches and other religious art related to the Roman Catholic tradition. One of the most beautiful was a work done by Andy Warhol. One doesn’t totally abandon those early influences of religious upbringing.

onlineanalyst on May 8, 2011 at 2:41 PM

Thanks, Ed. That was fantastic.

notropis on May 8, 2011 at 2:41 PM

Thank you Ed…!

Seven Percent Solution on May 8, 2011 at 2:50 PM

This begs the question, if everyone followed AllahPundit’s belief system, what would the art look like, and/or, would there even be any. Would it be of the natural world, or repeated scenes from the Garden of Earthly Delights?

Paul-Cincy on May 8, 2011 at 2:18 PM

There’s plenty of fine art outside of religious or devotional art & architecture.

lexhamfox on May 8, 2011 at 2:53 PM

Thanks, Ed. That was fantastic.

notropis on May 8, 2011 at 2:41 PM

Hey now…only Ed’s wife is allowed to say that ;)

JetBoy on May 8, 2011 at 2:54 PM

Ed, did you and Marcia attend any Masses while in Rome? If so, were they conducted in the Italian vernacular or in Latin?

onlineanalyst on May 8, 2011 at 2:41 PM

We attended two Masses. Both were at the Vatican. The first was the Beatification Mass on Sunday, which was conducted in Latin, as I recall. The second was on Tuesday morning at the church by Porta Sant’Anna, which is the official parish church of the Vatican, and that one was in Italian vernacular. I didn’t take any pictures of the church, but it was also a Renaissance or Baroque era church and very beautiful.

Ed Morrissey on May 8, 2011 at 2:56 PM

There’s plenty of fine art outside of religious or devotional art & architecture.

lexhamfox on May 8, 2011 at 2:53 PM

So very much of Medieval and Renaissance art has been informed by Christian theology that not to know the shaping influences is to miss much of its symbolism and beauty. The depth of the appreciation comes from an education in that background.

onlineanalyst on May 8, 2011 at 3:21 PM

Grazie mille Ed….excellent

cmsinaz on May 8, 2011 at 3:27 PM

Wonderful exposé! Welcome back!

Kini on May 8, 2011 at 4:08 PM

I was in Rome with my nephews and we did a tour with an outfit called “Dark Rome” that in the morning brought us no lines through the Vatican and Sistine Chapel, and in the afternoon after lunch visited 4 other major churches in Rome, all with papal altars, including these. Very highly recommended.

Marcus on May 8, 2011 at 4:37 PM

BTW, it was great having a tour guide. I believe one of the basilicas was built on a site where the holy story is that before it was built that in the heat of summer it was chosen because the sign from heaven was that the area was for a day covered with snow. A lot of the paintings and stained glass recall the story which would have gone completely un-noticed by us, except for the guide.

Marcus on May 8, 2011 at 4:43 PM

So very much of Medieval and Renaissance art has been informed by Christian theology that not to know the shaping influences is to miss much of its symbolism and beauty. The depth of the appreciation comes from an education in that background.

onlineanalyst on May 8, 2011 at 3:21 PM

Absolutely. My point wasn’t that devotional art isn’t wonderful. It’s just that there is plenty of great art and architecture beyond that.

lexhamfox on May 8, 2011 at 4:59 PM

There’s plenty of fine art outside of religious or devotional art & architecture.

lexhamfox on May 8, 2011 at 2:53 PM

That completely sidesteps or misses what was said. Paul-Cincy didn’t say anything about religious or devotional art and architecture. His question was about what kind of people (or societies) create great art, i.e. the inspiration of the artist–not the content of such art.

aengus on May 8, 2011 at 5:34 PM

This begs the question, if everyone followed AllahPundit’s belief system, what would the art look like, and/or, would there even be any. Would it be of the natural world, or repeated scenes from the Garden of Earthly Delights?

Paul-Cincy on May 8, 2011 at 2:18 PM

There’s plenty of fine art outside of religious or devotional art & architecture.

lexhamfox on May 8, 2011 at 2:53 PM

That completely sidesteps or misses what was said. Paul-Cincy didn’t say anything about religious or devotional art and architecture. His question was about what kind of people (or societies) create great art, i.e. the inspiration of the artist–not the content of such art.

aengus on May 8, 2011 at 5:34 PM

His comment clearly refers to Allah (and by reference atheism or lacking religious belief) and he wondered if there would be art at all without religious inspiration. My point was that there is plenty of art around today which isn’t inspired by religion.

lexhamfox on May 8, 2011 at 5:54 PM

Thanks Ed. These are great pictures and lets us relive our own trips with you. Even the La Scala Sancta. Painful.

unlisted on May 8, 2011 at 6:08 PM

I have relatives who reside in Roma in a bella palazzo. Twelve years ago during Lent they conned me into going up La Scala Scanta on my knees. Those ancient stairs have the deepest indentations in them from all of the wear and tear of 2000 years. It made climbing up the stairs on your knees exceedingly painful. I was ready to give up after about 10 stairs but when I looked to my right there was a 90 year old nun next to me and I thought if she can do it so can I. It was so painful that tears were actually falling from my eyes. When I got to the top I started pumping my arms and playing the theme song from Rocky in my head. Wouldn’t you know it, I got reprimanded by that 90 year old nun. Like Father Guido Sarducci says, “If there is such a thing as reincarnation most former Mafiosi come back as nuns.”

Jayrae on May 8, 2011 at 6:18 PM

Thank you so much, Ed. What beautiful photos and stories! I have recently been contacted by my grandfather’s family in Italy on FB (!) and can’t wait to be able to visit the places you are writing about.

inmypajamas on May 8, 2011 at 8:54 PM

Thanks so much, Ed, for all your reports and pictures and letting us visit vicariously through you.

glad you had a good time.

Elisa on May 8, 2011 at 8:58 PM

Jayrae on May 8, 2011 at 6:18 PM

LOL

pannw on May 8, 2011 at 10:31 PM

Agreed Ed, everyone should go to Rome just to experience the beautiful churches. Thank you for the images!

Dr B on May 9, 2011 at 1:11 AM

Ed, these are awesome.

One question, are you getting a kickback from an Italian travel agency or directly from the Italian government? You have got me so hyped up, I’m ready to book my travel right now.

Thank you so much for posting these, words (even your mighty ones) do not suffice. : )

Angry Dumbo on May 9, 2011 at 6:44 AM

I’m so glad you got to see Santa Maria Trastavere. It’s a little jewel and not to be missed. Very Italian, with its sense of light and charm and Mediterranean design elements. I admit to preferring the Italianate churches to the Gothic cathedrals of northern Europe.

Wonderful pictures of these and the Vatican. There is so much incredible history at the Vatican, you could spend all day there every day for two weeks and only scratch the surface.

J.E. Dyer on May 9, 2011 at 2:03 PM