Think you can handle it? Then welcome to some of the most graphic frescoes of 16th-century Rome.
First, though, there's more to this church than its frescoes. Built on top of the remains of a 2nd-century Mithraic temple (currently being excavated), the church was built in the fifth century A.D. to hold the body of Saint Stephen, which just had been brought to Rome from the Holy Land. The church's architecture is particularly unusual. As Rome's first circular church, it was modeled after Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre. (Back then, with another entire ambulatory besides the two there today, it would have been much larger).
Santo Stefano in Rotondo also holds some odd treasures: a 6th-century mosaic of St. Primus and St. Felicianus; the tomb of Irish king Donough O'Brien, who died in Rome in 1064; a chair of Pope Gregory the Great from 580.
But if you go to the church, you could miss all of this for its frescoes.
Spiraling around the circular walls, the paintings depict 34 different martyrs — each being killed in gruesome ways. (Molten lead poured down the throat? Check. Breasts cut off? Check. Boiled alive? Check!) Commissioned by Pope Gregory XIII near the end of the 16th century, the paintings are naturalistic in their graphic displays, making anyone who looks closely enough wince. The peaceful expressions on most of the martyrs' faces go somewhat toward mitigating the"ouch ouch OUCH" effect… although in all honesty, I find that eerie calm a bit more disturbing than convincing.
Charles Dickens may have put it best, writing of his visit of the "hideous paintings" that cover the walls. He wrote,
…such a panorama of horror and butchery no man could imagine in his sleep, though he were to eat a whole pig raw, for supper. Grey-bearded men being boiled, fried, grilled, crimped, singed, eaten by wild beasts, worried by dogs, buried alive, torn asunder by horses, chopped up small with hatchets: women having their breasts torn with iron pinchers, their tongues cut out, their ears screwed off, their jaws broken, their bodies stretched upon the rack, or skinned upon the stake, or crackled up and melted in the fire: these are among the mildest subjects.
So, what do you think: Can you handle it?
If you can, remember that Santo Stefano Rotondo is closed Mondays and Sunday afternoons; otherwise, it's open from 9:30am-12:30. It's also open 3pm-6pm in the summers, and 2pm-5pm in the winter. The address is Via di Santo Stefano Rotondo 7, about a 10-minute walk from the Colosseum or from San Giovanni in Laterano, and right nearby the Basilica of Santi Quattro Coronati. For more information about the church, click here. For a map, click here.
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