Lenten Station Churches of Rome
Passion Friday: Santo Stefano in Monte Celio
The peaceful churchyard provides a welcome respite from the busy streets outside as we approach the church of St. Stephen on the Caelian Hill. As the shape of the basilica materializes through the pines, we will likely be struck by its unusual shape, for St. Stephen’s is one of the three ancient round churches remaining in Rome, although time has obscured the original ground plan. The design of this church is thought to have been inspired by the shrine built by the Emperor Constantine over the tomb of Christ in Jerusalem, and circular plans were often used for the shrines built over the tombs of martyrs, particularly in the Eastern Roman Empire. This church, built on the site of a Roman military camp, dates from the pontificate of Pope Simplicius I (r. 468-483), being further decorated early in the following century. Although there was no tomb here, the design would call that connotation to mind for the people at the time, appropriate for a church placed under the patronage of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, whose supreme witness is recorded in the seventh chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. This original church consisted of a circular sanctuary with a concentric aisle, with four projecting chapels connected by walls forming the outermost ring.
Restored in the eighth century, by the 1130s this church was near collapse. In the restorations which took place at this time, most of the outer ring was abandoned, save for one chapel and a small part of the aisle next to it. The central arch which cuts through the inner ring, meant to strengthen the upper walls, was built at this time. Pope Nicholas V had to carry out another round of restorations in the mid-fifteenth century. In the late sixteenth century, Pope Gregory XIII commissioned the images of martyrdom that adorn the outer wall of the ambulatory, which are the best known artwork in this church. As this church had been given to the German College sometime before, these were meant to help encourage the young seminarians as they prepared to return to their homeland, and possibly death. Pope Gregory also constructed the present chancel. In recent years, the church had undergone a great deal of conservation, which has preserved the church for yet another age.