In the previous article I was talking about the four major basilicas with a very special rank. They are the four sacred churches, which Catholics visit in the first place and which are considered pilgrim route number one. Among many ancient churches in Rome these ones possess a very special status and are called Papal Basilicas, or archbasilicas. However, there are many more basilicas in Rome that possess the antique atmosphere of cozy tiny churches that survived thousands of years. As always the time-machine called Rome has many more treasures to share with you. Right have a look at those unique churches that are hidden from the eyes of tourists and which keep the atmosphere of early Christianity within their walls.
Early titular churches are in fact the predecessors of the modern ones. The oldest known titular churches date back to the time before 313AD, when Christianity was first legalized by Emperor Constantine. With him the first churches began to be built officially and the hidden ones were reconstructed. But prior to Constantine churches existed in a different mode. Initially, they were secret houses that united its circle of Christians under one roof with a cardinal at the heart of each of the churches. Many churches of the kind were called in the name of the cardinal of the house and this is what “titular” means.
Titular churches have been founded since then until today, but let’s explore the most ancient of them, those ones that practically originated in the ancient times when Roman Empire reigned over these lands, treating the first Christians as outcasts, prosecuted them and brutally executed on the arenas of the Colosseum and other venues.
These two tiny churches are situated in the immediate vicinity to Santa Maria Maggiore (one of the four major basilicas of Rome) from different sides. Both of them are the churches that won’t impress you at first sight. Moreover, they are very hard to notice unless you intend to find them. It might take you some time, but doing so is strongly recommended if you are looking for rare things.
Let’s first start with Santa Pudenziana Basilica. This church is of a very small size and is located lower than the street level. The stairs from the ground where people are walking today take you 24 steps down to the entrance of the church showing you the “pie” of the time all around it. This amazing tiny church is considered the oldest one in Rome and when you find out that its basement belongs to the first century AD, then you definitely want to explore it as it deserves. Just imagine, under the church there are ruins of the house, which Saint Peter himself is said to visit and where the first Christians gathered. The house back then belonged to a wealthy person Cornelius Pudens, who was a Roman senator. He and his family are believed to have been the earliest Christians who were christened by Saint Paul himself. The Pudens family gave shelter to the first Christian congregation, he and his family hid Christians in their house, and buried the bodies of the martyrs after Roman executions. For many centuries Cornelius Pudens was thought to have two daughters. It happened due to misunderstanding in inscriptions. However, later the mistake was found, but the church built in the name of his second never-existed daughter was left untouched with the same name. This is how Santa Pudenziana has survived and acquired its peculiarity: it is named after a saint who has never existed.
Santa Pudenziana has been rebuilt many times. Its current “look” was formed in the 16th century. The main treasure of this unique church is its antique mosaics dated back to 390 AD. It depicts Christ with Pudens’s daughters from the both sides - Prassede and Pudenziana - and the twelve apostles.
After the luxurious Santa Maria Maggiore it is of great pleasure to visit a modest but amazingly beautiful church of Santa Prassede - the sister church of Santa Pudenziana. It is located on the other side of Santa Maria Maggiore within a 3-minute walk. This church also has the air of antiquity. It is full of charming frescoes, old mosaics and it possesses an important to Christians relic - one of the three existing today parts of the column, near which Jesus Christ was beaten. When you enter the church the mosaics that are sunk in the darkness can't be seen. But if you put a coin into a charity box, the light switches on and lightens them showing you a marvelous moment of beauty that can’t be missed.
Santa Pudenziana and Santa Prassede belong to the unknown mysterious Rome that is rarely visited by tourists. These delicate churches are special with their amazing historical background and the tranquility that so many of us seek in modern Rome today.
San Clemente is a church to the east of the Colosseum that you will never forget for this place is truly outstanding. This is a great historical basilica of exceptional beauty and with history going back to the I century AD. However, in this case it’s not going to be as simple as that. This church is almost a full archaeological visual manual about Roman history from today and down into the depth of time. Literally. Going down the stairs under the church opens layers of the bygone past and makes you feel in a time-machine again. They are all preserved and make you disbelieve what you see. When you step down to another floor you encounter chambers from XI, VII, III and I centuries - simply unbelievable!
This place is extraordinary and maybe one of a kind, which means a lot when you are in the Eternal City and you are surrounded with thousands of exceptional landmarks and masterpieces each one with its own ancient history. The church of San Clemente is so special that I dedicated a whole article about it here.
If you are in the Ripa neighborhood in Rome, you absolutely should visit Santa Maria in Cosmedin Basilica. Unlike many other small churches discussed in the article this one is prominent due to its campanile and unusual looks, you will see it easily from afar. Its rich background goes down to the Republican era of ancient Rome. In ancient times this church was a barn, where grain was given to the people. Such grain was called panis gradilis, which meant “staircase bread” as it was normally distributed from the staircase of some central building. This church is usually filled with lots of people, because apart from its medieval beauty the church possesses one very widely known landmark - the mouth of truth. This is exactly the place from the movie Roman Holidays with the famous scene where Audrey Hepburn refuses to put her hand into the wall. On a wide round stone one can see a fierce face with holes instead of eyes and mouth. During medieval times pilgrims already knew this place and were afraid of it. They believed that the one who lied and put his arm into the mouth, will have their hand bitten off. How funny that through all these years you still can see people who - no matter if they believe it or not - still put their hands into the hole and cry from fear.
The history of this church is amazing and it’s worth adding that this church is a rarest example of Romanesque style in Rome. Somehow, Romanesque is not much represented in the City of Seven Hills. In order to find out why, you can read my article about the architecture of Rome.
Aventine Hill is located on the left side of the river Tiber and it is one of the seven hills, on which ancient Rome was built. Today this place is not too crowded, which is great news for tourists, but once it was one of the big centers of Rome, so it is extremely old even for Rome. Here, too, there are at least two churches that I can recommend to visit by all means. My favorite ones are Santa Sabina and Santa Prisca. Both of them are tiny, calm and possess fantastic ambience.
Going up the Aventine Hill many can easily miss the entrance to Santa Sabina Church, which stands so inconspicuously that it’s possible to pass it by without even noticing its presence. Indeed, in order to find this church you need to search for it. Santa Sabina Minor Basilica is a church that will provide you with the atmosphere of antiquity, which can’t be underestimated - it’s rare even for Rome! Unlike other old churches this church is known to keep its architectural form since the V century, which is unthinkably old. To be exact, it dates back to 430AD and has managed to keep its individuality untouched since then. However, here you won’t see interior that will shake your imagination. Its lines are simple and the interior is modest with no pomp. You will also find unbelievable one interesting fact: the cypress door at the entrance of Santa Sabina has remained intact and is probably the only preserved door in Rome that has gone through so many centuries without reconstructions. This and its unusual background have made this place special and not like others. Santa Sabina Minor Basilica is for real connoisseurs and the seekers of the pristine beauty of early Christianity.
To make the story complete for now (there are so many more interesting details), I’d like to add that Santa Sabina Basilica was erected on the site of a former pagan Roman house and the ruins can still be found in the basement of the church. The story goes as follows: the house belonged to Sabina, a rich Roman woman, who was beheaded by Emperor Adrianus for her belief in Christ. There are twists and turns to this story, but the rest of the intrigue you will need to reveal for yourself.
Santa Prisca on the Aventine Hill is a church that is as old as Christian religion itself. Although it was reconstructed many times this fact only contributed to its individuality. Very much like Santa Sabina this church is also very small and modest looking. Today it is great not for its outside beauty, but for its rich history that started in antiquity. Together with the abovementioned churches Santa Prisca Basilica is an important Christian landmark since it was first built for early Christians. It is so old that many believe it was visited by Saint Paul himself and as it often happens with old titular churches Santa Prisca is based on the site of a former Roman house. This house belonged to Prisca, a Roman woman who became Christian and whose faith in God was greater than the fear of being caught by Roman government during the prosecutions. There is also a monastery near the church and here in this place you can find calmness and enjoy the peaceful moments in the tranquil and meditative atmosphere of the Aventine Hill.
In the close vicinity to Santa Sabina and Santa Prisca on the Aventine Hill you can also find the famous Giardino degli Aranci (an orange garden) and observe the panorama of Rome from it, which is known as one of the most impressive ones in the city. Also, don’t miss out on the famous secret keyhole, through which one can see St. Paul’s Cathedral framed by the trees of the garden. The latter is a very popular within tourists landmark, which can't be passed by on the Aventine hill - as soon as you notice a line towards a gate, you know exactly that this is the line for the famous keyhole!
Although time is relentless, it made it possible for these rare churches to withstand time and survive to this day. Obviously, we can’t expect these churches to stay flawless and unchanged by the time, but as it always happens in Rome, old becomes the most beautiful.