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Bright stars in the shadow of the Sistine

Skipping the Vatican queues to discover a timeline of Western art and architecture on a church-hopping trail through Rome

The line to view the Sistine Chapel at the Apostolic Palace
The line to view the Sistine Chapel at the Apostolic Palace (Photo: iStock)

By 9am, the queue to the Vatican is already half a kilometre long. As a dutiful tourist, I feel I must see the Sistine Chapel, so I stroll about St Peter’s square, waiting for the line to shorten. Busloads of tourists continue to arrive and I take a painful but quick call, click my selfie and push on—I didn’t fly to Italy to wait for hours to enter a church that itself will take 3 hours to three days to experience. Furthermore, the frescoes inside are mostly up on the ceilings and cameras (to zoom with) are prohibited. I also overhear a guide saying there are nearly a thousand other churches, 30% of which are treasure troves of priceless paintings and sublime sculptures by the same masters as in the Vatican (and generally free to enter). A perfect Plan B!

A chapel inside Santa Maria del Popolo
A chapel inside Santa Maria del Popolo (Photo: iStock)

So, leaving the hectic Vatican behind, my tour of Rome’s churches begins with a leisurely stroll to the Santa Maria del Popolo. In it, I find a chapel featured in Dan Brown’s best-seller Angels & Demons, designed by Raphael with a spooky mosaic skeleton. There are sculpture groups by Gian Lorenzo Bernini and Caravaggio’s paintings The Crucifixion Of Saint Peter and The Conversion Of Saint Paul, from the peak of his fame.

Other great sightings within walking distance include the lurid Ecstasy Of Saint Teresa, which crowned Bernini’s career (attracting tourists to the baroque Santa Maria della Vittoria). Basilica di Sant’Agostino was a favourite church of artists, so they painted some of their best works for it. Caravaggio’s favourite tavern, La Campana, still exists around the corner—it claims to be the oldest in town.

The interiors of the Chiesa del Gesù, featuring one of the first baroque façades ever made
The interiors of the Chiesa del Gesù, featuring one of the first baroque façades ever made (Photo: Alamy)

Near the Capitoline Hill that swarms with tourists, I find a quiet church that will resonate with fans of Goan cathedrals: Chiesa del Gesù, with some of Rome’s best ceiling frescoes, was built next to the home of St Ignatius to house his opulent tomb. It is believed that the church was designed by Michelangelo on his deathbed. Another tomb in the church, with paintings by Carlo Maratta depicting Francis Xavier’s adventures in Asia (including his death), is curious because one has gotten used to viewing his incorruptible mummy in Goa (later I find out that only his arm was sent to Rome in 1614 while the rest of him has remained, for over 460 years, in the Bom Jesus basilica of Old Goa).

Basilica San Clemente
Basilica San Clemente (Photo: iStock)

A nearby church considered among the best of the Middle Age buildings—Basilica San Clemente—stands by the Colosseum and welcomes me with more restful sightseeing away from the throngs. Under the present Byzantine building from 1108, I climb down to a fourth-century church in the basement. Underneath that, I reach “heathen layers", including a second-century Mithraic temple, complete with a spooky dining area for mourners; it apparently belonged to the insula apartments where the Colosseum’s gladiators lived.

Memorial slabs at the Basilica San Clemente
Memorial slabs at the Basilica San Clemente (Photo: iStock)

Finally, far below the city, I come across the remains of a circa 70 AD home. Predating the Colosseum, it was built around a central courtyard and the nobleman’s family living in it must have initially been followers of Mithra, later switching to Jesus. This is how early churches popped up—as clandestine meeting houses in rich people’s homes.

However, this basement is not to be mistaken for the crowd-pulling catacombs, which are mostly outside town. From the Colosseum bus stop, I catch the No.118 bus to the San Sebastiano on the Appian way, a Roman highway which features in Stanley Kubrick’s movie Spartacus as the place where Kirk Douglas is crucified. Since Christians expected to be resurrected, their corpses must remain intact—so they dug miles of mind-boggling catacombs through the soft tufa of the countryside to evade the Roman law that forbade burials within the town walls.

This church is one of the few that has a bar attached to its souvenir shop, with a sunny beer garden for whiling away time before the guided tour of the catacombs (€8, or around 600). A guide is essential since it’s easy to get lost in the maze, which was rediscovered in the 1800s and is, so to speak, the “original" in the sense that the modern word for underground labyrinths was coined from these “Coemetērium Catacumbas". The tunnels form galleries lined with niched shelves for corpses—but the guide says that out of respect all bones have been shifted into off-limit corridors.

Being a horror cineaste, I like to experience something bone-rattling, so back in town I head up the flashy Via Veneto to Museo e Cripta dei Frati Cappuccini, housed under an old monastery. Although there’s a baroque church on top with art such as Caravaggio’s painting of St Francis (dated to 1603), tourists are drawn to the crypt where bones of 3,700 monks have been arranged artfully into an osteopathic hallucination of patterns, from crosses and rosettes to garlands of jaw bones and vertebrae, and a canopy of pelvises. Another vault focuses on creative stuff to do with shoulder blades and skulls, which inspired French author Marquis de Sade to write about it in his book Voyage d’Italie. The museum brochure labels it “a positive vision of the Christian sense of human life and its future resurrection" but I think that the moment these old monks are resurrected, they will get confused—like anybody would waking up without his pelvis.

A mosaic in the chapel of St Helena at the Santa Croce basilica
A mosaic in the chapel of St Helena at the Santa Croce basilica (Photo: Alamy)

I counterbalance this gorefest with a study of high-class relics in one of the main pilgrimage churches, Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, which was originally the palace of emperor Constantine’s mother. The pious Helena was a humble Christian who became a concubine to Roman officer Flavius Valerius Constantius, who dumped her to marry into the imperial family in 289 AD. He became emperor but died soon after and his illegitimate son Constantine inherited the title.

Constantine converted and his mother’s palace quarters were turned into a chapel in 320 AD. Then Helena travelled to Jerusalem, so this church has an unusually well-stocked reliquary. Apart from bits of the Holy Cross, there’s a wooden tablet tallying Pilate’s accusations against Jesus and a nail from the crucifixion, plus thorns from his crown, and, to top it all, St Thomas’ finger—the one he touched Jesus with (the rest of the arm is in a church in Kodungallur, Kerala, where he had gone to preach, while his tomb is in Chennai).

Even more fascinatingly, I discover one of the smallest and unvisited but most intriguing churches, Santa Pudenziana, in a back alley called Via Urbana. Traditions relate that it used to be the luxurious mansion of a senator, Pudens, who had been converted in 42 AD by St Paul himself (he mentions Pudens in passing as a lay brother in a letter reprinted in the Bible). Subsequently, Pudens hosted St Peter for seven years and the Peter chapel, inside the church to the left, holds parts of Peter’s table, on which wine was served during the first Eucharist in Rome (incidentally, St Peter’s basilica at the Vatican was built 250 years after his death as his tomb).

After both Peter and Pudens were martyred, their house was turned into public baths—I spot traces of the tesserae floors in a corner from the time before it was converted into a church circa 390 AD. However, the main reason to visit is that it has one of the best ancient Christian mosaics in Italy (second only to the world-famous Ravenna mosaic), dating back to around 415 AD—making it one of the oldest-known pictures of Jesus and his disciples. It depicts Jesus in an imperial purple-trimmed toga while the evangelists, interestingly, wear white togas like Roman senators.

Looking closely, one might notice that Jesus’ face is that of the Egyptian god Serapis, who was very popular in the Roman empire, as evidence of how the new religion blended with older popular faiths, appropriating their artistic imagery.

Church hopping in Rome is a virtual lesson in how Western art and architecture evolved from rustic to realistic, from simplicity to sophistication. Indeed, before Europe had modern art galleries, churches were the medieval culture centres. I don’t at all regret skipping the Vatican—I have had my fill of stylish sacredness and angelic art from some of the oldest to the weirdest anywhere in the world.

Zac O’Yeah is a detective novelist and travel writer.

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