Santo Stefano Rotondo  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Santo Stefano Rotondo, also known as Santo Stefano al Monte Celio, is an ancient basilica church in Rome, known for its frescoes which are somewhat morbid, if not gruesome and naturalistic depictions of torture and execution of Christian martyrs. These were mentioned in Dickens's Pictures from Italy:

"To single out details from the great dream of Roman Churches, would be the wildest occupation in the world. But St. Stefano Rotondo, a damp, mildewed vault of an old church in the outskirts of Rome, will always struggle uppermost in my mind, by reason of the hideous paintings with which its walls are covered. These represent the martyrdoms of saints and early Christians; and 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 insisted on, and laboured at, besides, that every sufferer gives you the same occasion for wonder as poor old Duncan awoke, in Lady Macbeth, when she marvelled at his having so much blood in him."

and in a 1765 letter of Tobias Smollett published in Travels through France and Italy:

What pity it is, that the labours of painting should have been so much employed on the shocking subjects of the martyrology. Besides numberless pictures of the flagellation, crucifixion, and descent from the cross, we have Judith with the head of Holofernes, Herodias with the head of John the Baptist, Jael assassinating Sisera in his sleep, Peter writhing on the cross, Stephen battered with stones, Sebastian stuck full of arrows, Laurence frying upon the coals, Bartholomew flayed alive, and a hundred other pictures equally frightful, which can only serve to fill the mind with gloomy ideas, and encourage a spirit of religious fanaticism, which has always been attended with mischievous consequences to the community where it reigned."

Works of art

The walls of the church are decorated with numerous frescoes, including those of Niccolò Circignani (Niccolò Pomarancio) and Antonio Tempesta portraying 34 scenes of martyrdom, commissioned by Gregory XIII in the 16th century. All paintings have an inscription explaining the scene and the name of the emperor who ordered the executions, as well as quotations from the Bible. The paintings are somewhat morbid, if not gruesome and naturalistic depictions of torture and execution.

The altar was made by the Florentine artist Bernardo Rossellino in the 15th century. The painting in the apse shows Christ between two martyrs. The mosaic and marble decoration is from the period 523-530. One mosaic shows the martyrs St Primus and St Felicianus flanking a jewelled cross.

There is a tablet recording the burial here of the Irish king Donough O'Brien of Cashel and Thomond, who died in Rome in 1064.

An ancient chair of Pope Gregory the Great from around 580 is preserved here.

The Chapel of Ss. Primo e Feliciano has very interesting and rare mosaics from the 7th century. The chapel was built by Pope Theodore I who brought here the relics of the martyrs and buried them (together with the remains of his father).

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