Thursday, March 20, 2008

5th Week of Lent: San Stefano Rotondo

My Lenten Journey takes me to the Church of San Stefano Rotondo on the Celian Hill. It was built in the 5th Century on the former site of military barracks for non-Italian soldiers.
Today the neighborhood still has the feeling of a tranquil seclusion that attracted the composer Palentrina in the 16th Century, according to Georgina Mason in her Companion Guide to Rome.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

Upon entering the church, I am awed by the purity of the round plan of the building and the way it is bathed in light. The altar is in the center, and the cross has been covered in purple for Lent. There are many tourists gazing at the patterns created by the antique columns and wooden ceiling. The walls are covered with frescoes depicting very "unmerciful" martyrdom scenes. Charles Dickens had this to say about these frescoes in his Pictures of Italy (1846) :
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.... 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.

Once I settled down in a chair, I was able to keep the frescoes in the background and allow the architecture to energize my mind and soul. I imagined Palestrina's music accompanying worship in this space. I became aware that over the centuries pilgrims have come into this space to seek mercy. And here I am. Dear God, help me to be merciful - and be merciful to me!

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

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