Official Rome Church of the Knights and Dames of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre: Sant'Onofrio on the Janiculum

Photos by OC-Travel
Sant’Onofrio on the Janiculum Hill is the official Roman church and permanent spiritual center in Rome of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem (EOHSJ), a papal order of knighthood that dates back to the year 1099.

The church is a rare example of a Renaissance art in Rome, built in 1439 on the site of a newly founded hermitage of monks. For centuries the site hosted a cloistered monastery. The monks who occupied the space were of the Order of Poor Hermits of St. Jerome, also known as the Hieronymites, who were given the property by Pope Eugene IV.  The order later died out and was suppressed by Pius XI in the 1930's.

In an act dated August 15, 1945, His Holiness Pope Pius XII designated the church as the permanent spiritual home in Rome of the EOHSJ. An English translation of this little-known document follows:

Motu Proprio

The use of the church dedicated to Saint Onofrio on the Janiculum Hill together with the adjoining monastery is granted to the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem.


Since the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem does to have its own church in the city of Rome, We desire to grant it one which may be not only proof of Our paternal benevolence towards the Order, but also one that my be especially fitting and have a particular significance for the same.

There is on the Janiculum Hill a splendid church dedicated to Saint Onofrio, distinguished since the sixteenth century with the honour of being a titular church of Cardinals belonging to the order of priests; this church appears to Us to be most suitable for realizing Our desire.

In this church, in fact, there still lives the memory of Torquato Tasso, illustrious poet, who sang in exquisite verse the deeds of the Crusaders who struggled to restore freedom to the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem: and there, too, is an ancient monastery, which - after the legitimate cessation of the Order of Hermits of St. Jerome - can fittingly accommodate this Equestrian Order Andean provide it with a convenient center for the carrying out of tis religious ceremonies and its acts of piety and works of charity.

Wherefore, after careful consideration of the matter, and having conferred with Our dearly beloved son Emanuel Celestine Suhard father title of Saint Onofrio on the Janiculum, Cardinal Priest of the Holy Roman Church, Archbishop of Paris, by virtue of this Motu Proprio, with certain knowledge and by the fullness of Our Apostolic power, We decree and ordain as follows:

The use of the church dedicated to Saint Onofrio on the Janiculum Hill and likewise of the adjoining monastery and the Torquato Tasso Museum, with the furnishings and all the property both movable and those things fixed to the soil, which are called immovable, is assigned by law to the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem;

The nomination of the Rector and of the other clergy to this church is the concern of the Sovereign Pontiff, having heard the judgment both of the Cardinal Priest of the title of Saint Onofrio on the Janiculum, and of the Most Eminent Cardinal Vicar of Rome, and of the Most Eminent Cardinal who is Patron of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem at the time; This same church dedicated to Saint Onofrio shall likewise remain conveniently accessible in the future to all the faithful who may wish to frequent it from a motive of piety.

All which We have decreed and ordained by this instrument, issued by Motu Proprio, shall be fixed and immutable, notwithstanding anything to the contrary, even be it worthy of very special regard.

Given at Rome, from St. Peter’s, August 15, 1945, feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, in the seventh year of Our Pontificate.

[Signed] Pius pp. XII

An illumination of a prayer to St. Onofrio found in the church
In his motu proprio establishing the church, Pius XII left the nomination of the rector and of the clergy of the Sant’Onofrio to the concern of the Sovereign Pontiff.

The Franciscan Friars of the Atonement (Frati Francescani dell'Atonement) of Graymoor, New York were invited to take up their residence at the convent of Sant’Onofrio and staff the church. Since 1947 the friars have been here, having moved in after the attached convent was duly renovated.

This new community was first founded in 1898 in New York by an Episcopalian, Fr. Paul Wattson. When he finally converted to Catholicism in 1909 the entire community was allowed by special permission of Pius X to be received into full communion with the Catholic Church and to continue as an official religious order, on the advice of Cardinal Merry del Val.  Today the aging order is in its terminal stage.

In the motu proprio the Pope further decreed that, “This same church dedicated to Sant’Onofrio shall likewise remain conveniently accessible in the future to all the faithful who may wish to frequent it from a motive of piety.” These priests were invited by Cardinal Canali to staff the church and assist at the religious services and ceremonies at the altar of the EOHSJ.  Their role was to satisfy the needs of those who came to see the church and worship. In those early days the friars also prayed the Divine Office in the chapel.

Image from the interior funerary monument of the poet, Tasso, taken from Ephesians 6
Sunday Mass is at 10:00 am and 12:00 pm.

The visiting hours for the church are Sunday to Friday from 9:00 am - 1:00 pm. Saturday from 10:00 am - 1:00 pm.  Unfortunately, the church does not reopen after riposo, an understandable inconvenience for many.

Visiting hours for the exterior cloister, portico and courtyard are from 9:00 am - 6:30 pm (5:30 pm winter hours).

The property is closed the month of August as well as for civic holidays, special feast days and events such as baptisms and weddings and certain community events of the friars.

The famed renaissance cloister attached to the church and convent
The attached inner cloister adjoining the church is open to the public and attracts many students of art, architecture and engineering and design. It dates from the mid-fifteenth century. This refreshing work of the Renaissance period is one of the quietest and most secluded havens in the venerable city, with beautiful potted geraniums and ivy drooping from the ledges. The pleasant little cloister is rectangular with round arches on ancient columns, topped by a portico-style gallery.

The capitals are contemporary with the building with Renaissance columns, although some are obviously from an earlier period. The columns beneath it are of varying styles, taken from different ancient buildings. The upper arcade is supported by octagonal columns of the period, the lower by antique columns. Two of the oldest columns are worth mentioning. The fifth column on the long side on the left is of the period between the fifth and sixth centuries. The second to last column on the long side on the right is from the period of the Imperial Period of ancient Rome.

The cloister has outdoor fresco paintings in the lunettes on the walls. These were painted for the Jubilee Year 1600, telling the story of the life and legend of San’t Onofrio. The first four on the wall to the right of the cloister are by Cavaliere d’Arpino (Giuseppe Cesari). The remaining frescos around the cloister are by Sebastiano Strada and Claudio Ridolfi.  Captions are conveniently in Latin with Italian translations.

The marble targa commemorating the works done on the property
There is also a plaque commemorating the work done on the property by Venerable Pius XII in 1946-1947. It reads:
Translation from Gregory di Pippo:

"Pope Pius XII entrusted these buildings, sacred to religion and the liberal arts, which refreshed the last days of Torquato Tasso, to the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and the same Order restored them at its own expense in the year 1947."x

The renaissance portico connecting the church and convent
The church has some important works of art and artistic embellishments, made famous by their age, both inside and outside. Structurally the outside shines with its fifteenth century Renaissance porticos, while more common in Florence, a rare sight in Rome. There is a narrow and small belfry with a few bells that clash and peal, announcing the hours of the day and prayer. The outside gardens in front of the church are lovely. They consist of a small, grassy courtyard with a splashing fountain dedicated in 1924. The exterior boasts three lunettes by Domenichino that were painted in 1605, commemorating the hermits who lived here on site while also including scenes in the life of St. Jerome. Inscriptions and plaques vary. There is one on the wall to commemorate the passage of important figures who came to visit. One of these was Johann Wolfgang Goethe, who came to pay homage at the tomb of Tasso in 1787.

The renaissance sanctuary by Baldassare Peruzzi, attributed by Vasari
In typical Renaissance style the interior has one nave only. Thankfully, alterations that took place after the fifteenth century have not significantly altered the original plan. Much of the interior original Renaissance decoration remains unharmed. Most notable is the elaborate apse, a colorful kaleidoscope of scenes from the life of the Blessed Mother. This touchingly beautiful wall of color in the freshness of fresco is a true masterpiece, where piety becomes human, the humanity of the child revealing the presence of the divine. It was designed and executed at the beginning of the sixteenth century by one of the most distinguished painters of the time, Baldassarre Peruzzi, a historical fact attributed by Vasari. In his unique style Peruzzi is said to reveal sometimes the influence of Sedoma and sometimes that of Pintoricchio, who painted the Borgia Apartment in the Vatican. This helps in explaining the different influences found in the work, notwithstanding the assertions of Vasari, to whom one has to turn in the end.

The paintings in the dark church give the impression of a garden at sunset, revealing a myriad of flowers that the fullness of sun has beautified. In short, the sanctuary is a symphony of color, a riot of images, richly telling the story of the New Testament while showing the glory of the persons involved. All of this decoration in the sanctuary is under the watchful gaze of the benevolent Father in heaven, raising his hand in blessing - a fresco called the Eternal Father by Baldassare Peruzzi. Beneath him are angels who diffuse harmony with their voices and instruments in praise of all things good, true and holy. The harmony is so real it is felt, even if not heard. Lower in the center of the larger frescoes is the triumphant Coronation of Our Lady. To the side are groups of Apostles and Sibyls. Under neath are the paintings in the semicircle beneath. In the center is enthroned the Madonna and Child together with St. John the Baptist, St. Jerome, St. Catherine of Alexandria and St. Onofrio, the patron saint of the church. Below them and keeling off to the side is the figure of a smaller body, that of the wealthy patron of the artist. The panels on the left portray the Adoration of the Magi and on the right the Flight into Egypt, with the Slaughter of the Innocence depicted in the background. In this latter scene, there is evident contrast between the agitation of the crowds in the background and the serenity of the group in the fore, with movement carefully portrayed. The donkey is trotting by rapidly, carrying its precious cargo, the Blessed Mother and her Divine son, who is a little boy at this stage, entirely unaware of any danger while sucking his thumb. St. Joseph leads the Holy Family from ahead, with a sack tied to a stick he carries on his shoulder as a pilgrim.

The chapels along the side of the church are each different, each the rarest of flowers, of unique merit according to their period and ornamentation.

Altar painting of Pope St. Pius X, Grand Master of the EOHSJ, pained in 1957
The second chapel on the left was dedicated in the 1950’s to Pope St. Pius X. It was during his memorable pontificate that he assumed in 1907 the title of Grand Master of the EOHSJ. In those years the Pope held the opinion that the title of Grand Master of the Order would be best reserved to the Pope himself and his successors. The painting dates from 1957 by Guido Greganti. Before this same chapel was dedicated to Pius X it was first dedicated to Blessed Pietro da Pisa, co-founder of the religious Order of the “Gerolomini,” who occupied the church and monastery in olden times. The vaulting of the ceiling and side lunettes of the chapel were restored from the earlier fresco painting done originally by Francesco Trevisani in the first half of the eighteenth century.

The Crusader motto of the EOHSJ, "Deus Lo Vult" (God wills it)
Sant'Onofrio is best remembered as the location of the home, death and tomb of the illustrious poet of the Italian Renaissance, Torquato Tasso (1544-1595). Italian school groups flock here to visit the famous sixteenth century poet’s final resting place while reciting some of his Italian Renaissance poetry, visiting first the chapel on the left with a monument to the poet dating from 1857 by Giuseppe de Fabris. They also sometimes study the Latin and Italian works of Francesco Patrizi (1529-1597), also buried in Tasso’s tomb. A colleague of Tasso, he was a prominent philosopher and scientist from Venice. As a young man he had sailed the Mediterranean with his uncle, the commander of a galley in defense against the Ottoman Turks.

                                          Image of the great Renaissance poet Tasso, author of Jerusalem Delivered

Tasso, the brilliant poet, suffered deeply from mental illness. The ailing poet was given shelter in the monastery of Sant’Onofrio the last month of his life.  For his epic romantic poetry he is renowned in life as in death. His influences were classical, inspired especially by the epics of Homer and Virgil.

                                       The famous poem on the First Crusade by Tasso, Jerusalem Delivered

Perhaps his best remembered poem is Gerusaleme Liberata (“Jerusalem Delivered” - also known as the “Liberation of Jerusalem”), penned by him in 1581. This poem depicts a creative version of the combat of the Siege of Jerusalem during the First Crusade, when the Christian armies made their pilgrimage to the holy city to liberate the tomb of Christ and defend Jerusalem against the military occupation of the Islamists. In exquisite verse the poem sings of the deeds of the brave crusaders and knights who struggled to restore peace and order. The poem resonates forever because it speaks of courage, romance, drama and greatness. Readers of that period in the 1500's felt an immanent danger from the political ideology of Islam with the Ottoman Turks advancing through Eastern Europe.

                                            Rare collector's editions in English of Tasso's Jerusalem Delivered

For generations Knights and Dames of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre have read Tasso's delightful magnum opus.  Old editions of his Jerusalem Delivered can be found for purchase on the online site Ebay.  In addition to good reading, they make for excellent conversational pieces and a fine decoration on the book shelf.  The most common translation into English was by J.H. Wiffen, with editions published on both sides of the pond.  Readers are still captivated today by this epic poem that inspires all to courage and greatness.   

                 Jeweled decorations of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre, evoking chivalric character

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