Minor Roman Basilicas: San Stefano Rotondo and "The Suffering of the Martyrs"

The basilica of San Stefano Rotondo is more properly called San Stefano al Monte Celio and as the names indicate, it is a church in the round located on the Caelian hill of Rome and is dedicated to the very first Christian martyr, the deacon St. Stephen -- whose remains were brought to Rome from the Holy Land in the fifth century. 

The original basilica was commissioned by Pope Leo the Great in the mid-fifth century -- built over an older Roman barracks and Mithraeum -- and as is so often the case with these Roman churches, it has undergone various embellishments, restorations and renovations over the centuries -- and in fact, by the time of the fifteenth century, it had even lacked a roof. 

The images above show the altar as it stands today, however here are some images showing the prior arrangement, including the wooden tabernacle that was donated by a master baker in the early 1600's.

Here is a better view of the tabernacle, now located elsewhere and set upon the floor:

While the curious and unique layout of the church is of note in its own right, what is of particular interest are the frescoes commissioned by Pope Gregory XIII in the sixteenth century, painted by Niccolo Circignani and Antonio Tempesta, which portray 34 scenes of "The Suffering of the Martyrs." 

The frescoes are quite detailed in their showing of the gory reality that was the sufferings of the martyrs and were devotionally popular prior to modern times. 

The chapel of Ss. Primo and Feliciano is also rather charming, especially the small apse with it beautiful and rare seventh century mosaic which depicts the two saints standing beside a bejewelled cross. 

 The altar regrettably stripped of its ornaments.

Were I to summarize, if you were to consider adding this basilica to your itinerary, I would suggest it first and foremost might be for the rare martyrdom cycle found within; it is unique. Also unique, for the student of architecture, is this very rare "church in the round" model you can find here. Finally, the early and rare seventh century mosaic is also worth your time as many of the extant mosaic works of the basilicas of Rome tend to be of a later vintage. 

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