IN SAN LORENZO (St. Lawrence outside the Walls), ONE OF ROME’S BEST CHURCHES
Today, the neighborhood of San Lorenzo is known for its students, grungy atmosphere, graffiti…
But it should be known for something else, too: the magnificent church that gave the quarter its name.
Located on the east side of Rome beyond Termini Station, San Lorenzo fuori le Mura (St. Lawrence outside the Walls) is an ancient basilica with a wealth of early Christian artifacts. Built over the grave of St. Lawrence (d.258), San Lorenzo is one of the five patriarchal basilicas and one of the seven pilgrimage churches of Rome.
Saint Lawrence was a deacon in the Roman church, responsible for the treasury. According to tradition, when Roman officials demanded Lawrence hand over the wealth of the church, he instead brought the poor and sick, declaring that they were the Church’s true treasure. He was executed by being roasted to death on a gridiron, in 258 AD.
In Roman times, this area outside the city walls hosted the country estates of noble families. The estate of the emperor Lucius Verus (161-69) was located nearby, and is now covered with the municipal cemetery of Campo Verano. Another estate belonged to a noble Christian woman named Cyriaca, whose estate was confiscated by the city during persecution.
The Liber Pontificalis, an early church document, records that St. Lawrence was buried on “Via Tiburtina in Crypta in agro Verano III id. Aug” and, in a later entry, “in cymiterio Cyriaces.” Thus his grave was associated with the two estates mentioned above, belonging to Lucius Verus and Cyriaca.
When Constantine the Great became emperor, he inherited the imperial estate as well as the estate taken from Cyriaca. After he converted to Christianity in 312 AD, he gave the land to the Church, and between 314 and 335, he commissioned a large funerary hall next to the hill containing the catacombs, with stairs leading down into Lawrence’s grave. He built a shrine with a small apse at the grave itself, and donated silver furnishings including lamps and candelabra for its decoration.
The Constantinian funerary hall was a large U-shaped building built next to the small hill that contained the catacomb. It primarily served as a covered cemetery for the many Christians who wished to be buried next to the martyr, but also hosted funerary banquets and services in honor of the saint. When the funerary hall was excavated in 1957, three layers of tombs were discovered below the floor and numerous mausolea and chapels were found attached to its sides. Several surviving epitaphs attest to the desire to be buried next to the holy martyr.
The Basilica of St. Lawrence continued to be exceptionally popular in the following centuries, not only as a burial site but as a place of worship and pilgrimage. It attracted the attention and funding of virtually every successive pope, transforming the shrine into a large religious complex outside the walls of Rome.
Pope Sixtus III (432-440) built a church which was later remodeled into the present nave, redecorated the shrine in the catacomb and was buried there. In addition:
By the 6th century, therefore, San Lorenzo was the center of a busy suburb that hosted pilgrims, priests, artisans, traders and beggars. The catacomb around Lawrence’s grave received so much traffic that it was becoming worn down and in danger of collapsing. And in addition to local devotees, increasing numbers of pilgrims were flooding into Rome from far away, all demanding direct access to the city’s great martyrs.
In response, Pope Pelagius II (579-90) built an entirely new church. Whereas Constantine’s hall was built next to the hill that contained the catacomb shrine, Pelagius II cut a rectangular area out of the hill and removed some catacombs entirely to isolate the martyr’s grave.
The new Byzantine church was then built directly on top of the grave, nestled inside the hill. The hill covered most of the walls on the north, east and west sides of the church, so the main entrance was through an arch on the south side.
The basilica had a central nave, side aisles with galleries above, a small apse at the west end, and a narthex at the east end. The grave of St. Lawrence, still unmoved from its original position in the catacomb, rose up at the front of the nave. The two galleries were accessible from an entrance at the top of the hill. The galleries allowed hundreds of pilgrims to look directly down onto the tomb of St. Lawrence. Both the galleries and narthex are features adopted from the Byzantine east.
Pope Pelagius II brought the relics of St. Stephen from Constantinople to enshrine in the new basilica with Lawrence, as well as various other relics. A pilgrim guide surviving from the 7th century describes the attractions for the faithful:
This Byzantine basilica still stands today, as the chancel of the present church.
In the 8th century, Constantine’s funerary hall was dedicated to the Virgin Mary and the complex suffered damage during a series of Lombard raids. Major repairs were carried out by Pope Hadrian I (772-95) in an effort to re-attract pilgrims to the shrine. Pope Leo III (795-816) donated many gifts to San Lorenzo and its churches.
Around 1200, the religious complex was enclosed inside crennelated walls and towers, forming a suburb known as Laurentiopolis. The walls stood until the 16th century. Pilgrims continued to visit the tomb of St. Lawrence and the lesser saints enshrined in the churches, following an established medieval pilgrim route from the city center that led from the Forum past Santa Maria Maggiore, through the city walls, and along Via Tiburtina. The present cloisters were built in the 12th century.
The Basilica of St. Lawrence owes its present appearance to a major renovation carried out under Pope Honorius III (1216-27). He retained the Byzantine basilica, but destroyed the apse and joined it with the 5th-century church of Pope Sixtus to create a new nave, aisles, and narthex extending to the west.
The original church thus became the chancel of the new basilica, leaving the grave of St. Lawrence undisturbed. The floor level of the 6th-century basilica was raised to form a platform for the chancel that was higher than the nave; a crypt was constructed around the martyr’s tomb.
San Lorenzo fuori le Mura has been periodically restored and redecorated since the 13th century. The most significant restoration project was commissioned by Pope Pius IX (1855-64) and directed by Virginio Vespignani. Various Baroque decorations were removed, the Byzantine basilica was excavated down to its original floor level, and the remainder of the hill was cut away from the sides. Most of the catacombs were destroyed in this period, due to expansion of the Campo Verano cemetery.
The west (13th-century) end of the basilica suffered significant damage from a bombing raid on July 16, 1943, but was faithfully restored in less than a decade. Archaeological excavations were also carried out in this period, as well as further work to restore the 6th-century section to its original appearance.
What to See at San Lorenzo fuori le Mura
Visitors approach San Lorenzo fuori le Mura from the west, where an open plaza flanks a busy road. The west facade is a 20th-century reconstruction of the 13th-century, bomb-damaged original. A large municipal cemetery (Cimitero Monumentale del Verano or Campo Verano) extends alongside and behind the basilica, continuing the ancient tradition of burial near St. Lawrence.
It is possible to walk along the right (south) side of the church to view the two distinct parts of San Lorenzo: the 13th-century nave at the west end and the 6th-century basilica on the east end, which now supports the chancel. A Romanesque campanile (12th century) rises on the south side where the two parts join together. On the north side of the church is a hill containing five levels of catacombs, which was cut back about 10 meters from the church in the 19th century.
Entrance is through the west narthex, which was built c.1220 and rebuilt after bomb damage. It is decorated with colorful frescoes of St. Lawrence and St. Stephen, which have been extensively restored. The narthex also displays some Early Christian sarcophagi.
Inside, the nave reflects the simple Byzantine style of the 5th-century church it encompasses, with solid brick walls supported on monolithic marble columns, Ionic capitals, and a fine Cosmati pavement. Round-headed windows in the side aisles, west facade and clerestory provide dim lighting.
Near the entrance is the 6th-century sarcophagus of Cardinal Guglielmo Fieschi, richly decorated with sculptures of classical themes.
Near the front of the nave is a 13th-century marble ambo, inlaid with porphyry and green marble disks, and a twisted Paschal candlestick, both decorated with Cosmati mosaic. The capital behind the ambo is carved with a tiny frog and a tiny lizard, which some think reflect the names of classical sculptors.
The tomb of St. Lawrence is beneath the altar in an accessible crypt under the chancel. Relics of St. Stephen and St. Justin Martyr are also enshrined here. An altar has been built on the west side of the tomb, which is surrounded by a grate.
Near the tomb, below the steps leading up to the chancel, is a room housing some 6th-century ruins that were excavated in 1947-49. These include part of the apse and the Shrine of the Unknown Martyr, which early pilgrims visited after the tomb of St. Lawrence. In the 9th century it was expanded into an underground chapel with an apse. The shrine is decorated with frescoes that probably date from the time of Pope John VII (705-07), depicting Maria Regina surrounded by saints holding up crowns. More frescoes were added in the 9th century, depicting the Virgin and Child Enthroned accompanied by angels, St. Lawrence, St. Andrew, St. John the Evangelist, and St. Catherine.
The side aisles of the basilica have been uncovered down to original floor level (2.15m lower than the nave) and can be entered via stairs at the front of the nave aisles. The 6th-century aisles provide access to the inner narthex of the same date, which now houses the Chapel of Pope Pius IX and is decorated with 19th-century mosaics. The pope’s preserved body is on display against the east wall. On the opposite wall, against the structure housing the tomb of St. Lawrence, is the “Stone of St. Lawrence,” a marble slab with a large stain. According to tradition, Lawrence’s body was laid on this stone after his execution, staining it with blood.
The triumphal arch at the front of the nave marks the connection with the 6th-century basilica. The springing of the apse that was destroyed can be seen adjoining the piers and in the spandrels of the arch are two original windows.
The east side of the arch still has its original Byzantine mosaic, although it was heavily restored in the 16th and 17th centuries. It depicts Christ seated on a blue globe, flanked on one side by Pope Pelagius II holding a model of the church and St. Lawrence holding a book with the words DISPERSIT DEDIT PAVPERIBVS (“He scattered and gave to the poor”). The other side depicts St. Paul, St. Hippolytus holding a martyr’s crown, and St. Stephen holding a book with the words he spoke at his martyrdom: A DE[SC AD DEUM?] SIT ANIMA MEA (“In the Hand of God be my spirit.”)
Along the rim of the arch is the 6th-century dedicatory inscription:
A much longer inscription of the same date, which was probably originally in the apse, was placed over the triumphal arch in the 19th century. It explains the reasons for building the basilica and makes reference to a recent Lombard raid:
The twenty-four pavonazzetto columns around the chancel are part of the original aisles and galleries of the Byzantine basilica. The lower columns support an entablature decorated with Roman spoils, including friezes and door jambs from the 2nd and 3rd centuries. The capitals nearest to the triumphal arch are also decorated with victories and spoils.
The columns at the east end of the chancel are made of green granite and rest on 5th-century pedestals decorated with crosses, rosettes and birds. The brick side walls are original from the Byzantine nave, including the windows with small circular openings.
The chancel itself contains a 13th-century episcopal throne and marble screen decorated with mosaic, as well as the 12th-century high altar.
The two-story brick cloister on the south side of the church was built in the 12th century. Entrance is via a door in the south nave aisle, which leads through the sacristy (where postcards are for sale) to another door labeled “choistro.”
The cloister contains a fascinating display of ancient inscriptions and other artifacts excavated at San Lorenzo. There is also a thoroughly modern artifact – part of a bomb that hit the basilica in 1943. There is a tempting door to the Catacomb of Cyriaca in the north gallery, but it is rarely opened to visitors.
The Catacomb of Cyriaca was once very extensive, but little survives today. Each of the three areas that remain has its own entrance. One of these is in the north aisle of the 6th-century basilica at the original floor level (under the chancel) and another is in the cloister.
The catacomb is rarely open to visitors, unfortunately, but for the lucky few to enter it provides a glimpse into how the basilica was originally built into the catacomb hill. The main area of the catacomb contains an arcosolium of Zosimianus, decorated with frescoes of Christ between two saints, Jonah, Moses, the Good Shepherd, and the Judgment of the Dead.