Station Churches of Rome : St Nicola in Carcere

The rota of station churches moves to San Nicola in Carcere on the east bank of the Tiber for the Saturday of the 4th week in Lent.

San Nicola in Carcere, or St. Nicholas in Prison is the traditional station church for Saturday of the 4th week in Lent.

The history of Christian worship on this site goes back to the 6th century when the first church was built amongst the ruins of the Forum Holitorium – the ancient Roman vegetable market on the banks of the Tiber. The layout of the church we see today goes back to the 1100’s whilst the most recent renovation dates from the final years of the 16th century.

One of the most notable external features is the use of the remnants of three roman temples. On the left side as you look at the church, you can see six columns from the 3rd century BC Temple of Hope forming part of the wall. On the façade, completed by Giacomo della Porta in the 1599 renovation, are two columns either side of the main door that were part of a temple dedicated to Juno and then, to the right are two columns standing alone and seven encased within the wall which were part of the temple of Janus. Also during the works of 1599 the campanile was added – or more correctly – renovated from its previous use as a fortified tower.

SanNicola_NaveInside the church the roman origins can still be viewed. Stairs at the altar descend to the basement – the Roman ground level – which was raised to provide protection from the flooding Tiber. This underground area contains the bases of the three temples that once occupied the site as well as the Roman path that went between them.

St. Nicholas was a 4th century bishop of Myra, a Greek city in modern day Turkey and the dedication of the church came about thanks to a large Greek community that lived in the surrounding area when the current layout of the church was adopted in 1128. It is highly likely that the link to the prison is from the subterranean areas which were used as a prison during the Roman era.

SanNicola_ApseOther features of the church include a carving on the façade of Sts. Nicholas, Mark and Marcellus – the latter are two martyrs whose remains are interred in the church. The recycling of Roman columns continues inside with the nave and side aisles separated by columns, none of which are the same. The centre aisle, decorated with 19th century paintings depicts the life of St. Nicholas and leads to the main fresco in the apse which depicts Christ enthroned between the Virgin Mary and Nicholas. The patron of the church features again in smaller frescos alongside Pope Pius IX. One of the side chapels contains a 14th century crucifix, the eyes of which are said to have moved during a Mass celebrated by St. Gaspar del Bufalo.

The church is also an important place for Marian devotions. Our Lady of Pompeii is celebrated in the church as is Mexico’s Our Lady of Guadalupe. A copy of the miraculous painting was sent to the church in 1773.

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