Station Churches : Santo Stefano al Monte Cielo

For the Friday of the 5th Week of Lent, the Station Church is the distinctive San Stefano al Monte Cielo.

The national church of Hungary in Rome is also known as the Basilica of St. Stephen in the Round on the Celian Hill or more commonly as Santo Stefano Rotondo. In fact, the church is dedicated to two Stephens, the first Christian martyr and Stephen I of Hungary who brought Christianity to his subjects at the start of the 11th century.

SanStefano_SanctuaryA church has stood on this site since the middle part of the 400’s and has always been dedicated to Stephen, whose martyrdom is recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. His body had been recovered from the Holy Land in the early part of the 5th century and brought to Rome. The church building is also connected with Jerusalem as it was modelled on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in that city. It is highly likely that the building work was supported by the local Valerius family, which included St. Melania the Elder who made frequent trips to the Holy Land. They also owned large parts of the surrounding area. The church was dedicated during the pontificate of Pope Simplicius (468-483) but modern technology has dated it to at least 455.

SanStefano_PeterPaul

One of the 34 frescos of Roman martyrs depicting the martyrdom of Sts Peter and Paul. This image comes immediately after the scene of St. Stephen and the Passion of Jesus Christ.

The original plan of the church was three concentric circles, or ambulatories, with 22 ionic style columns at the heart of the building around the sanctuary. The columns support the dome which rises above the altar. The church was originally laid out as a Greek cross with four chapels between the middle and outer circles. During the restoration of Pope Innocent II (1139-1143) the outer ambulatory was abandoned and with it three of the four chapels. At this time work was also completed to support the dome and create a new outer wall by blocking up the central circle. Before Innocent’s works, two of his predecessors, John I and Felix IV had added mosaics and coloured marble to the church decorations.

After a spell in the care of the canons of the nearby Papal Basilica of St. John Lateran the church was entrusted to the Pauline Fathers by Pope Nicholas V in 1454. The new custodians took on a church which had fallen into disrepair after years of neglect and so a period of restoration was overseen by Bernardo Rossellino, a contemporary of Donatello. In 1579 the Jesuits from Hungary came together with the Pauline community at San Stefano to establish the Hungarian College, which a year later combined with the German community.

Today’s church is decorated with 34 scenes of martyrdom, commissioned by Pope Gregory XIII and completed by famed Renaissance artists, Circignani and Tempesta. Each fresco includes a description of the scene depicted, which Roman emperor ordered the persecution and a biblical quote. The only remaining side chapel is dedicated to the martyrs Primus and Felician and it contains a jewelled cross, rare 7th century mosaics and a throne which is said to have been used by St. Gregory the Great.

The church also contains the resting place of an Irish noble, the King of Munster. A tablet recalls the burial of Donnchad mac Briain who died during his time in Rome in 1064.

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