The station churches of Rome form part of a traditional 4th century custom that honoured the Christian martyrs of Rome and helped to strengthen the early Christian community of the city. This Lent, a small insight into the history of some of the station churches will mark our progress towards the celebration of Easter.
The Basilica of Saint Eusebius is tucked away in one corner of the modern day Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II in an area of ancient Rome that historically was set aside for mass burials. The area improved around 226, after Maecenas, a patron of the arts in Rome, built gardens close by. His work was made possible thanks to the fountain of Aque Alexandrina and its water supply to the Esquiline Hill. The Basilica was built atop one of the Roman necropolis, and is recorded definitively for the first time in 474 AD, when it appears in graffito found in the catacombs of Santi Marcellino e Pietro ad Duas Lauros.
Whilst the history of the early period of Christian worship on this site is unclear, it is considered one of the oldest churches in Rome. Excavations have shown some remains dating back to the 3rd century, over 100 years before the graffito of 474. Like most churches of the period, it began as a private building, which was replaced by a larger, custom built basilica, perhaps ordered by Pope Liberius around 360. Throughout recorded history, the various buildings on the site, Saint Eusebius is recorded as the patron of the church.
Much like the building, the story of Saint Eusebius is unclear. According to the medieval manuscript, The Golden Legend, the saint was born in Sardinia, but after the death of his father he came to Rome where he became a lectorate, a role of particular importance in the early Catholic church, as he was one of the few who could read and then explain Scripture. During the papacy of Julian he was chosen as the Bishop of Vercelli, in modern day Piemonte. His arrival in the North of Italy coincided with the Arian controversy. During a synod in Milan, he refused to criticise Athanasius, who opposed Arius. For this, the medieval record says, he was imprisoned, beaten and dragged through the streets before dying of his wounds.
Other records however, suggest he was exiled instead after the council, and once that was lifted around 362, he made his way home via Alexandria and Antioch. After returning to Vercelli, he worked alongside Hiliary of Poitiers, refuting the lingering Arianism. His death is certainly recorded in 371, when he would have been 88.
The church today goes back to the extensive work of the 18th century. The bell tower is the only piece of Gregory XI’s building from the 13th century basilica. All that is left to remind today’s worshippers of the church’s long history is the brick and mortar crypt.
Amongst the 1700’s redesign is a rare piece of work from Anton Raphael Mengs who was not often involved in churchcommissions. However, his work The Glory of St. Eusebius, is renowned for its brightness. The main character in the fresco, St. Eusebius, points towards a tablet inscribed in Greek, which says “…consubstantial with the Father…” A line from the creed he stridently defended during his life.
Within the altar, with an impressive marble backdrop, Saint Eusebius’ relics are joined by those of his contemporaries, Orosius and Paulinus. The Basilica also boasts choir stalls of the late 16th century renowned for the level of workmanship. Within the walls there is a chapel dedicated to Pope St. Celestine V, the Pope who established canonical rules for Papal abdication, and then followed them in 1296. The Great Renunciation, depicting this event, is seen above the altar.
Outside the church, a small piazza hosts an annual blessing for the animals of Romans, on the 17th January – the feast of St. Anthony the Abbot. The image of the Immaculate Conception was installed on the centenary of the proclamation of the dogma in 1954.