The church dedicated to the Santi Quattro Coronati, or Four Holy Crowned Ones, situated on the Caelian Hill, has a long and rich history.
The Basilica of Santi Quattro Coronati, located halfway between the Colosseum and the Papal Basilica of St John Lateran isn’t, as the name might suggest, dedicated to four martyrs. Instead, there are actually nine early witnesses to the faith whom the church remembers. All of the men remembered here suffered during the Diocletian persecutions from 303–306AD, and included soldiers who refused to participate in pagan sacrifices and offerings. Secundus, Severianus, Carpoforus and Victorius were all executed as Roman citizens. The second group, Claudius, Nicostatus, Simpronianus, Castorius and Simplicitus were sculptors and, for their refusal to craft pagan idols, all five were put into lead caskets and drowned. Relics of all these martyrs rest in this church which was completed within a century of their deaths. The martyrs remains are held in a sarcophygus in the ninth century crypt. The church also contains the remains of Saints Barbara, Sixtus and Nicholas as well as the skull of St Sebastian.
The Roman tradition is that the first church was built in the 4th century by Pope Miltiades. However, the first building on the site was one of the first constructed in the city and was referred to as Titulus Aemilianae, a name, which it is thought, comes from the owner of the villa, the remains of which can still be seen under the present church. By the end of the 6th century and given its proximity to the early Papal residence at the Lateran Palace, the church held a prominent place in the early church which led to a large program of works commissioned particularly by Pope Leo IV. His additions included the crypt under the nave, side aisles and chapels, including those dedicated to Saints Barbara and Nicholas, a courtyard and belltower. The new basilica was nearly 100 metres in length and half that in width, however it was one of the victims of the Norman troops in the 11th century Sack of Rome and destroyed.
At the time of its reconstruction in the late 11th and early 12th century, Pope Paschal II did not rebuild the church according to its original plan, instead giving us the smaller basilica we see today. Of the two courtyards in the ‘modern’ church, the first one mirrors that added by Pope Leo IV, whilst the second covers the first 20 metres of the destroyed church. Only one part of the original church had survived the destruction, the apse. The rebuilding work incorporated it and framed it with the narrow nave, which is decorated with frescos. From entry into the church, the eye is led along the Cosmatesque pavement to eleven 17th century frescos topped by the vast apse that depicts the “Martyrdom of the Holy Crowned One” and the “Glory of All Saints” that was completed by Giovanni da San Giovanni. In the same year Giovanni Baglione completed the altarpiece on the left of the nave that portrays St Sebastian being healed by Luciana and Irene.
The real treasures of this church-monastery complex are found outside the church itself. Probably the most important of these is the medieval cloister, complete with manicured garden and fountain – a peaceful spot away from the bustling city. The St Sylvester Chapel, which opens on to the second courtyard, is a small room covered in some 13th century frescos depicting the Conversion of Constantine. The work is inspired by the famous medieval hagiography produced by Jacobus de Voragine. In 2002, art historian Andreina Draghi, discovered a series of 13th century frescos during the restoration of the hall in the monastery. The recent discoveries depict the twelve months, Liberal Arts, four seasons and the Zodiac signs.