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.
If you have ever visited Rome, it is highly likely that you will have passed the church of Santa Maria in Via Lata and not even realised it. From the days of the early church, however the site has held a place in tradition as being something of a centre for early church leaders. Various tales tell of Saints Paul, Luke, Peter and John all having spent time here.
Whilst mystery may surround the occupants of the original buildings, archaeology shows us that the grand basilica that stands today has developed from a group of rooms dating back to the first century. Over time these were replaced by a large open plan space fronted by a portico. By the 5th century the building that stood here, on the Via Lata, the main road into Rome from the north gate, had been raised to the level of a diaconia, a place for Christians to provide care, in a particular way, to the poor and those in need.
The building at that time stood next to a triumphal arch dedicated to Diocletian, known for his merciless persecution of the early church. The Arcus Novus was built over the Via Lata in 303. Nearly a full Millennium later, Pope Eugenius built a church over the diaconia. Both St. Maria and it’s neighbour, St Marcellus, were originally built to face away from the Roman arch, however Pope Innocent VIII ordered changes in the late 15th Century which included facing both churches onto the road – by now named the Via del Corso.
Like so many other churches in Rome, the Baroque period of design endowed the church with a distinctive interior which includes to this day, an impressive ceiling, twenty-four red jasper columns and an organ frequently described as Rome’s most beautiful. During the papacy of Innocent X, work started to combine the neighbouring Doria Pamphili Palace, Innocent’s family home, with the Church of Santa Maria. His successor, Alexander VII, was a keen supporter of architecture and oversaw a concerted renewal project in Rome. Santa Maria in Via Lata assumed the title of a station church because the nearby church of St. Cyriacus was demolished. The church also received a new façade, designed by the Pope’s favoured architect, Pietro da Cortona. The new frontage features a high arch which many liken to the processional arch that stood nearby.
The crypt, which was all that survived from the earlier church was also redesigned by da Cortona and the changes include a marble relief of Sts Peter, Paul, Martial and Luke. Elsewhere within the church, the altar, designed by Bernini, includes one of the oldest images in the Christian Church, Mary Our Advocate. The icon is said to have been one of seven painted by Saint Luke. There have also been several miracles attributed to the intercession of Our Lady by those who have prayed before this icon. The altar itself holds the remains of St. Cyriacus and of Deacon Agapitus, a third century martyr.
Also to be viewed in the church are tombs created for members of the Bonaparte family. The famed Emperor’s niece, Zenaide and her son Joseph Lucien Charles were given leave to live in Rome after the Battle of Waterloo by a former prisoner of Napoleon’s, Pius VII.