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 Essential Architecture-  ROME

San Stefano Rotondo




Rome, Italy


468 to 483


Early Christian Roman


masonry, timber roof. Round church, at 64 m (210 ft) diameter the largest circular church in existance. 


basilican Church
«As they were stoning him,
Stephen said in invocation, 
'Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.'
Then he knelt down and said aloud,
'Lord, do not hold this sin against them.'
And with these words he fell asleep.»
Acts 7, 59-60 (New Jerusalem translation)


Santo Stefano Rotondo al Celio
St Stephen's Rotunda at the Coelian
7 Via di Santo Stefano Rotondo
00184 Roma
Tel. 06 48 19 333 - 06 70 49 37 17

Church dedicated to St Stephen of Hungary and St Stephen the Deacon. The Hungarian national church. 

The first church was consecrated in the time of Pope St Simplicius I (468-483), or possibly in 460, to hold the relics of St Stephen, protomartyr of the Church. His tomb had been discovered Kafr Gamala in the Holy Land in 415. It was later rededicated to St Stephen of Hungary. This was the first circular church in Rome, and it was modelled on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The circumference and diameter of Santo Stefano is almost exactly the same as those of the Holy Sepulchre.Strangely, the church does not appear among the tituli in the synod list of 499. It is thought that it may have been financed by the wealthy Valerian family, whose estates covered large parts of the Coelian Hill. St Melanie, a member of this family, was a frequent pilgrim to Jerusalem and died there, so the family had connections to the Holy Land. The site housed the Castra Peregrinorum, a large army barracks with an ancient pagan sanctuary to Mithras, a deity that was very popular among soldiers. A gold-covered head from a statue of Mithras was found during excavations beneath the church.

It was decorated by Pope John I (523-526) and Pope Felix IV (526-530).

The colonnades were altered by Pope Innocent II (1130-1143), when a series of transverse arches were introduced to support the roof.

It was restored by Pope Nicholas V in 1543. The work was carried out by Bernardo Rosselino. Around the same time, it was granted to the Hungarian Order of Hermits of St Paul.

In 1580, the church was entrusted to the Jesuits. Jesuit seminarians were encouraged to go here to see the frescoes of martyrs (see below) and contemplate over the fate that might await them as they went off as missionaries.

The church is the property of the German College, and is also the Hungarian national church (Hungary was considered part of the German-speaking countries until after World War I, when it became independent of Austria). It was made part of the Hungarian College in 1589, and this college later merged with the German College.

The current titular of the church is H.E. Friedrich Cardinal Wetter, Archbishop of Munich and Freising.

Although the inside is circular, the exterior is on a cruciform plan

The church originally had three concentric ambulatories, but the outermost has been suppressed. The plan is somewhat confusing. In Jerusalem, it makes sense as it allows a good circulation of pilgrims around the sanctuary. Copying this plan to Rome seems strange in the present day, since there is nothing in the sanctuary to attract pilgrims. However, tradition claims that an important relic was once held here, and it is possible that it was a relic of St Stephen the Deacon.

The colonnades of the outermost ambulatory, with 22 Ionic columns, are decorated with frescoes from 1572-1585 of the agonies of martyrs, by Niccolò Pomerancio and Antonio Tempesta. The frescoes were ordered by Pope Gregory XIII (1572-1585). The 24 scenes, with inscriptions explaing the scene and naming the emperors who ordered the executions, as well as quotations from the Bible, contain terrifying depictions of suffering. The squeamish and families with children may not appreciate them. For others, they are a good aid in understanding the sufferings of the martyr and the great sacrifices they made for the Faith.

The altar was made by the Florentine artist Bernardo Rossellino, who was commissioned by Pope Nicholas V (1447-1455) - as mentioned above he also carried out restorations at the time.

The painting in the apse shows Christ between two martyrs. The mosaic and marble decoration is from the period 523 to 530. One mosaic shows the martyrs Primus and Felician flanking a jewelled cross. They were martyred in 305, and their relics were brought here by Pope Theodore I.

On the left is a tablet recording the burial here of the Irish king Donough O'Brien of Cashel and Thomond, son of Brian Boru, who died in Rome in 1064.

An ancient chair in which Pope Gregory the Great sat to deliver one of his homilies, in c. 580, is preserved here.

To the left by the entrance is the Chapel of Sts Primus and Felician. The chapel was commissioned by Pope Theodore I (642-649). The saints are depicted in a 7th century mosaic, and there are also frescoes depicting their martyrdom and burial. This is one of the rare examples of 7th century mosaic in Rome; another is found in the Baptistery of San Giovanni in Laterano. Pope Theodore had their relics translated here. The Pope's father, a Greek bishop from Palestine, was also buried here. They were martyred at Nomentum c. 300, and were buried there. Their relics were moved here Legend says that they were brothers from a patrician family, who visited Christians who were waiting for execution in the Roman prisons. Seeing the tortures they suffered, Felician heard that his brother, at the time some 80 years old, had lapsed from the Faith. But he returned, and they were thrown to the lions together. At the arena, they were miraculously saved, and were taken to Nomentum where they were beheaded. 

Special notes
The church is normally locked, but you may ring for a custodian who usually lets visitors in. The best time to try is between 09.00 and 12.00.

The feast of St Stephen the Deacon is celebrated on 26 December, and this is the station church for that day, meaning that the Holy Father will usually celebrate Mass here.

The feast of St Stephen of Hungary is celebrated with great solemnity on 16 August

© Chris Nyborg 2000, 2001

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