Santo Stefano Rotondo

May 30, 2012 / Places
Rome, Italy
Like so many other early Christian churches, Santo Stefano Rotondo was built on the land of a patrician family whose members had converted. And like so many other early churches, it was also built on the foundations of a previous place of worship, in this case a Mithraeum (spaces in which the Middle-Eastern cult imported by the Roman legions was practised).

Unlike so many other early Christian churches however, this one was custom built from scratch, as opposed to having been an already existant building (such as a domus or gov’t basilica) subsequently converted for worship. Also, unlike most other early churches, it was built.. well.. rotondo (i.e. in the round).

It is supposedly modeled after the Rotunda of the Holy Sepulchrein Jerusalem, and was dedicated in the mid-5th century to Saint Stephen whose remains had just previously been found in the Middle-East and brought to Rome.

Already majestic enough with its 22 enormous inner columns and 44 outer ones, it must originally have been even more impressive with yet another outer ring of arches, now gone. The effect of its shape and the concentric rings of columns upon your entering the church is unique, as nothing from the outside prepares you for the unusual use of space and play of light that you will encounter inside. A must-see!


by GB Bernardini

Editor, Italian Notebook

13 Responses to “Santo Stefano Rotondo”

  1. Wow. I never noticed the beauty you’re describing. I’ve always been so overwhelmed by the gruesomeness of the martyrdom frescoes there. Grazie. Your guiding words will give the place a new feel for me.
    My favorite circular sacred space is Santa Costanza. There I could notice the light and space. Plus, the mosaics are so very beautiful.

    • GB

      Nan, you’re so right about the frescoes, truly ghastly. Left them out of this Note on purpose to concentrate on that which is remarkable about S.Stefano. Maybe I’ll do a Note on the frescoes in the future..
      S.Costanza, yes! Love it too!

  2. Stannous Flouride

    So Mithraism is a cult, not a religion?

    For many of us the worshipping of an undead Bronze Age sky god is nothing more than a cult too, just with many more members.

  3. I have been within 3 blocks from that churchon mmany trips. Most of the time I visited Bascilica Clemente which also has a temple to Mithrus at it lowest level from the era of 150 AD which is visitable. Next time Santo Stephano is a must see!

  4. Joan Schmelzle

    I wondered if someone would bring up the frescoes. I guess it would be good to be warned. I have visited this church several times and like it very much. However, I have never managed, or thought of, the really great angles you have used in your photographs. I will have to try to remember them in December when I am there on a walk from San Clemente, Four Crowned Saints, San Stefano, Santa Maria Navacelli and SS John and Paul. I haven’t quite figured out the timing here since I know some, if not all, close for mid-day, but I hope to work it out.

    • GB

      Hi there,
      It’s at Via Santo Stefano Rotondo, 7, on the Celio hill. Sort of in the middle of an imaginary triangle consisting of the Colosseum (to the NNW), San Giovanni (to the E-NE), and the Circus Maximus (to the S-SW).

  5. Bill Crowe

    Are the columns spolia? It looks like the columns in the front of the picture are Corinthian, while those in the rear are ionic.

    • GB

      Neither the 44 outer ones nor the 22 inner ones are spolia; we know this because the corinthian capitals (of the 22) have crossed carved in as part of the original design, so these were “contemporary”.
      The two larger columns in the center (that hold up the drum) are instead “recycled” from elsewhere/earlier, it seems.

  6. Joe Doyle

    We have been fascinated with the history and archeology of S Clements and have visited there severaal times; we look forward to seeing S Stefano’s also. Thank you


Leave a Reply