Just a short distance from the colleta church or gathering place of Saints John and Paul on the Coelian Hill, this Lenten station takes us back to a sacred area which still preserves its aura of mystery. The site was sacred to the pagans because of the black rock of the Magna Mater on the nearby Palatine, an area upon which “profane” outsiders were forbidden to set foot. Later, the site had a large army barracks with an ancient pagan sanctuary to Mithras, a popular deity among soldiers. Today, the site is sacred to Christians who venerate it as the place which gave martyrdom and glory to saints. The 5th century church of Santo Stefano Celimontana, or Santo Stefano Rotondo, may be the oldest of the round Roman churches with the central altar. Originally it held the relics of St. Stephen the Protomartyr, whose relics had been discovered in the Holy Land in 415, but it was later rededicated to St. Stefan, King of Hungary. Because of its original connection to the Holy Land, the church was modeled on the Church of the Holy Sepulcher – their circumferences and diameters are almost identical.
The church originally had three concentric ambulatories, but the outermost has been suppressed, together with three arms of a Greek cross that extended outward from the circular plan. The fourth arm is the present-day entrance and vestibule. The plan is somewhat confusing, though in Jerusalem it allows for a good circulation of pilgrims around the sanctuary. Copying this plan in Rome is a little unusual, since nothing especially noteworthy is in the sanctuary – though at one time it probably contained the relics of St. Stephen. Twenty-two granite columns separate the passageway from the central area of the church.
The memorable frescoes on the walls, executed in the sixteenth century, depict twenty-four scenes of terrible suffering. They are a powerful reminder of the sufferings that these saints endured for the Faith. Each fresco is accompanied by an inscription explaining the scene, naming the emperor who ordered the execution, and quoting a verse from the Bible. When the church was entrusted to the Jesuits in 1580, the Order encouraged its seminarians to contemplate these frescoes and prepare for the fate that might await them as they were sent off as missionaries.
To the left of the entrance is the Chapel of Sts. Primus and Felician, whose relics were translated from the catacombs on the Via Nomentana by Pope Theodore (642-649). The saints are portrayed in a 7th century mosaic, together with frescoes depicting their martyrdom and burial. This is one of the rare 7th century mosaics in Rome; another is found at the baptistery of Saint John Lateran. Immediately to the left, up against a pilaster, is the episcopal throne, called the seat of Gregory the Great. Also note the chapel of Saint Stefan, king of Hungary. ~From Pontifical North American College, Station Churches of Rome