Friday, February 15, 2008

Stational Church: Santi Apostoli

The first church on this site may have been built in the fourth century by Pope Julius I, but we are certain of a sixth-century construction here by Pope Pelagius I (556-561) in commemoration of a victory over the Goths and their expulsion by the Byzantine viceroy Narses. It was completed by John III (561-574) and dedicated to the Apostles Sts. Philip and James the Less, whose relics had recently been translated to Rome from the East. Later the church was dedicated to the entire Apostolic College. Pope Pius II (1458-1464) gave the church to the Conventual Franciscans (Friars Minor) in 1463, who still minister here. After severe floods, earthquakes, and fires throughout the centuries and numerous reconstructions and restorations, the present-day church looks little like its ancient ancestor. However, the portico and the chapel at the end of the right nave still preserve something of their ancient character.

Through all the years, however, “the Dodici” has retained its importance and charm. It is chosen as today’s station because it is the traditional Ember Friday of Lent, the day on which the public would approve the candidates for priesthood. They would come to this church, dedicated to “the Twelve”, to seek the protection and prayers of the entire Apostolic College. Above the door leading to the sacristy is the monument to the Conventual Franciscan who became Pope Clement XIV (1769-1774), whose remains are in the wall on the left. (Because Pope Clement suppressed the Jesuit Order in 1773, students from the Pontifical Gregorian University traditionally have thrown a rose on top of his monument once they complete their S.T.B. degree, as a humorous token of appreciation.)

The fa├žade is unusual, and makes the church look almost like a palace. It is a fifteenth-century Renaissance double loggia with nine arches, and later the upper storey was filled in with Baroque windows. In the seventeenth-century Carlo Rainaldi designed the balustrade with statues of the Apostles. Under the portico is a first- or second-century Roman bas-relief in bronze depicting an eagle holding an oak-wreath, found in the forum of Trajan.

On a pier of the nave on the right-hand side, near the first chapel, is the burial site of the heart of Clementina Sobieska, wife of the English Old Pretender, James III Stuart. James III was laid in state here himself in 1766, before he was transferred to St. Peter’s Basilica. Also on the right-hand side are the tombs of Count Giraud de Caprieres and Raffaele Cardinal Riario, tentatively attributed to Michelangelo, who was buried here for a time before being moved to Florence.

In the confessio under the main altar are the relics of the apostles, Saints Philip and James the Less, and relics of martyrs removed from the Apronian catacomb on the Via Latina by Pope Stephen VI (885-891), as well as the relics of many Franciscan saints who have served in the basilica. Also present are reproductions of catacomb paintings. An inscription explains that one of those who helped to move the relics, to protect them from invaders, was Pope Stephen IV, who in 886 walked barefoot from the catacombs to the church carrying them on his shoulders.

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