Saturday, March 08, 2008

Stational Church: San Nicola in Carcere

The area in which the church of Saint Nicholas now stands was occupied in ancient times by three pagan temples dedicated to Ianus, Iuno Sospita, and Spes. The Forum Olitorium (a vegetable market) also stood here, not far from either the Tiber or the Theater of Marcellus. The church itself was built over one of these temples and incorporated within its walls parts of the other two temples. Its exterior is, as Georgina Masson describes it, “one of the most perfect examples of a Roman architectural palimpsest.” It is difficult to date the original structure; some think that it may be sixth century.

It was believed for a while that the central temple was that of “Piety,” built by M. Acilius Glabrio, the duumvir, in 165 BC in fulfillment of a vow made by his father on the day of his victory over the forces of Antiochus the Great, king of Syria, at Thermopylae. Another identification makes it the site of the caritas Romana. It is said that there was a woman condemned to die of hunger in prison, but kept alive by being nourished by the milk of her own daughter. This tradition was certainly recalled when the Deaconry was established here, as Saint Nicholas is the patron of prisoners.

The entire church was remodeled by Giacomo della Porta in 1599 under the patronage of Cardinal Aldobrandini (later Pope Clement VIII), whose name is seen on the fa├žade. The interior has fine antique columns taken from the pagan temples with diverse capitals. Below the altar, in the confessio, is a dark green porphyry urn containing the remains of Saints Marcellinus, Faustinus, Simplicius, and Beatrice. To the left of the apse is the chapel of St. Nicholas, and further on, the chapel of the Conception with its popular shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe, a copy of the original given to the church by Jesuit missionaries after their expulsion from Mexico. Saint Nicholas also hosts the devotion to Our Lady of Pompeii, whose feast is on May 8th. From the sacristy, one can go down into the basement where there are many remains of the temple(s) on which the church stands. Sometime before the twelfth century, the Deaconry of Santi Nereo ed Alessio (which reverted to titular status) was transferred to that of San Nicola. In 1128 Honorius II erected the church as today’s station.

San Nicola in Carcere still remains a Deaconry. However, in current times it belonged pro hac vice tituli presbyterialis to Patrick Cardinal O’Boyle, the former Archbishop of Washington, until his death in 1987. The church was intended to belong to Hans Urs Cardinal von Balthasar, who elevation to the College of Cardinals was announced in 1988 but who died before the public consistory of that year and therefore did not take possession of it. ~From Pontifical North American College, Station Churches of Rome

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