Set on the Caelian Hill, and visible from San Clemente, this Augustinian convent and church complex began life as early as the 4th Century. However, much of what we see today dates from the period after the Normans destroyed much of this part of Rome in 1084 (ironically, there’s a via dei Normanni nearby in the present day).
This outwardly austere complex is dedicated to four unnamed ‘crowned’ saints who were martyred at some point in the 4th Century. These martyrs may have been Roman soldiers or marble sculptors who refused to worship Pagan gods. The site was also a bastion of St John Lateran until the papacy’s move to Avignon and then the Vatican.
It’s a different visit to many, as, despite proximity to both San Clemente and the Colosseum, there are few visitors. Late in the afternoon, I had the beautiful churches within to myself.
There are two distinct spaces in a visit here: the church which gives the complex its title, and a chapel dedicated to St Sylvester. They are both accessed through the courtyards below. It’s also possible to consult the library, and even stay for a taste of monastic life.
The tower in the first courtyard (shown below) may be Rome’s oldest campanile and was originally constructed in the 9th Century. Like most of the complex, today’s appearance seems to owe much to a restoration project carried out 100 years ago (a blink of an eye in the life of a complex like this!)
Into the church dedicated to the Santi Quattri Coronati, which dates from the 12th Century rebuild commissioned by Pope Paschal II. No chances are taken as to which set of saints to honour: the stories of both soldiers and sculptors are told in magnificent detail.
The 13th century chapel or oratory of St Sylvester is accessed via a Gothic Hall, where I came face to face (via a grille) with one of the nuns from the convent in order to gain access to the small and fresco-laden chapel. Their attention is grabbed by ringing a bell beside a strange looking wooden wheel: I later learned that this may have been a place where babies were originally abandoned.
The nun who comes to the grille gives access to this chapel for a small donation of 1 Euro. It’s more than worth it to see the beautiful and surprisingly vivid 13th Century frescoes depicting the conversion of Emperor Constantine to Christianity.
It’s not a story I’d heard before, but apparently Constantine was battling plague when all the pagan priests could suggest was mass child sacrifice. Not surprisingly citizens reacted against such a cure. St Peter appeared to him in a dream and suggested Baptism would be a better option. On waking, Pope Sylvester performed the said baptism. An initially spotty (plague-ridden) Constantine features in the frescoes, and immersive baptism by St Sylvester does indeed restore him to his former health. Beautifully executed and preserved, this space it itself worth the detour.
We could see this complex at night from our hotel, and I often wondered what life for the nuns in this very other-worldly setting must really be like.