ROMAN BASILICAS (5) – Saint Chrysogonus: traveling down the centuries

– Anastasios

If you visit the most popular area of Trastevere in Rome, you may arrive through the Garibaldi bridge. It is one of the most important gateways in Trastevere, where millions of tourists enter to enjoy the beauty of the area, its artistic treasure and last but not least, good restaurants.

If you arrive through that bridge, you will notice a huge church, with an elegant portico on the right-hand side of Viale Trastevere, the main street. You are looking at Saint Chrysogonus, a minor Basilica that is not so well known despite being in a frequently visited area of the city. Some people are curious about this strange name, Chrysogonus; the name comes from Greek, which means “born from gold.”  According to tradition, he was a soldier and then a Bishop of Aquileia and was martyred for his faith in the 4th century. The name of the church was already mentioned in the 4th century, in a Roman Synod as Titulus Chrysogoni. But not everyone identifies the Aquileia’s Bishop with the saint venerated in the Basilica in Trastevere.

When we talk of Saint Chrysogonus, we indeed have to speak of two churches. One is the Basilica that everyone can access from the street, a spacious place of worship built in the 12th century. It was later rebuilt by architect Giovan Battista Soria in the 17th century, thanks to the munificence of Cardinal Scipione Borghese. This Basilica is one of the three Basilicas in Trastevere that has many things to be seen, such as the mosaic in the apse (13th century), the Cosmatesque pavement (Cosmatesque is a geometric decoration typical of Medieval time), the tomb with the body of Blessed Anna Maria Taigi, a laywoman living in the 19th century who was buried in the Basilica, and the “Glory of Saint Chrysogonus” on the ceiling by the celebrated painter Guercino.

But what is more peculiar about this Basilica is probably something else. In 1907, excavations began since it was discovered that there was something buried underneath. And, indeed this was the Titulus Chrysogoni, the ancient place of worship probably developed from a Domus Ecclesiae. Titulus was a sign that indicated the name of the person that provided this as a place of worship to a certain Christian community. In our case, we are not sure if the name Chrysogonus refers to the saint or to a person called in this way who provided his house for the gathering of Christians. What we know is that this place was very ancient, going back probably to the third century but probably even before. We should keep in mind that Trastevere in the first century was a Jewish area, and Trastevere is also the first place in Rome where Christianity began to spread. The excavations can now be visited, and besides places of worship and tombs, we can also see other elements from the bygone era. Furthermore, there are also some frescos from the 8th century, commissioned by Pope Gregory III. Some of them portray Saint Benedict, probably because of a Benedictine community that was in charge of the church.

Later on, the Carmelites took care of the church and from the 19th century, the church was under the care of the Trinitarian Fathers, a congregation that was started by Saint John de Matha (1154-1213) to succor captive Christians, and grant them freedom from slavery. The Basilica of Saint Chrysogonus is a parish, but in recent decades Mass attendance and reception of the sacraments have fallen dramatically. This is due to several reasons: one of them is the general crisis that affects religious life and fewer people who are attracted to spiritual life. Trastevere was a very popular place (if you read the writings of travelers in the 19th century, it was also quite dangerous in certain aspects) has now become very fashionable. Only people who are wealthy enough can afford to buy an apartment in this place (besides of course those that live there because of family heritage, which is considerably few in recent years); usually these people are foreigners and are non-Catholics and are not interested in becoming one. The church is trying to cope with this new situation. 

A very popular Marian feast is celebrated, called “Festa de’ Noantri” in Italian. A statue of the Virgin Mary of Carmel that is hugely popular in Trastevere is brought in procession during the month of July, after the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. But nowadays, even if the attendance to the procession is still quite big, the attendance to Masses after the statue is brought in the Basilica of Saint Chrysogonus is very low compared to some decades ago. As stated earlier in this article, this is a general problem that affects many churches and parishes in Italy today.

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