The lonely situation of this antique Basilica, amidst groves, gardens and vineyards, and the number of mouldering monuments and tottering arches that surround it, give it a solemn and affecting appearance
John Chetwode Eustace - A Classical Tour through Italy in 1802
S. Croce in Gerusalemme is one of the Sette Chiese, the seven Roman basilicas which are visited by pilgrims, especially during the Jubilee years. It is said to have been built by St. Helena to house the fragments of the True Cross she found in Jerusalem and brought to Rome. At the time of the plate the fašade had just been rebuilt (1743) by Domenico Gregorini and Pietro Passalacqua at the initiative of Pope Benedict XIV.
The view is taken from the green dot in the small 1748 map below. In the description below the plate Vasi made reference to: 1) Acquedotto dell'Acqua Claudia; 2) Tempio di Venere e Cupido; 3) Monastery; 4) Street leading to Porta S. Lorenzo. 1) is covered in another page. The small map shows also 5) S. Maria del Buon Aiuto; 6) Terme Eleniane; 7) Oratorio di S. Margherita.
The view in May 2009 (you may wish to see a 1909 watercolour by Yoshio Markino depicting the basilica)
S. Croce is no longer in a remote area of Rome, but a large space in front of the basilica has been preserved from modern buildings and the view is almost
that shown in Vasi's etching. The building faces north-west and therefore it is best seen in the afternoon of a day near the summer solstice.
You may wish to see the basilica as it appeared in a 1588 Guide to Rome, when it was surrounded by walls and its aspect was very similar to that of S. Lorenzo fuori le Mura.
(left) Fašade (of the vestibule); (right) bell tower (XIIth century)
The original church was made up of the large hall with an apse of an ancient Roman residence. It was modified in the XIIth century by the addition of a transept and the division of the hall into three naves. Other major changes were made in 1743 when an elliptical vestibule, perhaps the swansong of Roman baroque architecture, was added before the church.
Museum of the Basilica: XIIth century frescoes portraying two Patriarchs
In 1913 during a restoration of the building some detached frescoes of the old church were discovered in a recess under the roof where most likely they had been forgotten at the end of a late XVth century redecoration of the apse.
(left) St. Helena (the same image is shown in the background of this page); (centre) angels worshipping the Cross; (right) Emperor Constantine
The fašade is crowned by gigantic statues. One of them portrays Emperor Constantine, the son of St. Helena, as if he were a saint (for the Greek Orthodox Church he is a saint). You may wish to see a gigantic statue of Constantine by Gian Lorenzo Bernini and one of St. Helena by Andrea Bolgi, one of his assistants.
(left) Dome of the vestibule: its neat stucco decoration recalls patterns established by Francesco Borromini at Cappella dei Re Magi; (right) detail of an oil painting by Corrado Giaquinto on the ceiling of the main nave
Giaquinto portrayed Constantine on his knees while his mother introduces him to the Virgin Mary who in turn intercedes on his behalf with the Holy Trinity. The Emperor did have a need for good advocates as he had ordered the killing of his wife and of his eldest son. The purpose of the painting was to recognize the contribution of Catholic monarchs (and in particular of the Habsburg Roman Holy Emperors) in the stamping out of heresies. The painting by Giaquinto does not have the illusionistic features of many other Roman ceilings of that period. You may wish to see the ceilings he painted at S. Nicola dei Lorenesi and at S. Giovanni Calibita.
Baroque canopy and apse with late XVth century frescoes depicting events associated with the True Cross (you may wish to see the frescoes by Piero della Francesca at Arezzo depicting the same subject)
Gregorini and Passalacqua had to work on a tight budget and they did not touch parts of the building. They used the existing ancient columns of a medieval ciborium to place above them a very baroque bronze structure.
Cappella di S. Elena: (left) mosaic of the ceiling; (right) ancient statue of Juno found at Ostia and turned into a statue of St. Helena in the XVIIIth century
The main altar and the apse were not the heart of the church. Pilgrims went to S. Croce in Gerusalemme to see the fragments of the True Cross and other relics and these were kept in an underground chapel which is said to have been built by Empress Galla Placidia (or by her son Valentinian III); it was decorated with (lost) mosaics similar to those of her mausoleum at Ravenna. The decoration of the chapel was renewed in the late XVth century with mosaics perhaps based on drawings by Melozzo da Forlý. In the XVIIth century some fragments of the cross were moved to S. Pietro.
(left) Cappella Gregoriana, a chapel adjoining Cappella di S. Elena: pedestal of a statue of St. Helena (it was found at the time of Pope Sixtus V and based on the text of the inscription it is dated 327); (centre) 1755 monument to Cardinal Gioacchino Besozzi by Innocenzo Spinazzi (see a page on similar monuments); (right) entrance to Cappella delle Reliquie
The holiness of the underground chapels was increased by the fact that according to tradition their original floors were covered with earth from Jerusalem that St. Helena had carried with her. Many cardinals, bishops and other pious men chose to be buried in these chapels. Unfortunately for them the relics were moved in 1930 to Cappella delle Reliquie, a new modern chapel which was completed in 1952. It can accommodate the visit of large groups, but it lacks the appeal which praying where others have prayed for centuries gives to a holy site.
The monastery adjoining the basilica belongs to the Cistercian Order, a branch of the Benedictines with a great deal of emphasis on self-sufficiency and manual work; the monks have their kitchen garden inside nearby Anfiteatro Castrense, an ancient oval stadium behind the basilica.
(left) Tempio di Venere e Cupido; (centre) Musei Vaticani: the statue which was found in the "temple" and after which it is named; (right) Centrale Montemartini: statue of a muse leaning on a rock pillar which was found in 1928 in a new development to the east of the "temple"
The ruins which Vasi attributes to a temple to Venus and Cupid are actually those of a villa built by Emperor Heliogabalus, which later on became part of the residence of St. Helena (Palatium Sessorianum). The statue of Venus (known as Venus Felix) is said to portray Sallustia Orbiana, wife of Emperor Alexander Severus. It was found before 1509 when chronicles say that Pope Julius II moved it to Casino di Belvedere.
(left) Cistern of Terme Eleniane; (right) Centrale Montemartini: fragment of a floor mosaic depicting a wrestler, similar to those found at Terme di Caracalla
These baths were built at the time of Emperor Septimius Severus between S. Croce in Gerusalemme and an aqueduct built by Emperor Nero which provided them with water. They stood on low ground to be protected from northern winds and they had gardens on their southern side. An inscription found in the XVIth century indicates that they were restored by St. Helena, but it is not clear whether they were public or private baths. Today only the cisterns are visible in a sort of below ground garden surrounded by apartment blocks.
(left) S. Maria del Buon Aiuto; (centre/right) Oratorio di S. Margherita
S. Maria del Buon Aiuto was built in 1476 by Pope Sixtus IV on the site of a previous chapel known as S. Maria de Spazolaria.
The Pope placed his coat of arms on the building and an inscription with his name on the lintel of the door. A smaller inscription said that the chapel was meant for those
who wished to pray for the souls of their kin in Purgatory.
Oratorio di S. Margherita is a chapel which is rather hard to find; it is located in a tower of the Roman walls: the tower, unlike the others, has some windows on the inner side of the walls and a sort of bell tower at its top. Because of its overall aspect it was called Prigione (prison) di S. Margherita. The chapel was quite popular in the XVIIth and XVIIIth centuries, but later on its existence was forgotten.
Excerpts from Giuseppe Vasi 1761 Itinerary related to this page:
Fu questa eretta dall'Imperatore Costantino ad istanza di s. Elena sua madre nel suo
palazzo Sessoriano per collocarvi il legno della ss. Croce, che aveva portato da
Gerusalemme, e per˛ ne prese il titolo ed il nome. Dopo molti riattamenti fu ultimamente
rinnovata dal Pontefice Benedetto XIV. col disegno del Cav. Passalacqua Messinese, ed Ŕ
ornata con pitture, e stucchi dorati; quelle nella volta, nella crociata, e i due laterali a
fresco fatti nella tribuna sono di Corrado Giaquinto; il quadro nella prima cappella a
destra Ŕ di Gio. Bonatti, quello nella seconda di Carlo Maratti, e nella terza dipinse
il Cav. Vanni. Il ritrovamento della ss. Croce dipinto nella tribuna sembra maniera di
Pietro Perugino. Dalla porticella a destra si scende ad una devota cappella divisa in due,
una dedicata alla ss. PietÓ, e l'altra alla s. Imperatrice, nella quale ella aveva fatto
riporre della terra portata da' luoghi santi di Gerusalemme: perci˛ non Ŕ lecito di
entrarvi le donne, ed Ŕ ornata di mosaici e di marmi. I quadri ne' tre altari sono di
Pietro Paolo Rubens, e le pitture a fresco del Pomaranci. Il bassorilievo della PietÓ Ŕ
opera di autore incerto, ed il deposito del Cardinal Besozzi Ŕ d'Innocenzo Spinazzi.
Tornando poi in chiesa, il quadro del primo altare Ŕ di Luigi Garzi, ed il s. Tommaso nell'
ultima Ŕ di Giuseppe Passeri. ╚ questa una delle sette chiese, ed Ŕ ufiziata da' monaci
Cisterciensi. Lo stradone d'incontro, che porta alla basilica di s. Maria Maggiore,
fu fatto da Sisto V. e quello a sinistra, che va al Laterano, dal mentovato Benedetto XIV.