Originally, everyone believed that The Church of Santa Costanza was built as the mausoleum or martyria for Constantine the Great’s daughter Constantia (also known as Constantina or Costanza) who died in 354. However, more recent excavations seem to date the existing church to the time of Emperor Julian (r. 361-363), who would have built it as a funerary structure for his wife, Helena, who died in AD 360. Helena was Constantia’s younger sister; also a daughter of Emperor Constantine. As the daughter, sister and wife of successive emperors, Helena had considerable status that would warrant a magnificent burial place.
The 4th-century mausoleum of St. Costanza is a round brick building with a small west porch. Santa Costanza officially became a church in the 13th century. The mausoleum was consecrated as a church in 1254 by Pope Alexander IV and is still in use today. It is richly decorated with mosaics, some of the earliest from the Christian era to survive.
The round building was been built adjacent to a horseshoe-shaped church, now in ruins, which has been identified as the initial 4th-century cemeterial basilica of Saint Agnes. Today, you can visit the Church of St Agnes. Santa Costanza and the old basilica of Saint Agnes were both constructed over the earlier catacombs where Saint Agnes is believed to be buried.
There are actually two really old round churches that you should visit in Rome. The other one is Santo Stefano in Rotondo that was built in the 5th century. The Basilica of St. Stephen in the Round is located on the Celian Hill.
This round church is Hungary‘s “national church” in Rome, dedicated to both Saint Stephen, the first Christian martyr, and Stephen I, the sanctified first king of Hungary who imposed Christianity on his subjects. Unlike Santa Costanza, this church has a single column. The church was the first in Rome to have a circular plan, inspired by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
Even though it was built after Santa Costanza, it is considered an older round church because Costanza was originally built as a mausoleum that was later converted to a church. The walls of Saint Stephen are decorated with amazing frescoes portraying 34 scenes of martyrdom, commissioned by Gregory XIII in the 16th century. Each painting has a titulus or inscription explaining the scene and giving the name of the emperor who ordered the execution, as well as a quotation from the Bible.
The Church of Santa Costanza is next to the nave of the Basilica of Sant’Agnese fuori le Mura and the Sant’Agnese catacombs: so while you’re there, you may want to kill two birds with one stone. Santa Costanza is located at the intersection of Via Nomentana and Via di Sant’Agnese; open Tuesday through Saturday from 9am-12pm and 4pm-6pm, Sunday from 4pm-6pm, and Monday from 9am-12pm.
Inside the church you can admire a simple altar under a central dome. The central area is surrounded by 12 pairs of Roman columns, which form a barrel-vaulted ambulatory around the outside. Originally, the walls were covered in marble.
Directly opposite the entrance, at the east side of the mausoleum, is a large niche containing a sarcophagus, decorated with reliefs of putti harvesting grapes. This is a replica of the grand porphyry original sarcophagus that is now in the Vatican Museums. It was moved to the Vatican around 1785. It was probably commissioned by Emperor Julian for his wife Helena. Constantia’s tomb is believed to be the tub-shaped porphyry sarcophagus now in the left transept of St. Peter’s Basilica and it was moved there in 1606.
Santa Costanza is located on the Via Nomentana, which runs north-east out of the city.
The apses, central dome, and ambulatory originally all had mosaic decorations.
One of the apses shows a traditio legis: Christ is shown with Saints Peter and Paul giving Peter the scroll representing law, with the inscription, “DOMINUS PACEM DAT,” or “The Lord is giving Peace.” A few sheep represent his role as shepherd governing and leading his flock. Christ is clothed in golden robes, suggesting his power and supremacy. He is shown rising above paradise, which further shows his dominance over both heaven and earth.
In the second apse, the robes of Christ are not quite as elaborate. He is wearing a simple tunic that is purple and gold. This suggests not only holy power, but human power. The color purple represents royalty and the gold stripes suggestion a connection to the Roman emperors. This is one of the first examples in Christian art of Christ being portrayed in the same way as the emperor or royalty.
In this apse Christ is not just portrayed as royalty but as the ruler of the world, of all existence. He sits atop a blue sphere, a clear symbol for the world or universe. From this perch he hands keys to Peter. This is a clear sign of Christ, and the power of heaven, giving authority and holy power to man. It is also important to note that Peter was Rome’s first bishop so this meant Roman authority was sanctioned by God.
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