Today is the feast of the Four Holy Crowned Martyrs (in Italian, Santi Quattro Coronati). Chances are, you’ve never heard of them.
During the 4th century A.D., in the ancient Roman province of Pannonia near the Danube River, four stonecarvers were asked to sculpt a statue of the god Aesculapius. They refused–not because they had too much work to do, but because they were Christians, and would not create a statue of a false god.
Unfortunately, this incident occurred during the reign of Emperor Diocletian (284-305), who happened to be busy launching the worst Christian persecution in history. The four stonecarvers were martyred along with thousands of others who professed their belief in Christ.
In the Middle Ages, their bodies were moved to Rome, and housed in a huge church that was built on this site in the later 300’s or 400’s A.D., after Christianity had been legalized by Emperor Constantine. That church was largely destroyed by the Normans, who invaded Rome in 1084; but the bell-tower and the basic foundations of the church remain. The church and an attached cloister for Augustinian nuns were promptly rebuilt, and both are still in operation to this day.
It is estimated that the bell-tower dates from the 800’s, meaning that it was added to the original church several centuries after it had been built. But archaeologists and historians have lots of questions about the history of this building complex, because the construction style is very confusing! Like many medieval structures, it was built in a non-classical style, but was constructed by recycling ancient Roman stones, bricks, columns, and other building materials. The result is very difficult to date, and it’s also hard to determine which parts are original and which are newer.
Another mystery is the severe, heavily fortified nature of the church-convent complex. Scholars agree that Santi Quattro Coronati certainly looks more like a fortress than a building dedicated to the worship of God, and they aren’t sure why anyone felt that such strong walls were necessary at the time. Who were they afraid might attack this place?
Because of its building style, this magnificent piece of Roman medieval history is often passed right by, since tourists usually don’t even recognize that it’s a church. The end result is that it is normally a very peaceful, crowd-free place–perfect for the contemplative Augustinian nuns who live here, and ideal for visitors too. Tour Rome with us, and we’ll be happy to take you to see it!