Living in Rome
In the last decade, Power Point Presentations or PPPs have become a standard tool of communication, used everywhere from business conferences to weddings. They use images and texts together to convey a message or inform a wide audience. But PPP are not new; the concept existed long before computers were invented. I recently saw an amazing example of it at the church of Santo Stefano Rotondo in Rome. The church, which has an unusual round shape, is known for its frescoes depicting Christian martyrdom under the Roman empire.
The panels, painted by 16th century artists, Niccolò Circignani known as il Pomarancio, and Matteo da Siena, show the different means by which Romans tortured early Christian martyrs. The cycle of martyrs, as it became known, was commissioned by the German-Hungarian College of Jesuits, to which the church belongs, with the specific aim of educating their novices. During their novitiate in Rome (the training period given to decide whether or not to join the Church) , trainee priests were isolated from the world to meditate on the life of Christ. Among others, they had to follow the Spiritual Exercises invented by Ignacio de Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus in 1534, to supposedly purify their soul and open to the teachings of Jesus. A great emphasis was put on education, as Loyola believed that most catholic priests were poorly educated. One of his reasons to form the Society was to contribute to the reform of the Catholic Church, brought about by Luther and his Protestant Reformation. From the beginning, it was an extremely hierarchical and organized religious order, which put the catholic doctrine first and foremost. It ran a number of Jesuit colleges in Rome, the most famous one being the Collegio Romano near the Pantheon. The German College, which later merged with the Hungarian one, was formed in 1552 to re-convert Northern Europeans to catholicism.
The cycle of frescoes at Santo Stefano Rotondo came to being in that context. It was painted to educate German novices about the many sufferings endured in the name of Christ, and prepare them for their mission of evangelization back in their homeland. The cycle starts with the crucifixion and goes through the history of the Roman emperors, from the early emperors like Nero, all the way to Diocletian at the end of the 3rd century. Each panel represents a specific martyr or group of martyrs, and tells in images and written words how they were tortured, when and under which emperor.
Just like in a power point presentation, letters are inserted in the painting and a corresponding explanation can be read in Latin and Italian on a tablet underneath the painting.
The landscape and peaceful facial expression of the martyrs is in strong contrast with the horrors inflicted upon them, to give more weight to the underlying message of the Jesuits, which is salvation through Jesus. Pomarancio had already worked for the Society of Jesus, so he knew what was expected of him when he took up the decoration of Santo Stefano Rotondo during its renovation in the 1580s. Santo Stefano Rotondo was initially built in the 5th century to commemorate St Stephen, the first Christian martyr. He was stoned to death, or lapidated which is the correct technical term, in 35 AD, but his cult only started after his body was found around 415 AD, spreading in the East first and then to Rome. The church on the Celio is an amazing example of late Antiquity architecture, with a perfectly round nave of 22 metres in diametre, separated from the encircling deambulatory by a series of ionic columns. Through the middle-ages, it underwent structural changes, and was abandoned from time to time, until it became a seminary for young German and Hungarian Jesuits. It still belongs to the same College today.