There’s a bizarre and gruesome church in Rome that is just perfect for getting in the Halloween spirit, so I recently dragged some friends there on their first full day in Rome. Santo Stefano Rotondo (Saint Stephen in the Round) is (surprise!) a round church dedicated to Saint Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Also known as Hungary’s national church in Rome, the dedication pays homage to Stephen I, King of Hungary, who “brought” Christianity to his kingdom (also known as forcibly converting the locals), and was later canonized for doing so.
The church dates from the 5th Century, and was the first round church in Rome, modeled after the original Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The facade gives away nothing about the horrors to be found inside.
Indeed, the church itself is lovely, and graceful.
Then you get to the ring that runs around the church. In the 16th Century, it was decorated with frescoes depicting the martyrdom of various saints — in horrific detail — depicting cruel and painful deaths. There’s also a helpful description (in Latin and Italian) of the respective Roman emperor who ordered the torture and execution of each saint, as well as a Bible quote. The faithful — usually illiterate — would know the identity of the saint depicted based on the particular method of torture, such as Saint Stephen being stoned to death:
The crucifixion of Saint Peter (he asked to be crucified upside-down since he saw himself unworthy to be crucified in the same manner as Jesus).
And a multitude of other horrible deaths…
And, a personal favorite:
There are also some additional things that are special about this church, such as the tomb of Irish king Donough O’Brien (who died in Rome in 1064 while on a pilgrimage), and the chair of Pope Gregory the Great from the 6th Century. Oh, there’s also a temple to the pagan god Mithras in the basement. In my opinion, though, these all pale in comparison to the horribly gruesome frescoes. But hey, happy Halloween everyone!