Saint Crisogono's Un-buried Treasures:

Caesar Augustus, shortly after the great census of the Empire that he ordered in 8 BC, divided the city of Rome into fourteen administrative "regiones". Regionis XIV, Transtyberim (long since corrupted to "Trastevere" and still meaning "across the Tiber River"), was the most populous. Upper class foreigners gravitated to the Aventine hill, across the valley of the Circus Maximus from the Palatine, but foreign low-lifes went to Transtyberim, on the western bank of the Tiber River. Both the Aventine and Transtyberim were outside the Pomerium, Rome's religious border, inside of which foreigners were not allowed to reside. Reg XIV was a hotbed of political, economic, and religious foreign intrigue.

Along the western bank of the Rome's Tiber River, there were docks and warehouses where foreign cargoes were unloaded and were inspected by Roman officials. Foreign dock workers and warehouse hands lived in cramped quarters in and around the docks, and, as might be expected, foreign merchants also lived and had "emporia" in the region. Prominent among these "trading travelers" ("emporos" meant "travelling salesman" in Greek) were Jewish merchants that had the franchise for the all-important grain trade with Egypt, which Augustus had annexed as a province after the death of the last Pharaoh, Cleopatra.

All of the foreign communities were fragmented, but the various kinds of Jews lived together peacefully in Rome until the arrival of a new splinter group, which the historians Tacitus and Suetonius identified as the followers of "Crestus". They were "Crestians" or Christians. Roman Christians appeared in contemporary chronicles and letters as fomentors of trouble in the community: they violated the fundamental principal of Roman communal peace by proselytizing (and that, rather than their beliefs, is what got them in trouble with the cops). Both Peter and Paul, according to legend, were habitues of Transtyberim. Peter lived with rich friends on the Aventine, but came down into Transtyberim to preach. All of these circumstances contributed to the fact that Rome's earliest Christian churches are in Trastevere. Santa Maria in Trastevere, reputedly Peter's Roman parish, claims the honor of being the very oldest

The church of S. Crisogono was close behind. How the church got its name is not clear. Either it was named directly for Saint Crisogono (earlier forms: Italian = S. Grisogono; Latin = Crisogonus or in earlier Latin = Chrisogonus; medieval Latin sliding into early Roman dialect Italian = Grysogone), or perhaps it was named for a Roman Christian of the same name, who, naturally, would specially have venerated the Saint. What little is known about the life of S. Crisogono is available on the Internet in the Catholic Encyclopedia ( and, in more legendary form, in the Caxton/Ellis translation of Voragine's 13th century "Golden Legend" (

In the early years, Christians gathered for their ceremonies and commemorative meals ("fractio panis" = breaking bread) in private homes, each of which became known as a "domus ecclesiae". The "domestic churches" soon also became known as "tituli" or "titled" churches because the were named after the owner or after the patron saint -- in many cases, as noted above, the name of the owner and of the saint would be the same. Eventually lists were drawn up by ecclesiastical authorities, so we have a fairly accurate accounting of the history of the Roman tituli. After Constantine made Christianity legal in 313 AD, many of the titular domestic churches were reconstructed on the pattern of Roman civic basilicas. Transtyberim's three tituli, S. Calisto (later rededicated as S. Maria in Trastevere, Peter's church), S. Cecilia, and S. Crysogono, were all treated to such aggrandisement.

For many centuries, historians and churchmen believed that the present basilica was just a redecorated version of the enlarged titulus. Only in the early 20th century did curious Trinitarian caretaker priests begin to un-bury the older church, starting their excavations where a part of an old wall protruded into the sacristy of the upper basilica. In the course of the century, the earlier basilica, almost as large as the present one, along with pre-existing Roman houses and a tannery or cloth dying establishment, and many later interventions were revealed. There is scope (but currently no money) for further excavation: several blocked doorways, passages, and half-excavated rooms are easily identified. Although the excavation has been extensive, documentation of the site is scanty. The multi-volume sets of books that should have come from the excavators were never written, although there are rumors that the notes of the long-dead early diggers may still be in the church's archives (but one researcher I know didn't find them). A slim, 85 page, illustrated guide to both the upper and lower basilicas, which is available at a desk in the Sacristy (10 Euros), includes a fifteen page monograph on the lower church, and, mostly because of its diagrams of the plan of the lower church, it's actually quite useful.

For two Euros, you can go down the stairway at the back of the sacristy and into the medieval church. New lighting and some metal walkways make exploration of the lower basilica much easier than it was just two years ago: you no longer have to scramble over walls and fallen statuary, and a section important for understanding the structure is newly accessible thanks to metal stairways on both sides of an eight-foot wall. The lights make it fairly easy to see the early frescoes (3-5th centuries) around the raised altar and the comparatively later frescoes (10th century) along the side walls.

Areas along both side walls of the main room of the lower basilica have been cleared down to floor level, but that doesn't mean that you can blithely step through the site. Floor levels (plural would be more accurate) vary:   there are steps, uneven slopes, mounds, etc., still to be negotiated in the areas where the metal walkways have not been installed. (The lower site is definitely not accessible to the handicapped.) The early basilica had a rare single-nave design -- no side aisles -- apparently because the original large room, the part of the nave nearest the apse, was fit into a pre-existing structure of unknown origin. You can not, however, look across the single nave because of a thick wall supporting the southern side of the upper cathedral, which is offset to the north of the lower cathedral by most of its width and because of unexcavated rubble behind the wall that runs the full length of the nave.

There are a few very small sections of "original" floor, mosaics and inlaid marbles, in situ -- "original" in quotes, meaning that they are from some time in the multi-century history of the lower church. The partial frescoes on the south side of the altar base are usually interpreted to be images of Chrisogonus and of Anastasia, a long suffering Christian matron who legendarily succored him in prison and of Rufus, the prison guard that Chrisogonus converted. All three, according to the martyrologies, were executed during the persecution of Diocletian. (See for Anastasia and for a few lines (#8) on Rufus.)

The frescoes on the southern wall of the nave are very fragmentary. Only a few geometric patterns and some "veiling", depictions of white draperies usually painted onto walls to fill the space below more important frescoes, are really visible. The frescoes above the veiling have almost completely scaled away, and this is not surprising since that side of the dig is very humid -- water was trickling down the wall that supports the upper basilica. The frescoes on the much drier northern wall, which lies under the southern aisle of the upper basilica, are much better preserved. The most famous section depicts St. Benedict blessing (curing?) a leper. The colors here are still vibrant, as are those on the altar base, but our expert guide, who has been visiting the site for six year, said that they have visibly faded within that limited time.

In the lower basilica, you can also see several fine "crypto-Christian" sarcophagi (iconography that may or may not be Christian) and a more than 2000-year multi-level chronology of Roman masonry and brickwork. The oldest masonry/brickwork examples are in rooms near both ends where there have been exposed remains of buildings that were there before the earliest church. The latest are modern supports built by recent archeological excavators to support structures above while they dug the site. Thus far, more than twenty different building levels have been identified in the two basilicas, and there are still more to go.

It's clear that, when the upper basilica was built by Cardinal Giovani da Crema in the 12th century, the lower basilica was simply filled with rubble and earth to raise the floor to a height that would minimize damage from the almost annual Tiber River floods. The "new" upper basilica is still Da Crema's medieval structure and has a characteristic deep medieval portico protecting the front doors. Above the portico rears a fairly simple, but still recognizably baroque, superstructure, and along the front edge of the portico are six-foot-high Borghese dragons and eagles. The Borghese emblems and inscriptions of the name of the proud Cardinal Scipione Borghese are everywhere. It was Scipione, the nephew of Pope Paul 5, who had the whole church rebuilt and redecorated by the then famous architect Gianbattista Soria. (At the same time, starting around 1620, Scipione was also building his Villa Borghese north of the city walls.)

The interior of the upper church is gaudily baroque, especially the gildt ceiling, which is, perhaps the "most baroque" of all Roman church ceilings. The painting in the center is "The Glorification of Saint Chrysogonus" by Gian Francesco Barbieri -- or maybe a copy of it, if the original is, as some experts claim, in London. There is a fine, only slightly restored 13th century marble inlay "Cosmatesque" floor. The twenty-two matched granite columns have been in place since the 12th century, and they may have been spoils from the baths of Septimus Severus. The "confessio" or crypt in the sanctuary area dips down into the 8th century level, but all its decorations are much more modern -- by which, in this context, we mean mostly baroque. The baldachino over the main altar is attributed to Gianlorenzo Bernini as is the design of one of the side chapels.

Behind the main altar is a mosaic "Madonna and Child with Saints Crysogono and James", which is from the school of the great mosaicist Pietro Cavallini. Attempts to attribute it to him directly are universally scorned, and, in fact, its quality is so far below his known work in S. Maria in Trastevere that even the attribution to his school is sometimes doubted -- but Cavallini, like other masters, probably had some less talented apprentices. Below the faux Cavallini is a reasonably successful carved wood choir dating from the 19th century, which depicts the traditional function of the Trinitarians, which was the purchase and manumission of slaves. (They now work mostly with modern "slaves" -- drug addicts, the poor, and the handicapped.)

For the rest, the decoration inside the upper church is modern (mostly 20th century, in this context) and of almost uniformly poor quality. But the real treasures are those old frescoes un-buried in the lower basilica.

The Campanile or bell tower is said to be a 12th century rebuilding of an earlier tower but nothing of the earlier tower is visible from the outside.

P.S.:  Both the upper and lower churches are "basilicas" because of their architectural form and shape -- long rectangular halls modeled after Roman civic structures. The upper basilica is closer in design to the standard Roman models, which almost always had subsidiary aisles flanking the central nave. Basilicas are not necessarily "cathedrals", but these are, because they traditionally have been the seats of "titular" Cardinals -- the Latin word for seat or chair is "cathedra". A church is any place in which Christian observances are held.

Additional Internet links:

June Hagar on S. Crysogono:

From Chris Nyborg's Roman churches site:

Popolo Project art and architecture images -- upper basilica only (first of six pages -- follow "next page" links):


Go to for other articles. All links worked as of 15 April 2002.