Oratory of the Most Holy Crucifix

During the night between May 22 and May 23, 1519 a violent fire consumed the ancient church of St. Marcello on Via del Corso. The riches and adornments accumulated since Pope Boniface I dedicated it in the closing days of 418 AD were lost in the flames. But, somehow, the wooden cross that hung over the main altar escaped the general destruction: local folks were sure it was a miracle. If any confirmation were needed of local beliefs about the miraculous character of the old cross, it was provided three years later: a virulent plague that was wracking the city suddenly ended after several days of processions through the city with the cross.

After this second miracle, Roman nobles, led by Cardinal de Vico, founded a group to propagate the veneration of the cross. The group became a Catholic confraternity in 1526. At first, it was a simple operation in a commercial building near the site of Old St. Marcello, but in 1568 the Confraternity built its oratory on a small square near St. Marcello. A large donation from the Farnese family helped fund the project.

Oratories were places where meetings and especially preaching ("orations") took place. They were not initially consecrated as churches, but were more like the "parish hall" or like a social center owned by members of several parishes. Those familiar with American fraternal organizations like the Elks Club, The American Legion, the Lions Club, the Odd Fellows, etc., will recognize the pattern. Each oratorio had one big meeting room, which might have been built specifically for the orations or sometimes was just some one's old warehouse. The significance of oratories increased markedly during the Catholic Counter-Reformation when reinforcement of Catholic teachings and of Church authority was needed. Speakers needed large halls to address large audiences.

Some of the preaching was done in big new marble-lined churches like the Gesu and San Andrea della Valle, but the most popular meeting and preaching places, were the simpler Oratories. And their popularity, according to most authorities, was based on an innovation at another oratory across town. There, in a hall next to Santa Maria in Vallicella, Philip Neri, known even in his own time as "the Laughing Saint", and his "oratorians" had hit upon a winning format.

The Jesuits at the Gesu and the Theatines at San Andrea were renowned for the long and learned sermons (see the P.S. below). Philip Neri wanted a broader and more enthusiastic audience. His productions --- and they really were productions -- never lasted more than about three hours, which was very short for those times. There were typically three parts, the first of which was a musical introduction of a biblical or other religious lesson. Then came the actual sermon on the same subject, and it was "short" at about two hours. The third part was again musical, singing the praises of god and giving thanks for the lesson. Soloists sang individual parts in dramatic biblical and religious dialogues, and sometimes segments of the stories were acted out in mime in the space between the audience and the singers. Banners, posters and other "visual aids" were used to emphasize salient points.

The sermons in the middle varied, but the music quickly developed into set pieces, and a whole new musical genre developed around the Oratorio meetings. The form was first called, descriptively, "stile recitative", but it eventually also was called "oratorio" after the halls they were performed. Oratorio was largely the invention of a single composer named Giacomo Carissimi. Palaestrina's "Sacred Praises" ("Laude Sacre") were already being sung after sermons at Philip Neri's auditorium, but it was Carissimi's work at the Oratory of the Most Holy Crucifix that gave him the title of "father of the Oratorio" musical form. (A short bio is on the Internet at http://members.tripod.com/~Wolfgang5/Carissimi.html, and his music is still played and recorded -- look him up on the net.)

Both of the big Roman oratories, Neri's "Oratorian" oratory and the Oratory of the Crucifix were immensely popular, but they attracted different audiences. Neri's was out at the end of the Campo Marzio at the big bend of the Tiber River -- the "Valicella" part of the name of the next door church referred to a boggy little valley in that poor and crowded section of town. The Crucifix oratory was in the midst of the palaces of the rich and mighty, who were also the noble members of the Confraternity of the Holy Cross.

Carissimi had a day job as "maestro di cappella" (choir master) at the Jesuit German College, one of the most prestigious Jesuit educational institutions in the world. But he was sought after by bigger institutions -- his bio notes the list of court and cathedral offers around Europe that he turned down.

After Carissimi, the tradition of high musical art at the Oratorio of the Crucifix continued (Scarlatti and Frescobaldi both had works performed there) and oratorio as a musical form grew in several different directions. For a short history of the development of the genre, go to http://w3.rz-berlin.mpg.de/cmp/g_oratorio.html.

The Oratorio of the Crucifix is located on Piazza dell'Oratorio, one block north of the northern end of Piazza Santi Apostoli. The façade of the building is attributed to Giacamo della Porta. It has two stories, each of which is divided into three parts by pilasters. The inscription on the upper level commemorated the financial contribution from Cardinal Farnese that made it all possible.

The interior plan is simple -- a big rectangular room with a high ceiling and an exedra at one end, in which there is an altar. Devoid of marbles and statuary, there is a tremendous amount of wall space, all of which is covered in frescoes by some of the greatest artists of the 16th century. The paintings depict the story of the miraculous crucifix at San Marcello al Corso, the History of the True Cross (the six biggest frescoes), and the history of the Confraternity. Among them are Paris Nogari's Procession of 1522; Baldassare Croce's The Approval of the Statutes of the Confraternity; Pomerancio's The Miracle of the Crucifix; Giovanni de Vecchi's The Exaltation of the Cross, and Niccolò Circigniani's The Miracle of the True Cross. All of the frescoes in the oratorio were restored in 1998-99 in preparation for the 2000 Jubilee.

The crucifix above the main altar is a copy of the St. Marcello cross that survived the fire of 1519, made in 1740 when the original was returned to St Marcello church, one block to the west on Via del Corso.

The official name of the Oratory is now "Oratory of the Sisters Missionary of Jesus Eternal Priest, dedicated to the Holy Crucifix", and it now belongs to a-missionary order of nuns.

The oratory is usually open for visitation on weekdays and Saturdays. The usual long closure at lunch-time prevails -- three or more hours starting at about 12:30 PM. The Feast of the Recovery of the True Cross (by Queen Helena in Jerusalem) is celebrated on 3 May, and that of the Exaltation of the Cross on 15 September. There are still performances of musical oratorios at the oratory, but I've never found a real schedule. There are small posters inside the front door announcing individual performances, and the sisters, who only seem to speak Italian, sometimes know about scheduled performances (telephone and fax: (39) 06 6797017).

More information:

A sixty page guide (in Italian only) is available at the sacristy for 3.5 Euros -- knock on the door in the middle of the left hand wall, or ask one of the Sisters who usually bustle about if there are visitors.

Some info for this item is from;
Chris Nyborg's "Churches of Rome" web site at http://home.online.no/~cnyborg/oratoriocrocifisso.html,
from an early music site at http://www.hoasm.org/VH/Carissimi.html (Its broader cousin is at http://www.hoasm.org/Periods.html), and
from an Italian language site on Carissimi at http://www.carissimi.it/carissimi_vita.htm.

P.S.:  There's an old Roman fable about the force and constancy of the wind in front of the Gesu Church.  It goes like this.

The Devil and the Wind were walking from the Campidoglio to the Pantheon, and, as they were passing the Gesu, the devil heard preaching inside.  Satan told the Wind to wait outside until he returned -- he just wanted to hear the end of the sermon.  In went the Devil.  And the Wind is still out in front of the Church waiting for that Jesuit preacher to finish.

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