There are many churches in Trastevere, but one of them is a truly unique place as it’s not only a Basilica, but it also has a crypt and it houses the impressive Last Judgement fresco by Pietro Cavallini. This is the Basilica of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, tucked in a narrow alley in a lesser visited, quieter area of this bustling neighborhood.
I happened to visit during a recent trip to Rome, and was captured by its unique history and beauty – so I thought I’d share what I have learned about it with you. If you happen to be exploring Trastevere, do not miss it!
You should also read my post A Short Guide To Trastevere, Rome.
The History Of The Basilica Of Santa Cecilia In Trastevere
Though she was one of the several virgin martyrs in early Christianity, there isn’t much known about who exactly Saint Cecilia was. What is known about her life comes to us from tales and stories of saints’ lives handed down over the centuries.
However, it is believed that she was born into a noble Roman family somewhere between 200 and 230 AD, and died at some point between 222 and 235 AD.
The story goes that Cecilia was forced by her parents to marry Valerian, a Roman nobleman, but despite this Ceclia had taken a vow of chastity. During the wedding service, Cecilia is said to have sung to God.
When it came to the point of consummating the marriage, Cecilia told Valerian that an angel of the lord would punish him if her virginity was not respected. Valerian obeyed and converted to Christianity along with his brother Tiburtius.
After this time, Valerian and Tiburtius began giving proper burial rites to Christian martyrs in Rome, which was illegal in Roman law at the time. The two were found out and sentenced to death. Meanwhile, Cecilia continued working to convert people to Christianity and burying Christians, even though it was illegal.
She was eventually brought to trial and sentenced to death. The story goes that the execution miraculously took several days; during that time she asked the Pope to convert her home into a church after her death. Saint Cecilia is today one of the most famous Roman martyrs and is the patron saint of musicians because of the time she sang to god during her wedding.
The Basilica of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere itself dates to around the third century AD and was commissioned by Pope Urban I. It is thought that this was indeed built over the home of Cecilia and is devoted to her.
In fact, during archaeological digs at the site, a Roman house dating to the early empire was discovered here underneath the Chapel of Relics, as well as a baptistry (a separate building dedicated to baptizing people), which would fit into the legend of Cecilia facilitating Christian conversions.
The church has remained an important part of Christian worship in Rome over the centuries. It was mentioned in the late fifth century at the Council of the Roman Catholic Church under Pope Symmachus, where it was referred to by the name Titulus Ceciliae.
In 545, on the 22nd November, it was here where Pope Vigilus was celebrating her feast in the church when he was captured by the emissary to the Byzantine Empress Theodora.
The relics of Saint Cecilia herself, however, were not present at the church at this time. Pope Paschal I had a keen interest in recovering relics from across the empire and restoring them to various Catholic churches.
He claimed he had a dream, in which he saw a vision of Cecilia who showed the Pope where she had been buried. And so in 822, he decided to build a basilica on the site of the older church dedicated to her, and moved her body from the catacombs to the new basilica.
By 1599, the church was well known as the Basilica of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere. At this time renovations were being undertaken on the orders of Cardinal Paolo Emilio Sfondrati.
During these renovations, the cardinal opened Saint Cecilia’s marble tomb, where he discovered a cypress wood chest. On opening the chest, Sfondrati found the body of Saint Celia, almost completely intact as though she were asleep.
She was wearing white and there were marks on her neck from the wounds of execution. This lack of decomposition is known as incorruptibility and refers to divine intervention in preserving either the life or body of a Christian martyr.
This discovery of her body was considered miraculous and drew Pope Clement VIII to see her. The Pope wanted to preserve how the body had been found, and so drafted in the sculptor Stefano Maderno to reproduce her figure in Parian marble. In doing this, Maderno crafted a masterpiece which can still be seen to this day.
The basilica of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere seen today is the result of various restorations and additions throughout history. The original structure was a classic basilica with a central nave, a semicircular apse and a small underground crypt.
Throughout the centuries, the church was embellished and the site grew, with a monastery being added to it and a bell tower constructed in the twelfth century.
In the thirteenth century, Pietro Cavallini painted a colorful fresco of the Last Judgment and the sculptor Arnolfo di Cambio – the man behind designing Florence Cathedral – created the ciborium over the tomb of Cecilia in 1293; di Cambio would also design the ciborium at San Paolo Fuori Le Mura the year after.
The church’s Baroque facade, as seen today, was built by Fernando Fuga in 1725. The facade borders the church’s courtyard, which is ornately decorated with columns, ancient mosaics and the coat of arms of the cardinal who funded the facade.
Because of the basilica’s history, there are layers of different construction periods hidden beneath its surface. In the early 20th century, Cardinal Mariano Rampolla del Tindaro set about expanding the ancient crypt and restoring certain elements of it.
During this time, the excavations involved uncovered numerous Roman remains around five meters below the church. It is believed that these remains are those of a second-century BC home, and include relatively intact walls and floors; it seems to have been converted at one stage into an insula, a type of ancient apartment block.
The building traces the history of the Trastevere area from one of agriculture to its extensive urbanization in the late Republican era. The evolution traces several centuries to the Hadrianic period of the second century AD, with a road, classroom, courtyard and staircases, among other architectural elements identified.
One part of the building appears to have been converted into a baptistry, illustrating the early Christian use of the building.
Given its history and importance in the early practice of Christianity in the Roman Empire, the Basilica of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere remains a prominent place of worship for Catholics in Rome, with pilgrims traveling from further afield to visit.
What To See When Visiting The Basilica Of Santa Cecilia In Trastevere
Martyrdom of Saint Cecilia
Crafted by Stefano Maderno in 1599, the Martyrdom of Saint Cecilia is one of the main focal points when visiting the Basilica of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere. Maderno was drafted in to sculpt a likeness of Saint Cecilia’s incorrupt body after it was discovered in a cypress chest entombed in a marble sarcophagus under the church’s altar the same year. The discovery was deemed a miracle, and Pope Clement VIII wanted her likeness to be preserved exactly as she had been found.
This piece of work immediately established Stefano Maderno as an important artist. The sculpture itself, carved out of Parian marble, is celebrated for its depiction of an unposed, naturalistic figure. It was considered a counter to the dry and posed Mannerist style of the time.
The sculpture isn’t a stylized, hagiographical depiction of the saint with drama and theatrics (as is often the case; see Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa), but rather one that shows what is likely to be the reality of Cecilia’s death.
Maderno’s beautiful sculpture can be seen in a glass case in the church’s sanctuary. The effigy of bright white marble is in contrast to the darkness of the niche in which it sits.
Seeing this sculpture is quite an experience, as the draping of her body, hair and the fabric of the clothes have been exquisitely conveyed in the marble. Maderno also created the surrounding bronze relief panels, which tell the story of not only Cecilia but key characters in her tale such as Valerian and Tiburtius.
The apse is one of the most prominent parts of the basilica’s interior. Decorated with mosaics in the Byzantine style in 820 AD, it is a depiction of Christ the Redeemer surrounded by Saint Paul, Saint Cecilia, Pope Paschal I, as well as Saints Peter, Valerian and Agatha.
At the center, Christ is holding up a scroll and is offering a blessing, while the hand of god is pointing down towards his head.
Jesus is wearing a Roman toga with a purple stripe, which indicates high rank. On his far left is Pope Paschal, depicted holding a miniature model of the church (signifying that he was its builder); you’ll also notice that the Pope has a square halo, indicating that he was still alive when the mosaic was created.
Next to him is Saint Cecilia, wearing the clothes of a Byzantine noblewoman; the white dots on her garments represent pearls, while red shoes point to them belonging to the highest of ranks; to the right is Saint Paul. On the right of Christ are Saint Peter, Valerian and Agatha, who is also dressed as a Byzantine noblewoman.
Underneath the main apse is a strip of mosaics depicting 12 lambs leaving Jerusalem and Bethlehem, symbolizing the Twelve Apostles heading towards the Lamb of God.
A ciborium is a depiction of a canopy that stands over a main altar or sacred part of a church, such as a tomb. In the case of the Basilica of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, the ciborium can be found above the marble sculpture of the saint herself.
It is the work of Arnolfo di Cambio, a prolific Italian architect and sculptor who was the designer of Florence Cathedral among others prominent in Florence and Rome.
Completed in 1293, the Gothic-style structure looks almost like a mini cathedral itself, and is held up by four twisting, monochromatic marble columns. The ciborium is decorated with intricate Cosmatesque tiles, a geometric style of stone inlay that was popular during this period.
On the Gothic canopy, you can see depictions of the four saints of the church (Cecilia, Valerian, Tiburtius and Urban). On the higher portion of the canopy, two prophets holding scrolls, four evangelists and two wise virgins can be seen on the spandrels between the columns.
The Last Judgment
This fresco was painted by Pietro Cavallini around 1293, but unfortunately, only portions of this remain today. It once covered the entire width of the west of the entrance, and is believed to be a depiction of scenes from the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. The scene that survives is the annunciation scene of the Last Judgment, as well as scenes from the life of Jacob.
Cavallini’s fresco is a particularly important piece of art, marking a historic moment in the history of Western art. Until this point, painting was largely done in Byzantine style, but this piece of art indicates the beginning of a return to the Classical style.
It is used as proof of a late 13th-century beginning of Roman Naturalism, which is widely believed to mark a gradual shift into the style of the Renaissance that swept Italy in the following century.
Here, Christ is depicted in a mandorla (oval frame) and is surrounded by angels. The Virgin Mary and Saint John the Baptist sit by his side, while the Twelve Apostles are also depicted sitting on thrones to either side.
This monumental piece of art was completely abandoned during restoration work in the 18th century and was covered by wooden planks. It was only rediscovered in 1900.
Note that it is not always possible to view this work; it is only accessible by an additional entrance fee (see below) and taking photos is prohibited.
The crypt was originally a small room, created around the ninth century when the second version of the basilica was built. Over the centuries, however, this has been extended to accommodate burials.
The crypt that can be accessed today is fairly modern, having been commissioned by Cardinal Mariano Rampolla del Tindaro in the late 19th century.
The work of Giovanni Battista Giovenale, it is the place where the relics of Saint Cecilia were enshrined as well as those of Saints Valerian, Tiburtius, Maximus and Popes Urban I and Lucius I.
The crypt is a surprisingly bright and ornate affair, created in a neo-Byzantine style, utilizing mosaics and gilded columns. The saintly and papal relics sit in urns directly beneath the crypt’s main altar, with Saint Cecilia on the top. The crypt at the Basilica of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere is open for the public only via ticketed access.
Ancient Roman remains
One of the reasons I love Rome so much is that the layers of its history are truly easily visible. This is definitely the case of the Basilica of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere. Beneath the church lie the remains of a millennia-old Roman villa turned insula and place of Christian worship. The earliest finds here date back to the late Republican era (509-27 BC).
Visitors who head down into the crypt will be able to see these remains, which consist of walls and columns built out of volcanic tufa stone. Directly beneath the loggia are what remains of a private house, dated to the first century BC, and is believed to have been the home of a high-ranking family.
Located in the house is a Roman shrine in a niche, which is dedicated to Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom (among other things). Here you can see a tufa stone relief of Minerva herself in front of a small altar.
Either side of the niche are terracotta panels depicting scenes of Dionysus, the god of wine. This kind of shrine is something that is found in almost all Roman homes from that period.
Also beneath the chapel of relics at the basilica is an ancient baptistry. This spacious room, complete with a mosaic floor, would have been used for the baptism of early Christian converts and dates to the third century – around the time that Saint Cecilia is traditionally said to have been working converting early Roman Christians.
The surrounding walls of the baptistry are decorated with frescoes that were renewed under Pope Paschal I. An epigraph engraved on the marble lintel above the door to the baptistry indicates that its use was indeed for baptism, as it refers to the sacrament of baptism itself.
Practical Info About Visiting Santa Cecilia In Trastevere
Santa Cecilia in Trastevere opening hours
The basilica is open to visitors every day 9:30 am to 1:00 pm, then 4:00 pm to 6:00 pm. Viewing times for Cavallini’s fresco are 10:00 am to 12:30 pm, Monday to Saturday only – on Sundays, it remains open from 11:30 am to 12:30 pm. Note that visitors are not allowed in the church during mass.
Best time to visit Santa Cecilia in Trastevere
Honestly the church is never busy – most of the time, you can walk in and find you’ll have the church almost to yourself.
If you want to attend a mass, then you can attend one of two services in the mornings (6:45 and 7:20 am) as well as the evenings (1:00 pm and 7:15 pm) on weekdays. A better way might be attending on Sundays, where the Benedictine monks perform Gregorian chants.
Otherwise, if you just want to walk around and take pictures, then a good time to visit is perhaps just after lunch or before dinner, as Trastevere is a good place to enjoy a bite to eat. Plus, these times would be quieter at the church for visitors, too.
Santa Cecilia in Trastevere tickets
General admission to the Santa Cecilia in Trastevere is free. There is a small fee of €2.50 to pay if you want to see the crypt and its Roman remains. There is also an entrance fee for the choir area (an additional €2.50) if you want to see the Cavallini frescoes.
Should you get a guided tour?
You don’t have to join a guided tour to visit the church, but if you want a deeper insight into its importance and long history you definitely should opt for one.
There aren’t specific tours that go to the church only, but you can take a guided tour of Trastevere that will go there too. That’s what I did when I visited.
For example, you could join this Underground Trastevere Guided Walking Tour by Touriks. It’s the tour I did and I wholeheartedly recommend it. My guide, Zenda, explained the history and significance of the church, of its crypt and of the fresco.
Much like in other churches in Rome, you need to be dressed suitably to enter the basilica. For both men and women, shoulders and upper legs should be covered by your clothing.
Other useful information
Photography for personal use is allowed, but flash photography and the use of tripods is forbidden. Note that no pictures may be taken of the frescoes.
Unfortunately there are no toilets on-site.
Finally, take care to notices that Santa Cecilia in Trastevere is only partially accessible for disabled visitors – for example, a lift runs to the first floor, but no access is provided into the crypt.
How to get there
The Church of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere is easy to fit in your itinerary, and easy to get to. If you want to arrive to the area by tram, take tram 8 from Largo di Torre Argentina and get off at Piazza Sonnino. From Rome Termini, take metro line B to Circo Massimo and from there it’s a mile (around 20 minutes on foot) to the basilica.
There are many other interesting places to visit in Trastevere, including many other churches such as Santa Maria in Trastevere – so you could easily spend a day there exploring, making it easy to justify a visit to Santa Cecilia in Trastevere.
If you happen to be exploring the Vatican, you’ll be happy to know that Trastevere is an easy and pleasant 20 minutes walk along the Tiber River, so you could just stretch your way there. And if you are exploring the Jewish Ghetto, it’s just on the other side of the river.
These other posts will be useful if you are planning to explore Trastevere:
- A Guide To The Basilica Di Santa Maria In Trastevere, Rome
- The Best Hotels In Trastevere Rome
- 13 Best Restaurants In Trastevere
- The Must-See Churches In Rome