Apart from the well-known attractions, Avril-Ann Braganza finds some interesting stories in the lesser-known churches
We have nothing planned for our first day in Rome. But we know that the Basilica Di Santa Croce in Gerusalemme is not far from our hotel and the famous, Basilica Di San Giovanni in Laterno.
Known to pilgrims for its collection of relics from the Holy Land, the full-sized replica of the Shroud of Turin and its connections with Constantine and St. Helen, this Basilica, often overlooked by tourists, is one of Rome’s seven pilgrimage churches. A few left and right turns later, we’re at the basilica–an ancient white body with modern beige wings.
Restored a few times, the current structure is mostly Renaissance and Baroque. However, the Chapel of Helen, downstairs, is believed to be the original one (dating 320 AD), which was part of the Palazzo Sessoriano, the Roman imperial residence of Helena, Constantine’s mother. It is said that below the chapel floor is soil from the Holy Land, from where the Basilica gets its name.
Walking through the old wooden doors, we are stunned into silence by the beautiful frescos, stained glass and artistic relief work. The only other person here, is seated silently in prayer. At the Chapel of the Holy Relics, shielded behind a glass case, on the middle shelf, is a large cross-shaped reliquary, said to hold fragments of Christ’s cross brought to Rome. The reliquary of thorns, contains two thorns believed to belong to the crown of thorns placed on Christ’s head. Then there’s Pilate’s wooden inscription Titulus Crucis, the crucifixion sign written in Hebrew, Greek and Latin. As history goes, it was discovered in the church during its restoration in 1492. Other relics include: a fragment of the repentant thief’s cross, one nail used in the crucifixion, a single reliquary with small pieces of the Scourging Pillar (Christ was tied to it when he was beaten), the Holy Sepulchre, Christ’s tomb, the Crib of Jesus and St. Thomas’ index-finger bone, also called the ‘Incorruptible Finger’ of St.Thomas that he placed in the wounds of the Risen Christ.
A side room of the chapel takes us to a full-sized replica of the Shroud of Turin, stretched out on the wall, which has the blood stains and face of Christ. Another shrine contains the remains of a modern saint, six-year-old Antonietta Meo, who died of bone cancer. She had visions, wrote letters and composed a short prayer to Jesus, dedicating her sufferings to him. She’s currently being considered for official canonization.
We then head to Scala Santa, a set of 28 white marble steps of Pontius Pilate’s praetorium in Jerusalem, which is believed to have been ascended and descended by Jesus during his trial. The stairs were apparently brought to Rome by St. Helena in the 4th century. Reading the notice “The holy stairs can be climbed only on one’s knees.” I begin the climb on my bony knees that ache after just three steps. Through little glass holes on the walnut-wood encasement of the stairs, I see the white marble steps and few spots of blood. Pilgrims reverently kiss the spot or lay their rosaries and other religious items over the glass. For those who can’t climb on their knees, there are alternative staircases on each side. Reaching the top, I peep through the grill at the richly frescoed Sancta Sanctorum (Holy of Holies), the private chapel of the Popes in the middle ages.
The next day we visit Basilica Di San Pietro in Vincoli, built for the relic of the miraculous chains. As per legend, Peter, an apostle of Christ was imprisoned and chained in Jerusalem and Rome. When Pope Leo I held Peter’s chains from Jerusalem, given to him by Empress Eudoxia, next to the chains from Rome, both chains miraculously joined. The Basilica is also known for Michelangelo’s magnificent tomb for Pope Julius II, featuring his monumental Moses. The statue depicts Moses’ expression when he came from Mount Sinai and sees the Israelis worshipping idols.
The horns protruding from his head portray “his power as well as the divine light after speaking with God,” our guide explains.
As we walk out, the stories and the serenity of the basilica make me want to come back.