Lesser-Known Roman Churches, Part VIII

For the other posts in the series, click here.

Today we look at a very centrally-located church, one that you are sure to pass by even multiple times during your visit to Rome, but nevertheless are likely to miss: the Basilica of San Lorenzo in Damaso (St. Lawrence at Damasus’ House). It is extremely easy to miss, because on the outside it does not look like a church:

The door to the church has the two oval shields over it, one with the Pope’s coat of arms, and one with the coat of arms of the Cardinal who is assigned this church, the current Archbishop of Madrid.

A church has existed on this site since the late 4th century, when the original one was built by Pope St. Damasus as part of his house. Over the centuries it changed and finally was rebuilt in the late 15th century in the current location, as part of this palazzo which also houses the Apostolic Penitentiary, the Roman Rota, and the Apostolic Signatura (three important tribunals of the Holy See – in this case the word “penitentiary” does not mean “jail”, but “a tribunal for dispensing spiritual graces and handling matters pertaining to the sacrament of penance and to conscience, etc.”). Since its 15th century rebuilding, it was embellished and redecorated at various times. In the 19th century it suffered a fire and had to be restored. Apparently what we see today pales a bit in comparison with its former glory.

We go inside, then:

It is quite large, and also quite dimly-lit. I had to do a lot of color correction to this photo; I think it was actually darker in real life!

Since the current church is part of a larger building, it has some peculiar characteristics that make it a bit different than other Roman basilicas from the same time period. For example, there are no side altars off the side aisles; on the right hand side there are two side chapels (it was too dark to photograph them), but even these are set up differently than in most Roman churches. On the left side there are no side chapels off the aisles.

When you first walk in, however, there are two large altars; here is the one to the left:

Completely bereft, clearly never used. A pity. This one, in any case, has quite an impressive painting of the Last Supper above it.

And here is the one to the right:

I had a bit of difficulty deciphering the painting, but I think Our Lady is handing the Child Jesus to St. Anthony (a typical depiction), while St. Paul looks on and directs our attention to that scene. But I might be getting the saints wrong. The small image just above the altar is of St. Anne with Mary as a child. This altar at least has candlesticks, though no altar cloths; it probably is not used either. Too bad!

To the left of the sanctuary there is a chapel of Our Lady with the Blessed Sacrament in it. (There is a chapel of Our Lady – in this case, Our Lady of Pompei – also on the right-hand side! Lots of chapels to Our Lady…) This chapel features an ancient icon of the Blessed Mother with child, a very common feature in Roman churches:

A beautiful place to pray.

This church has a lot of funerary monuments. This one asks that we pray for the deceased:

“Pray for him.”

And this one, in a far more exuberant baroque style, featuring the angel of death, reminds us in a more jarring way that the same angel will come for us one day:

We know neither the day nor the hour!

A view of the baldacchino (canopy over the altar), which was designed and executed by Bernini in the year 1640:

The relics of Pope St. Damasus are in the high altar.

Finally, back outside, at the end of a short alley across from the entrance to the church, there is this Madonnella, featuring Our Lady of Divine Love, a devotion very popular here in Rome, and for which there is a major shrine just outside the city. This Madonnella appears to have been placed by the men of the group called “Catholic Action” in the parish, in honor of the 10th anniversary of Rome’s liberation from the Second World War:

The inscription in the maroon mosaic beneath the image says, “Mary, Immaculate Virgin, Mother of Divine Love, make us saints”.

This church, given its rather unnoticeable entrance, usually has very few people inside. So be sure to stop in when you are passing by, take a few moments for prayer, and appreciate its beauty. Don’t forget that Pope St. Damasus is buried there, so ask him for his intercession as well.

The church is open in the morning and in the late afternoon/early evening.

Address/Info:

Basilica di San Lorenzo in Damaso
Piazza della Cancelleria, 1
00186 Rome, Italy

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