How pagan temples became Christian churches in the Middle Ages – part three

The temple as it appeared in the Roman period

The temple as it appeared in the Roman period

Last month I was in Rome and one theme of my trip was looking at pagan temples of the Roman period that were then converted into Christian churches during the Middle Ages.

In the middle of the Roman Forum are the pillared remains of a temple built by the emperor Antoninus Pius and dedicated to his dead wife, Faustina. The building took twenty years to complete between CE141 and CE161. Antoninus Pius was ruler of the Roman empire during a period of relative stability and enormous wealth. When the emperor died, it was dedicated to both him and his wife.

150 years later – after a long period of chaos – Rome became Christian and the temple fell out of use. As so often happened during the late empire, the temple began to be recycled as it fell into disuse. However the outer ring of columns and walls survived. This was in spite of one attempt to pull down the pillars, evidenced by cut marks at the top of the columns.

During the Byzantine period, the temple was converted into the church of San Lorenzo in Miranda – possibly based on the belief that Saint Lawrence was martyred there. You can still see steps leading up to the door of the church built in the Middle Ages. However, the main door of the church is now stranded in mid-air, high above ground level. Repeated excavations over the centuries have removed so much earth and debris that it’s impossible to enter San Lorenzo.

How pagan temples became Christian churches in the Middle Ages – part two

I was in Rome last month and discovered a Christian church built in the Middle Ages over not one – but THREE pagan temples!

You could easily walk past this church but don’t – go in and ask permission to visit the crypt. It’s a bit smelly but down below the church of San Nicola in Carcere (Saint Nicholas in prison) you’ll see that this medieval place of Christian worship was constructed on top of the foundations of three temples. Hard to explain how this was done but basically the nave completely swallowed up one temple while the outer walls incorporated a row of columns from the temples to each side. The rest of those temples have long disappeared.

The first church was built in the 6th century but the current building was dedicated ten years after the foundation of the Knights Templar in 1128. Down below, you can see evidence of shops that were once above ground – part of the vegetable market that existed around the pagan temples during Roman times. In the Byzantine period, the submerged market seems to have gone through a phase of being used as a prison.

How pagan temples became Christian churches in the Middle Ages – part one

I was in Rome last month and saw evidence of pagan temples converted into Christian churches – either by being converted for new use or rebuilt using materials from the old temple.

The front of the Pantheon

The front of the Pantheon

When the Roman emperor Constantine embraced Christianity, he set in train a process that would last centuries – of pagan temples being systematically demolished, plundered or converted to use as churches. The most dramatic example is the Pantheon – a huge rotunda with a still existing dome made of concrete, completed in CE126 under the Emperor Hadrian. Originally, the Pantheon was a temple to all the gods but after Constantine the clock was ticking against the images of deities like Mars and Venus.

Under the Byzantine emperor Phocas – who held sway over Rome and the papacy – the Pantheon was donated by the emperor in CE609 to the church. The Pantheon was consecrated as a place of worship to Mary and the Martyrs. This probably saved the building from demolition though as late as the 17th century, pope Urban VIII stripped bronze away from the portico.

Catherine of Siena – a very odd medieval saint

I was in Italy in August and September this year and visited many medieval sites – in the next few blog posts, I’ll give you some highlights

Catherine kisses the wounds of Jesus in an ecstatic vision

Catherine kisses the wounds of Jesus in an ecstatic vision

In late August, I went to Siena – a gorgeous medieval city in the heart of Tuscany, Italy. This was the home of one of the fourteenth century’s more colourful saints: Catherine of Siena. From a very early age, she had ecstatic visions of Jesus Christ and underwent some kind of mystical marriage with her Saviour. Some of these visions are, frankly, very disturbing to the modern mind. They included a Dante-like journey through heaven, hell and purgatory and some very intimate encounters with Christ.

The Popes during this period weren’t based in Rome but far off Avignon in France. Catherine visited the Pope in his French exile and begged him to return. The saint became very embroiled in the fighting between different Italian states and competing claimants to the throne of Saint Peter. She eventually died in Rome aged just 33 of a stroke.

A statue at the shrine to Catherine

A statue at the shrine to Catherine

Was this really a Templar church?

I have been travelling round Italy and will be sharing some amazing videos and images from that incredible country in the next few posts. To begin with, here is a church in the medieval town of San Gimignano that claims to have been built by the Templars. But…did the knights really construct San Jacopo dei Templari?

A seventeenth century convent grew up alongside it but the main chapel looks medieval. San Gimignano was at its height during the 12th and 13th centuries – the Templar period – so it could very well have been built by the Order. Share any information you may have.

Templar Knight TV: Prostitution in medieval London

Would you believe that Facebook turned down my ad campaign for this edition of Templar Knight TV because it included a MEDIEVAL depiction of very naughty behaviour – too much flesh apparently! Even if it was 13th century flesh. Apparently, you can show scenes of ultra-violence and recruit to extremist organisations on Facebook – but woe betide you if a hint of leg or arm from eight hundred years ago appears. Anyway, it’s actually a very tasteful edition of Templar Knight TV and I hope you enjoy it.

Templar Knight TV – your new Templar TV channel!

Along with my usual text based blogs – I thought it was time to freshen things up with a foray into digital TV. So, I’ve launched Templar Knight TV. Production values will improve as we go along with filmed insights into the Knights Templar and the Middle Ages. You may even get to see me in one of the programmes. They’re intended to be bite-sized, easily digestible pieces of information. So watch and hopefully enjoy!