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Santa Susanna

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Santa Susanna

Santa Susanna at the Baths of Diocletian
Santa Susanna alle Terme di Diocleziano
Baroque façade of Santa Susanna by Carlo Maderno (1603).
Basic information
Location Rome, Italy
Geographic coordinates
Affiliation Roman Catholic
Year consecrated 330
Ecclesiastical or organizational status Titular church, parish church, National church for the United States of America
Leadership Cardinal Bernard Francis Law
Website .org.santasusannawww
Architectural description
Architect(s) Carlo Maderno
Architectural type Church
Architectural style Baroque
Direction of façade SE
Groundbreaking 4th century
Completed 1603
Length 45 metres (148 ft)
Width 17 metres (56 ft)

The Church of Saint Susanna at the Baths of Diocletian (Italian: Chiesa di Santa Susanna alle Terme di Diocleziano) is a Roman Catholic parish church located on the Quirinal Hill in Rome, Italy. There has been a titular church associated to its site as far back as A.D. 280. The current church was rebuilt from 1585 to 1603 for a monastery of Cistercian nuns founded on the site in 1587 which still exists there.

The church has served as the national parish for residents of Rome from the United States since 1921, when the church was assigned to the care of the Paulist Fathers, a society of priests founded in the United States.

Architectural history

Roman era

About 280, an early Christian house of worship was established on this site, which, like many of the earliest Christian meeting places, was in a house (domus ecclesiae). According to the 6th-century acta of Susanna, the domus belonged to two brothers named Caius and Gabinus, prominent Christians. Caius has been identified both with Pope Saint Caius and with Caius the presbyter, who was a prefect and who is a source of information on early Christianity.[1][2] Gabinus or Gabinius is the name given to the father of the semi-legendary Saint Susanna. Her earliest documented attestations identify her as the patron of the church, not as a martyr[3] and previously the church was identified in the earliest, fourth-century documents by its title "of Gaius" by the Baths of Diocletian or as "ad duas domos" ("near the two houses"). It is mentioned in connection with a Roman synod of 499.

The Church of Santa Susanna is one of the oldest titles in the city of Rome. The early Christian Church, built on the remains of three Roman villas still visible beneath the monastery, was situated immediately outside the wall of the Baths built by Diocletian and the Servian Wall, the first walls built to defend the city. According to tradition, the Church was erected on Susanna's House, where the same Saint was martyred. In the 4th century it was marked with the designation ad duas domos (at the two houses). This first three-aisled basilica was almost certainly built under the pontificate of Pope Leo III (795–816).

According to tradition, the structure became a church around 330, under Emperor Constantine I, when the basilicas of numerous house churches came to be adapted for liturgical use. The basilica was T-shaped with a central nave with twelve columns on each side, flanked by side aisles. All that is left of these two side aisles, after the late 16th-century rebuilding, are the two side chapels of the basilica church. In the Synod of 565, the church is first referred to as the title of Susanna; the church has been dedicated to her veneration ever since. In the acta, Susanna is martyred with her family when the girl refuses to marry the son of Emperor Diocletian; the occasion of Susanna's martyrdom is a literary trope that is familiar in other "passions" of virgins in the Roman Martyrology[4]

Fresco detail in Santa Susanna depicting the martyrdom of St. Felicity, by Paris Nogari.[5]

Pope Sergius I restored it at the end of the 7th century, but Pope Leo III, the fourth pope who had been pastor of this church, rebuilt it from the ground in 796, adding the great apse and conserving the relics of the saints in the crypt. A vast mosaic of Christ flanked by Leo and the Emperor Charlemagne and Saints Susanna and Felicity on the other was so badly damaged in the 12th century by an earthquake, that the interior was plastered over in the complete renovation that spanned the years 1585–1602 and frescoed by Cesare Nebbia.

A façade, in travertine, remained to be constructed. The present church of Santa Susanna on its ancient foundations was the first independent commission in Rome for Carlo Maderno, who had trained as an assistant to his uncle Domenico Fontana, the chief architect of Pope Sixtus V. In 1603, Maderno completed the façade, a highly influential early Baroque design. The dynamic rhythm of columns and pilasters, crowding centrally, and the protrusion and increased central decoration add further complexity to the structure. Notice the interplay of relationships, none exactly symmetric on any one mirror side. The entrance and roof are surrounded by triangular pediments. The windows are replaced by niches. There is an incipient playfulness with the rules of classic design, still maintaining rigor. The statues of the higher level (Pope Saint Caius and Saint Genesius of Rome) are by Giovanni Antonio Paracea, those of the lower level (Saint Susanna and Saint Felicitas of Rome) are by Stefano Maderno.

The church of Santa Susanna was accounted so successful that in 1605 Pope Paul V named Maderno architect of Saint Peter's Basilica, where he completed the nave and constructed the great façade.

Modern era

Pope Sixtus IV (1475–1477) proceeded to rebuild the Church, probably a single nave with two side chapels. In 1588 it became the last great rebuilding effort of Cardinal Girolamo Rusticucci, Cardinal protector of the Cistercian Order, with construction running from 1595 to 1603. One of the objectives pursued with greater commitment from Rusticucci as the Vicar General of Pope Sixtus V was to renew the life of the religious Orders. A reflection of that action can be seen in a figurative program decorating the walls of the Church. The main themes are: Defense of chastity against corruption of morals and the victory of the true faith over any temptation to idolatry and heresy. They were joined by the exaltation of the virginal choice of St. Susanna and her prayerful attitude. Rusticucci wanted to highlight and connect these themes to the inseparable bond that his Church had with the Cistercian nuns whose monastery occupied the site.

Rusticucci, a lover of "tradition", chose from the best of that time, which came from the fruitful artistic outpouring from the Counter-Reformation. Consequently, he gave the assignment to Carlo Maderno (1556–1629) for architectural renovations made to the Church. It was he who was the designer of its travertine facade. The frescoes of the Central Hall (six scenes from the life of the chaste Susanna) are by Baldassare Croce of Bologna (1563-1638). To Cesare Nebbia, a native of Orvieto (1536–1614), can be attributed the frescoes in the dome and apse curve in which are reproduced some scenes from the life of the saint.

The altarpiece of the high altar, depicting the beheading of St. Susanna, is by Tommaso Laureti of Palermo (1530–1602). Camilla Peretti, sister of Pope Sixtus, was a great benefactor of the Cistercian nuns, and helped build their residential quarters, including the Chapel of St. Lawrence, whose frescos are the work of Giovan Battista Pozzo (1563-1591). The painting of the altar depicting the martyrdom of the holy deacon is also by Nebbia. Large statues of the major prophets and two of Saints Peter and Paul are attributed to Giovanni Antonio Paracea, called Valsoldo. Through the glass floor of the sacristy can be seen part of the early Christian Church and the remains of the Roman house, which is said to be the home of the father of the saint. A Roman sarcophagus with fragments of painted plaster was discovered in modern times. The excavations also unearthed a tympanum depicting the Lamb of God on a blue background and flanked by Saints John the Baptist and John the Evangelist; a Madonna and child between Saints Agatha and Susanna; plus five beautiful busts of other saints.

Behind the chancel, separated by an iron grating, is located the splendid monastic choir, a large rectangular room. It was built in 1596 by Cardinal Rusticucci, as attested by the coat of arms in the center of the choir's rich carved wooden-coffered floor. The choir stalls were donated by Pope Sixtus and are repeatedly mentioned in the old guides as one of the finest choirs existent in Roman monasteries. The walls are adorned with frescoes depicting saints and scenes from the Old Testament. The artist who created these paintings was Francesco Di (1676–1702). Also in the choir, in the four branches of the two niches that preserve the reliquaries, appear St. Benedict of Nurcia and St. Scholastica (left) and St. Bernard and St. Susanna (on the right). all by the Umbrian painter Avanzino Nucci (1599). Filippo Fregiotti painted the frescoes in a chapel inside the enclosure in 1719.


The interior.

The church consists of a single nave, with a circular apse forming two side-chapels. The frescoes of the central nave by Baldassare Croce represent six scenes from the life of Susanna found in the Book of Daniel. The frescoes on the curved side of the apse shows Saint Susanna being threatened by Maximian, but defended by the angel of God and to the right, Susanna refusing to worship the idol Jupiter. Nebbia's frescoes of the dome of the apse depict Saint Susanna flanked on either side by angels with musical instruments. Behind the high altar, the painting depicting the beheading of Saint Susanna is by Tommaso Laureti.

Chapel of our Lady of Graces

The chapel of our Lady of Graces (a former painting on the altar) has on its walls two recent frescoes of Saint Benedict and Saint Bernard.

Chapel of Saint Lawrence

Domenico Fontana constructed the second side-chapel to the left dedicated to Saint Lawrence, commissioned by Camilla Peretti, sister of Pope Sixtus V. The paintings are by the Milanese artist Giovanni Battista Pozzo (1563–1591). The altar painting by Cesare Nebbia depicts the martyrdom of St. Lawrence. In this chapel are venerated Saint Genesius of Rome, patron of actors, in the act of receiving baptism, and the bishop Pope Saint Eleuterus.


The presbytery is decorated with two frescoes. To the left, Baldassare Croce depicts the martyrdom of Saint Gabinus, while to the right, Paris Nogari shows the martyrdom of Saint Felicitas of Rome and her seven sons.


The valuable ceiling of the nave and of the presbytery is made in polychromed gilt wood, carved to the design of Carlo Maderno.

Religious associations

American national church

After World War I, the Paulist Fathers, founded in New York City in 1858, had grown to such an extant that they felt the time had come to seek approval of their religious institute from the Holy See, in order to be able to work throughout the worldwide Church. They also wanted to establish a Procurator General there to coordinate their work with the Vatican. To this end, the Superior General of the Society, the Right Reverend Thomas Burke, C.S.P., went to Rome in January 1921 to meet with Pope Benedict XV for this. During this trip, they first noticed Santa Susanna, as it was adjacent to the American Embassy to Italy at the time. Its location made it of interest to the Americans.[6]

The Paulists opened the office of the Procurator General in the city that following spring, headed by Thomas Lantry O'Neill, C.S.P. In the meantime, Burke's brother, also a member of the Society, had approached President Warren Harding to make him aware of their interest in making use of the church to serve the growing American population of Rome. Harding made a request for this to the Apostolic Nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Giovanni Bonzano, during the course of a meeting they held that June. Bonzano transmitted the request to the Vatican Secretary of State, with the recommendation that it be granted as a gesture of good will to the United States.[7]

Accordingly, in December 1921, Pope Benedict XV authorized the Paulist Fathers to administer Santa Susanna as the national church in Rome for the American residents of Rome and visitors from the United States of America. The abbess of the monastery gave the keys to the church to the new pastor on January 1, 1922. Cardinal William Henry O'Connell of Boston presided at the first public Mass for the American community of the city on February 26, 1922.[7]

Some controversy arose from the establishment of the parish. The first was the fact that the cardinal who held the title to the church had died during the summer of 1921, leaving the church with no legal owner according to Italian law. Another was the installation of electrical lights in the church, to which Americans were accustomed, but was shocking to the Roman people. Further, there was a claim on the church by the Ambassador of Romania for use as a national church for the people of his country. The ownership issue was not settled until the end of 1924, when Bonzano, the former Apostolic Nuncio and now a cardinal himself, requested a transfer of his title to this church. Once in his hands, he formally appointed O'Neill as the Rector of the parish.[7]

From 1958 through 1985, the post of Cardinal Priest with the title Sanctae Susannae was given to the Archbishop of Boston upon his creation as a cardinal. The most recent such appointment was that of Bernard Francis Law, who in 2002 resigned the archbishopric but kept the title of Santa Susanna.[8]

Cardinal Priests of Santa Susanna since 494

List of the cardinal titulars of the church[9][10][11]


  1. ^  
  2. ^  
  3. ^ Manfred Clauss, "Susanna" in Biographisch-Bibliographische Kirchenlexikon.
  4. ^ Compare the Acta of Saint Lucy or Saint Agnes.
  5. ^ Paris Nogari (c. 1536–1601) was a minor pupil of Cesare Nebbia (Sidney J. Freedberg, Painting in Italy, 1500–1600, 3rd ed. 1993, p. 656).
  6. ^ The Church of Santa Susanna "Our History: The American Parish"
  7. ^ a b c
  8. ^ His successor, Cardinal Seán Patrick O'Malley, O.F.M. Cap., was created Cardinal Priest of Santa Maria della Vittoria instead.
  9. ^ Cardinal Title of S. Susanna
  10. ^ Santa Susanna - Cardinals
  11. ^ The Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church
  12. ^ This is the date given in the church's own website
  13. ^ Catholic Hierarchy

See also


  • Official website of the Church of Saint Susanna
  • Biographisch-Bibliographische KirchenlexikonManfred Clauss, "Susanna" in Full bibliography.
  • Santa Susanna (titolo cardinalizio)

External links

  • More the Church of St Susanna in Rome
  • Paulist Fathers
  • Santa Susanna Parish website
  • Chiesa Rettoria Santa Susanna Alle Terme Di Diocleziano
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