Santa Bibiana Church Rome

The Santa Bibiana Church is located in the Esquilino district in Rome. Although the church is much older, the facade was designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who was only 26 years old at the time. Despite its small size it contains a number of early baroque masterpieces by Bernini. It is located in a rather unfortunate spot, next to the railway tracks and a busy tunnel under these tracks.

Santa Bibiana Church Rome

Address, opening hours and admission

Santa Bibiana Church Rome
Chiesa di Santa Bibiana

The address of the Chiesa di Santa Bibiana is Via Giovanni Giolitti, 154 (tel. +39 064465235). Metro: Vittorio Emanuele. Tram: 5, 14. Bus: 105, 105L, N12. Opening hours: 07.30 to 10.00 and 16.30 to 19.30 (Sundays and public holidays: 07.30 to 12.30 and 16.30 to 19.30). Admission is free.

History and description

Construction

The Santa Bibiana Church was constructed in the 5th century, when the neighborhood was still called the Horti Liciniani. Pope Saint Simplicius named the church, which was built on a Roman house among the remains of the palatium Licinii, after Saint Bibiana in 468.

According to an ancient tradition, however, it would have been built more than a century earlier, by the Roman matron Olympina, in 363, as is written in the cartouche under Ciampelli’s fresco, precisely on the paternal house of the Saint, the domus ecclesie (a private dwelling with rooms reserved for meetings for worship).

Cemetery

In the very beginning of the 5th century, a cemetery was opened near the church. There being an artisan workshop nearby, which had a sign depicting a bear with a cap, the cemetery came to be called ad ursum pileatum. In the 7th century, Pope Leo XI had the bodies of several saints moved here from the Catacombs of Generosa alla Magliana.

Naughty nuns

In 1224, Honorius III had a women’s monastery constructed opposite the church. In 1440, because some of the nuns were found to have acted in nun-unworthy ways, the monastery was closed.

Bernini’s Restorations

Restorations took place in 1220 and in 1626. This last restoration, by Bernini, was ordered by Pope Urban VIII. Pope Urban was a member of the Barberini family. On the ceiling above the altar, bees, the symbol of this family, are depicted. The tympanum, which used to contain the Pope’s coat of arms, was not replaced after having fallen down.

Portal, Santa Bibiana Church Rome
Portal

Bernini’s main contributions were the new facade and the portico. He also reconstructed the apse and designed two new chapels. The apse ceiling is decorated with stucco ornaments. He redesigned the high altar, to which he also contributed a sculpture depicting Santa Bibiana.

Highlights Santa Bibiana Church

Main altar and Bernini Statue, Santa Bibiana Church Rome
The main altar with “Santa Bibiana” by Bernini.

The marble statue at the main altar was sculpted by Bernini and depicts Santa Bibiana. The mortal remains of the saint, together with those of her mother and sister, are preserved in an urn underneath this altar.

Pietro da Cortona frescoes, Santa Bibiana Church Rome
Frescoes in the left aisle

The fresco cycle along the wall of the left nave was painted by Pietro da Cortona and depicts events in the life of St. Bibiana.

Agostino Ciampelli frescoes, Santa Bibiana Church Rome
Fresoes by Agostino Ciampelli in the right aisle.

The paintings on the opposite wall were done by Agostino Ciampelli.

Counterfacade

Inside, above the central doorway, you can see a cherub and a framed plaque commemorating the 1625 restoration and summarizing the history of the building.

Columns

The eight antique columns in the church date back to its first 5th century version. They are made of different materials and topped by lotus-shaped Corinthian capitals, characteristic of Egyptian architecture.


Column Santa Bibiana, Church Rome
The column the saint was tied to when she was martyred.

The church is dedicated to Santa Bibiana, who was scourged to death on December 2nd of the year 363. Near the left aisle you can see part of the column Santa Bibiana was tied to when she was martyred. This was done by order of Julian the Apostate, the Emperor who wished to put an end to the tolerance towards the Christians and their religion that had earlier been imposed by Constantine. The structure protecting the column was designed by Bernini.

Tomb covers

14th and 15th century tomb slabs inside the church commemorate some of the abbesses of the suppressed monastery. Until 1961, the slabs decorated the floor.

Portal

Inscription beside entrance, Santa Bibiana Church Rome
Inscription

The portal is flanked by two inscriptions, claiming that the church was built on top of a former cemetery with the mortal remains of 12,266 martyrs. One of the inscriptions is in Latin, the other one in Gothic characters.

Via Giovanni Giolitti, 154 – Rome

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