Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

ErN 114, entry July 2003       

aleo-Christianity in Naples

Paleo —Greek for "ancient"— means different things in different contexts. When used in the term "paleo-Christian" in this part of Italy, it generally refers to Christian relics and sites dating back to well before the year 1000. Naples has a number of these to offer, though, as is the case with many ancient things, they have been covered over by the handiwork of later centuries. 

To begin with, the catacombs of San Gennaro, on the way up to Capodimonte, are the most extensive and interesting examples of early Christian cemeteries to be found in Italy south of Rome. Also, a number of churches in Naples that now seem 'merely' medieval have their origins in the middle of the first millennium well before the beginning of the great age of church building. For example, the church and vast monastic complex known as San Gregorio Armeno located on the street of the same name goes back to the eighth century when refugees from the iconoclast controversies shaking Byzantine Christendom in the east fled to Italy, in this case bringing with them to Naples the remains of their patron, Gregory of Armenia. (The photo, above, shows the entrance to San Michele Arcangelo a Morfisa, a small Byzantine church that housed the Basilian monastic order. It is now incorporated into the massive church of San Domenico Maggiore, but was built centuries earlier.)
(#12 on this map)

Another relic of early Christianity is hidden within the Church of San Paolo Maggiore (#33 on map) on via dei Tribunali, one of the three original east-west thoroughfares of the Greek city of Neapolis. The modern church stands above a spectacular stairway, and, in the form you see today, was built at the end of the sixteenth century. However, it was erected on the ruins of a preexisting eighth-century church built to celebrate a Neapolitan sea victory over Saracen invaders. That church, by the way, was built on the site of —and even incorporated part of the structure of—a Greek temple dedicated to Castor and Pollux. Also, the Church of Santa Maria Donnaregina on vico Donnaregina is on the site of an ancient monastic complex dating back to the eighth century. 

The best-known example of a paleo-Christian church in Naples, of course, is in the Duomo (across from #31 on map), the cathedral of Naples, itself. Incorporated in the cathedral is the Santa Restituta basilica, which used to be a church in its own right, built in the 6th century. Its present three aisles divided by 27 antique columns are what is left of the original church after the main body of the massive cathedral was built around it, so to speak, in the 13th century. They say that Santa Restituta was a young African woman, who, because she was a Christian, was abandoned to the sea on a boat set ablaze. The fire, however, died out and she was miraculously able to put ashore on the island of Ischia. In the eighth century her remains were brought to the church in Naples, which then took her name. The baptistery of San Giovanni in fonte beneath Santa Restituta claims to be the oldest in Western Christendom and contains a number of mosaics of extreme interest.

S. Giorgio Maggiore interiorStill on via Duomo and not far from the Cathedral is the church of San Giorgio Maggiore. Its proximity to the Duomo may account for the neglect that this house of worship has suffered over the centuries. San Giorgio Maggiore is one of the oldest churches in the city; indeed, it is truly “paleo-,” one of those churches built in the early centuries of Christianity in Italy and that disappeared or were covered over by newer buildings in the great age of cathedral building after the turn of the millennium. 

You enter the church from a small square on the north side of the building, take a few steps and, at first, get the impression that you are in just another 17th–century Neapolitan church. Yet, when you turn, you see that your few steps have taken you through a primitive apse of unadorned masonry (photo, above), the small columns and vaulted dome of which are obviously much older than the rest of the building. Indeed, they are—by a thousand years. The original San Giorgio Maggiore is from about the year 500 a.d. and all that is left of it is that tiny bit that is so easy to overlook as you go inside. 

The present large church is from the 1600s when the decision was made to raze the older building, incorporating a small token of it into the newer church. Then, much of that newer building was subsequently demolished during the urban renewal of Naples in the late 1800s when via Duomo—the major road outside the church—was widened.

San Giorgio Maggiore is one of the four early basilicas in Naples that came into existence after the so-called Edict of Constantine of 313 a.d. that declared religious tolerance. The other three are the churches of Santa Maria Maggiore, San Giovanni Maggiore and the Santi Apostoli.

(update Nov. 2014 - The Italian Touring Club (TCI) has announced that this church is one of the four in Naples, typically closed to visitors in the past, that is now regularly open (!) to visitors as a result of the TCI's cultural heritage initiative called Aperti per voi (open for you). The program enlists volunteers throughout Italy to act as guides and, in general, help with the necessary work in keeping such sites open. In Italy, the volunteer organization has sponsored some 60 such cultural sites. See this Miscellany link for the others.)

plaqueOne of the most fascinating examples of early Christianity in Naples is, however, one which for some reason doesn't get a lot of press or tourist attention. Yet, if what tradition says about this church is true, then it is most certainly the site of the earliest instance of Christian worship in Naples or, for that matter, one of the earliest anywhere. Hidden away off of Corso Umberto near Piazza Garibaldi is the church of San Pietro ad Aram. "Pietro," of course, refers to the apostle Peter, the "rock" upon whom Christ said He would found His church. "Aram" is the biblical name for parts of Mesopotamia and Syria. The word is still found today in reference to the Aramaic language of that region. [BUT see note* directly below.] Neapolitan tradition says that Peter left Antioch on his way to Rome nine years after the death of Christ. He stopped in Naples and held a worship service on a rudimentary make-shift altar. Twenty centuries later, beneath the countless changes wrought during all those fleeting human ages that we flatter with such names as Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, etc., that altar —again, according to tradition and the plaque on the outside of the church —is still there.

*[note on Aram -added August 2018: Suzanne Toll, a retired Latin teacher (so I am listening!) writes:  "I suggest that Aram here means "altar" and is not a reference to Mesopotamia.  Aram is the form of the Latin word ara ("altar" in English) used following the preposition ad.  The translation of the church's name, therefore, would be "Saint Peter at the Altar," which makes sense in the context of the story about the founding of the church."]

Is it true? I haven't the slightest idea, but 2,000 years doesn't seem like such a long time to me any more. After all, I can reach over and touch bits and pieces of stone walls and buildings near my house that were put in place 500 years before that. Traditions, however, do have other functions than simply being true; they serve as a means to bring religious and social values into focus, and they help us appreciate our past and evaluate what we believe. In those terms, true or not, the tradition surrounding San Pietro ad Aram is a worthy one.

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