Building a Roman Church, The Side Aisle and Chapels


Santa Maria dell’ Anima

After you enter the nave of the church and say “Ooh! Ahhh!” at the abundance of beauty, step back into the shadows of the side aisles.  Initially these may seem to be short cuts to the front altar and gift shop, especially if services are going on, but really the side aisle are where the more accessible art is displayed in the chapels.  The ceiling frescos of the nave may be 30 to 60 feet above your head.  They are best taken in as a whole image, or studied with binoculars.  The chapels, especially if they are open to enter, bring you right up to the art.  Do not just stroll by.  Rather step into the chapel and sit for a few minutes. The best artists anticipated that this is how you would view their paintings and sculptures, thus the image is designed to be viewed from this perspective.

Santa Maria in Cosmedin

Santa Maria in Cosmedin

As a reminder, the side aisles exist because of the Roman design of the basilica.  In some of the older churches, you can still see the open-beam trusses that allowed the builders to add another two sections of the main nave of the church.  In Baroque churches, these side aisle ceilings were plastered and painted… places for more angels and commissioned works of art (e.g. donations).

During services, the priest and acolytes may use the side aisles for the processional.  Whether sung, recited, or in silence, the passing of the Cross and incense surrounds the congregation.  Often minor daily masses may be conducted in one of the side chapels, rather than at the main altar.  Between

Sant' Andrea delle Valle

Sant’ Andrea delle Valle

services visitors may sit quietly, pray, meditate, or perform a ritual such as the Rosary, in a side chapel, away from the tour groups and bucket-list checkers.  Stop to light a votive candle (I always carry a pocket full of half-Euros), to add to the mysticism of the ambiance, or to tend to your fire-bug urges.


St Celicia (notice the cut on her neck from her botched beheading)







San Bernadro alle Terme



For those of us who were not brought up on saints and sinners, many chapels will have a description of the images in the art.  Better yet, stop at the gift shop first to pick up a guide to the art in the church.  These will fill you in on all manner of miracles and martyrdom techniques.  While some images of torture and death are obviously depicted, others are alluded to by the symbols that someone holds.  St. Stephen will usually have a pile of rocks at his feet, as he was stoned (more on that in a future blog about the frescos of the Life of Paul… oh, you thought I was going to wrap up Rome with churches, huh?).  St. Lucy has her eye-balls on a platter.  St. Lorenzo has the grate on which he was roasted.  St. Catherine has part of the spikes wheel which an angel broke (the Romans then beheaded her).  We Baptists thought Hell was some future event.  The Catholics found it right here.

San Eustachio

San Eustachio

Enough gruesome saint-hood images.  You will also find lots of Madonnas, angels, Jesus’ and church leaders teaching and healing people, fabulous fashions and landscapes.  After you have had your fill of chapels, proceed forward to the transepts and apse.


About hermitsdoor

Up here in the mountains, we have a saying, "You can't get there from here", which really means "We wouldn't go the trouble to do that". Another concept is that "If you don't know, we ain't telling." For the rest, you'll have to read between the lines.
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4 Responses to Building a Roman Church, The Side Aisle and Chapels

  1. You’ve certainly been to a lot of churches!

  2. Thanks for this. Two things I bring to your attention:
    1: The current post on Clare’s blog, A Suffolk Lane is about a very interesting church in England. I think you’ll like it.
    2: I took the liberty of quoting your blog copyright statement in my own current post.

    Hope your new year goes well. I am keenly interested in your posts on the interior layout of churches because though I attend an Anglican church, some of this information is new to me. thank you.

    • hermitsdoor says:

      1) Thanks for the recommendation. I left Clare a Like and Comment. I have many fond memories of churches in England.
      2) I’m flattered that you like my copyright statement. How big is your dog (though Jack Russles are fine to guard your tools).
      3) Enjoy the tour. We are getting closer to the center of the church. Here in the New World, we are so far from the customs that served purposes for centuries that we do not know their significance. While I accept many styles of worship as worthy, I hate to lose our history from lack of awareness or interest. I had two other motivations to be so detailed. My mother loves architecture. These are posts to her. And, when traveling, my objective is to be where we are with whom I am traveling. In Italy, two meals are of supreme importance: Mass and Dinner. I would not miss out on either. Thus, I wrote sparingly while in country, and reserve all the photos and commentaries for when I was home and had blocks of time to write. I think that you will enjoy the series that I am preparing for Pentacost season. Tune back in starting Easter Monday…

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