Martyrdom Makes Me Happy: Santo Stefano Rotondo in Rome.

Pass the bath salts: Martyrdom, Santo Stefano style. (Photos by C-M.)

Of all the churches I genuflected at while in Rome, my absolute favorite was the Basilica di Santo Stefano al Monte Cielo (more commonly known as Santo Stefano Rotondo). It is a graceful circular structure (parts of which date back to 500 AD) with a lovely skylight at center. But it’s best asset is the art. Lining the walls of the church are some impressive 16th century murals of martyrdom that serve as a visual compendium of truly imaginative deaths. You’ll see people being boiled, burnt, flayed and chopped — some of them upside down. Yet, because they depict the fleeting moments of spiritual ecstasy that accompany a good martyrdom, everyone kinda looks like they’re having a really great time. The overall effect: disturbing and hilarious. Kinda like the Catholic Church.

Click on images to supersize.

But how will I text?

Could someone please get me a glass of orange water?

The latest in piercings.

Exfoliation, 16th century style.

Oh goodness, this one seems to involve gravity boots

Okay, this one got me. It’s pretty damn heinous, in a Sopranos kind of way.

Likewise. Yet, such a placid gaze.

Getting stoned. And I’m not talkin’ 4:20.

A counter to all the violence: The church’s placid interior skylight.


  1. tabgirl

    I always liked John Moore’s joke about Saint Lawrence, who was grilled to death: “turn me over, I’m done on this side!” Wah-waa

  2. james

    Why is the Catholic Church disturbing and hilarious?

    I enjoy your site. I don’t care what your religious views are; they are not my business and they don’t matter to me.

    Cheap shots at my religion I do find irritating and offensive.

    Would you feel so free to make a similar statement about Islam?

    May I suggest you stick to art, unless you are prepared to back up your pithy comments with some substantiation or perhaps a comparison of all religions? Thank you.

  3. c-monster

    To be clear, I have no problem with Christianity as a religion, nor with the spiritual tenets of Catholicism, nor with the individual contributions of some of its members. (Such as me: I was raised Catholic.)

    But as an institution, the Church can leave something to be desired. You know, those little matters like the Inquisition, the beef with Galileo, as well as good ol’ Pope Alexander VI, who in addition to producing all manner of illegitimate offspring, was somewhat renowned in his day for some rather inappropriate parties. Then there’s that small matter, well reported over the last ten years, of how the Church handled the reported cases of sexual abuse among its clergy.

    I will acknowledge that the Church hardly has a monopoly on things hilarious and disturbing (that would be all of humanity), but I gotta say, it’s contributed a few doozies in its time.

  4. peet

    James- there’s one problem as I see it with taking exception to this in the way you have- especially in your challenge to do the same with Islam. Despite how one may feel about making similar statements regarding Islam (I am personally opposed to all religion- organized or not), due to their millenia-old ban on representational art, Islam hasn’t left us with such lovely portraits of the horrors it has both inflicted and suffered… Thus, it’s a bit hard to joke about them in this way! :) Peace. (in the humanist sense, of course)

  5. james

    c-monster – thanks for the clarification. A statement that loaded (“the overall effect: disturbing and hilarious. Kinda like the Catholic Church”) deserved an explanation; you supplied one.

    peet – The statement I found objectionable was not referring to representational art – it was referring to everything c-mon listed in her response – and the lack of representational art in Islam is not related. Islam is an institution which is widely misunderstood and therefore not as often an object of ridicule or questioning. Taking shots at an institution which is widely known is commonplace (hence all the decades-old jokes about priests, nuns, Catholic schools, et cetera). It’s also facile. As with c-mon, or anyone, your religious beliefs (or lack of religious beliefs, or opposition to all religions) is not my concern and doesn’t interest me. Peace.

  6. Father Tony

    Dear C-monster,
    You don’t need to defend yourself against James’ absurd comments. Those murals were probably just as caption-inspiring for the clergy who sauntered by them when the paint was still wet as they are today for us. Have you been to those other Roman churches that contain the relics of Mary’s milk and the foreskin of Jesus? Also, I recommend a trip to Santa Costanza on the Via Nomentana. Extremely beautiful church with gorgeous mosaics and stunning acoustics. It had been a temple of Bacchus. I said my first Mass there.
    PS: My husband lurves your blog. I think he reads yours more than mine.

  7. peet

    Ah yes- I see that I did misread your comment slightly James… Sorry about that. Anyway, I’m glad C-mon’s reply was helpful in clarifying her sources of humor…

    I guess I get the same knee-jerk irritated reaction to people objecting to the use of humor to describe aspects of religion as you appear to get when that humor is used. I just find it annoying that so many people think their particular religion should be somehow off-limits to humor. If you say that the Catholic Church has perhaps received more than it’s proportional share of this humor in the last few years, I’ll agree with you– but then, the vast majority of the western world is of Christian extraction and the western world is where the late-night comedy shows get made- you gotta work with what you got… That and, as c-mon pointed out, there are some “doozies” that haven’t helped the cause!

    Anyways- apologies to C-mon for repurposing your comments page toward religious debate. Rarely (never?) is a religious disagreement settled in a comments forum… Lord knows people keep trying though!! I promise any further comments will pertain to the worthy subject of gelati (possibly touching on its also-delicious cousin “granita” – hoo boy, soo tasty… if anyone’s ever in Florence in search of a refreshing snack, I’ll divulge to you the location of the best granita shop in Italy! Hint: it’s on a side street between the Duomo and the Palazzo Vecchio…)

  8. jan

    These frescoes are more than 400 years old. The world was totally different and the paintings tell nothing about the church today. You have to know history to understand the paintings. C-monster obviously has not that knowledge and also lacks humour.

  9. arfink

    Nice pictures, and your comments are hilarious. I am a pretty staunch Catholic, but I definitely agree the placid looks on these martyrs is pretty funny/silly, but served a certain purpose back in the day I suppose. As for disturbing+hilarious, I guess life just works that way.