One of my favorite churches in Rome, probably for its uniqueness of design, is San Stefano Rotondo located on the Caelian hill, not far from such other wonderful old Churches as San Gregorio Magno and SS Giovanni e Paulo. The Church is entirely in the round, being built in imitation of the Anastasis, the circular aula over the tomb of Christ in Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Pope Leo the Great authorized the foundation of the Church but it was only built twenty years later or so by Pope Simplicius between 468 an 483, making it one of the oldest churches in Rome and unlike many of the more prominent churches has been little altered over the years. The church was built at the behest of the Valerian family—one of the most ancient and noble Roman families—who owned much of the Caelian Hill. Saint Melania the Elder was a member of this family and she had made frequent pilgrimages to Jerusalem and in fact had died there. This may have influenced the choice of a circular plan for the Church.
Twice in its history the Church had attracted the notice of papal patrons who poured considerable wealth into its embellishment. John I and Felix IV decorated the church with marble and mosaics in the sixth century and Innocent II reinforced the fabric of the building in the twelfth century. Through most of its history, however, the church was quite neglected, even to the point of being at times roofless. In 1454 Nicholas V took the church from the Canons of the Lateran who had permitted it to become almost ruinous and gave it to the Hermits of Saint Paul, a Hungarian Order of Mendicant Friars and this began an association that continues today of San Stefano Rotondo with the Hungarian nation. Hungarian Jesuits took over the Church from the Pauline Hermits in 1579 and under the Jesuits the church received its most notable decorations that last until today. It was the time of the great Jesuit missions and Jesuits in their spreading of the Gospel were being put to death in the Protestant nations of Europe, among the native Americans and First Nations of what is today the United States and Canada, in Japan, Korea, and many other places around the globe. Ignatius’ Society of Jesus was being baptized in its own blood. It was important to inculcate in the Order’s novices the spirit of Martyrdom. The church was under the patronage of Saint Stephen—the first martyr—and what could be more fitting than to encourage a spirituality rooted in willingness to shed one’s blood for Christ. Under the aegis of Pope Gregory XIII, artists Antonio Tempesta and Niccolo Circignani carried out a series of 34 murals depicting the martyrdoms of various saints in the first centuries of the Church’s history. They are remarkably grisly: a real house of horrors. Charles Dickens described it thus
Charles Dickens may have put it best, writing of his visit of the "hideous paintings" that cover the walls. He wrote,
…such a panorama of horror and butchery no man could imagine in his sleep, though he were to eat a whole pig raw, for supper. Grey-bearded men being boiled, fried, grilled, crimped, singed, eaten by wild beasts, worried by dogs, buried alive, torn asunder by horses, chopped up small with hatchets: women having their breasts torn with iron pinchers, their tongues cut out, their ears screwed off, their jaws broken, their bodies stretched upon the rack, or skinned upon the stake, or crackled up and melted in the fire: these are among the mildest subjects.
The altar in San Stefano Rotondo is placed dead center in the circle on an axis that runs from northwest to the south east, giving the presider a choice of which position to face. Of course when the Church is full, the congregants surround the priest on all sides. It is one of the peculiarities of the ancient churches of Rome that they were not built facing east but face every direction of the compass.