So let's talk about today's station church. We leave Trastevere to go back in the direction of my theology school, the Greg; except walk past it for about another half mile and you get to San Vitale. Like yesterday at Santa Maria, this church has an interesting connection to our elder brother England.
We go back in time to 1535 and make our way to one of the dungeon chambers of the Tower of London. Inside is John Fisher, the Catholic bishop of the diocese of Rochester, who is imprisoned there for his refusal to accept King Henry VIII's First Succession Act (and shortly before his death, also the Act of Supremacy).
Henry wanted to annul his marriage to Queen Catherine of Aragon b/c she was not producing a male heir for the Tudor dynasty; he also had his eyes set on Anne Boleyn, a young woman in the queen's entourage. The king appealed to Pope Clement VII for a declaration of nullity, which was never granted... and so what does one do when one wants one's own way? One makes oneself one's own moral authority.
A couple things happen in succession...Henry leaves Catherine, deceptively convinces the pope to approve his buddy Thomas Cranmer as Archbishop of Canterbury, then secretly marries Anne. She becomes pregnant, so he publicly marries her, then sets up a special court wherein Cranmer declares his marriage to Catherine invalid and afterward declares his marriage to Anne valid. John Fisher openly opposes the king's divorce, which upsets Henry and begins John's troubles.
The king proceeded to pass the First Succession Act in March 1534, by which the king could compel any person to take an oath of succession, acknowledging the progeny of Henry and Anne as legitimate heirs to the throne. John Fisher refused the oath and was imprisoned in April 1534. Later in November, Henry put the Act of Supremacy through the English parliament, which declared him to be "the only supreme head on earth of the Church of England"; those who denied this, by the way, would be considered guilty of treason. Fisher rejected the king's supremacy in early May 1535 from his prison cell in the Tower of London, affirming his allegiance to the pope and the supremacy of the See of St Peter. For this he would be quickly tried and convicted of treason.
And this is what finally brings us to our station church! Also in May of 1535 the newly elected Pope Paul III, in an effort to save John, elevated him to the honor of cardinal and assigned to him the church of San Vitale as his titular church in Rome. Upon hearing this, King Henry declared that, rather than send the red hat to England (as cardinals wear red), he would send the bishop's head to the pope! And this Henry did. Well, he didn't mail John's head, but he had the bishop beheaded on the 22nd of June and hung his head from the London Bridge for two weeks (at which time it was thrown into the Thames and replaced with Sir Thomas More's head).
Well all that wasn't really saying too much about our station church, but it is interesting nonetheless!
St. Vitalis is the patron of this church, a(nother) martyr during the Roman persecutions of the early 2nd century. Two large paintings which hang on the left and right walls just before the sanctuary depict his martyrdom: he was tortured on the rack before being buried alive. His wife and sons were also martyrs, Ss. Valeria, Gervasius and Protasius. A small oratory was built on this site in the late 4th century dedicated to Vitalis' sons. Later in the 5th century Pope Innocent I built a larger church here with the help of a wealthy widow named Vestina, who upon her death left all her money for this purpose. By the seventh century it began being referred to as St. Vitalis and was the last-built church to be included on the original list of titular churches of Rome.
Let's take a gander at a few photos of San Vitale to finish 'er up:
|San Vitale is accessed by a flight of stairs, which is necessary b/c the street level was raised in the late nineteenth century. Gives you an idea of just how much Rome has been continually built on top of itself!|