The saint who lived under the stairs

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In a chapel of the church of Saints Boniface and Alexius, on the Aventine Hill, part of the wooden staircase under which Saint Alexius lived for seventeen years has been preserved.

Before the 10th century, there is no record of Saint Alexius in the West, but from then on his celebrity status became such that he inspired frescos (a very fine example of which is conserved in the Lower Basilica of San Clemente), poems and pieces of music which have fascinating histories.

Alexius was miraculously born to noble but barren parents in Rome, and although being raised in luxury, he fled to Odessa, where he lived on charity for several years as an ascetic. When his reputation for sanctity grew to be a burden, Alexius decided to leave and sail to Tarsa, but the direction of the wind, or perhaps destiny, took him instead to Ostia. He headed for Rome and presented himself at his father’s house. His father welcomed him without recognising him; thinking that he was a beggar, he offered shelter beneath the staircase. Alexius lived there for seventeen years and wrote his life story on a roll of paper. Only when he died did his family discover his true identity, revealed in the scroll that he still clutched in this hand.

The church dates back to the 4th century, when Pope Honorius III ordered the reconstruction of a building dedicated to Saint Boniface already erected on the Aventine. In 1217, it was also dedicated to Saint Alexius.

The plan of the church, which owes its current appearance to restorations of the 16th, 17th 19th centuries, is a replica of the Roman building with three naves, where you can still see the belltower and crypt (which has a fresco panel painted between the 13th 14th centuries, the only example of its kind in Rome) rom whence came the fragment of staircase preserved in the chapel of Sant’Alessio.

Antonio Bergondi, apprentice sculptor to Bernini, executed a marble statue for this chapel, representing the saint as a pilgrim on his deathbed.

In the church there is also a well that, it is said, formerly stood within the house of Alexius’ father, as well as the 3rd-century icon of the Assumption of Mary, which legend has it the saint brought back from the East.

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So next time you are in Rome, visit the Church of Santi Boniface e Alessio and think of the saint who lived under the stairs in his family home for 17 years, unrecognised as the prodigal son that he was.

 

(Adapted from Secret Rome by JonGlez)

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