Located just a short distance from the Termini train station in Rome and squeezed in between the tracks of old and new railway lines, the small Church of Santa Bibiana goes laregly unnoticed due to its unfortunate position, hidden by train pylons, by its own enclosure, and by the trees. To find the entrance, you have to cross the old tracks and a street that is difficult for pedestrians to access.
It is, in fact, an old basilica dedicated to Bibiana, a legendary 4th-century martyr. It was built in the 5th century at the behest of Pope Simplicius over the remains of thousands of martyrs. Reconstructed for the first time by Pope Honorius III in 1224, it was reconstructed a second time by Pope Urban VIII in 1626, with numerous contributions by Bernini, who gave it a new façade with an atrium and a loggia which were later closed. Bernini redesigned the apse, adding two chapels to the lateral naves at the back, where the altar paintings depicting Defrosa di Pietro da Cortana and Demetria di Agostino Ciampelli (Bibiana’s mother and sister respectively, both of whom were martyrs) can be seen. He also renovated the main chapel, inserting a statue of Bibiana in a niche, celebrating her martyrdom.
Under the main altar, a precious alabaster jar contains the remains of Bibiana, Demetria and Defrosa. The trunk of the pillar to which Bibiana was tied and flogged to death is kept in the left-hand nave. It is worn down by the hands of all those who for centuries have scraped up the dust which falls from the pillar, believing that if the dust is dissolved in water from the well in the nearby garden and mixed with the grass which grows on the spot where the martyr’s blood flowed, that they will obtain a potion with miraculous powers.
So, the next time you are in Rome, take the time to see this beautiful Church – it is difficult to find but it is a true treasure as well as being wonderful example of the work of Bernini.