This ancient church stands in a small piazza just off the busy Via del Corso. The titulus of St. Lawrence in Lucina took its name, as with many other of the early tituli, from the name of the donor of the site or structure itself, who in this case was the Roman landlady Lucina. This area first became developed during the early Imperial period, with the famous Ara Pacis standing in a location just behind the apse of the church. On this spot itself stood a large apartment building, known as an insula, traditionally that of Lucina though the original place of worship may have been located in another location nearby. In the mid 430s, Pope Sixtus III built the first basilica here, like others of the time with a nave flanked by an aisle on each side and terminating in an apse. Being in the midst of an area often hit by floods of the Tiber, the church was in need of periodical restoration, with at least two recorded in the first millennium. During this era this church fulfilled an important liturgical role as the starting point of the procession for the Greater Litany, a penitential procession and liturgical service, on 25 April. This procession, beginning here, would head up the Via Flaminia, crossing the Tiber at the Milvian Bridge before returning down the other side of the river for the stational Mass at St. Peter’s.
The Norman attack of 1084 affected this area, with the original basilica receiving its share of damage as well. Although the extent of this is unknown, a refurbishing did follow, ending with the dedication by Pope Anacletus II on 25 May, 1130. A reconsecration in 1196 can be taken to signal the definitive end of this period of restoration. In this period the basilica, besides having its floor level raised, received a campanile in the style of the time, as well as interior furnishings in the cosmatesque style. A renovation completed in 1462 brought about some minor changes, although the seventeenth century would see the entire interior transformed. These actually began in the last years of the sixteenth century, when the floor was raised once again and a new high altar was constructed in the style of the time. In 1616, the left aisle was converted into chapels opening on to the nave, a process continued in the right aisle in the middle of the century. Finally, a new high altar was constructed and consecrated in 1676, largely giving the interior the appearance of today. Bl. Pope Pius IX oversaw a restoration of the interior in 1857 and 1858 that added two additional chapels and removed some of the Baroque decorations, so that it is a largely nineteenth century interior, with some works from the preceding centuries, that we encounter today. Additional work in the early twentieth century brought the façade back to an approximation of its medieval appearance.
The basilica sits just off the square which bears its name, with its restored porch and facade evoking and older time. Entering the church you notice the door is guarded by two 12th century lions (statues of course). On the side walls of the sanctuary are two reliefs: one of St. Lawrence, the other of St. Lucina. The high altar has at the top a copy of the miraculous 15th century image of Our Lady of Health - an image that, when placed near a well in the 17th century, brought about miraculous healing for those who drank from the well. The small side chapel closed to the door of the church contains the most famous relic in this church: beneath the altar in this chapel is kept a part of what is traditionally believed to be the gridiron on which St. Lawrence was martyred (you may recall that during week 1 of Lent we went to the church on the spot where he was martyred). Standing here in front of this relic, I recall the many connections our family has with St. Lawrence - my father was, for a time, the organist at St. Lawrence church in Harrisburg. My brother was married in this church. My niece, who is preparing to marry in December, had photos taken with her fiancé in this church. I have many fond memories connecting me to St. Lawrence. Here, in front of this precious relic of his martyrdom, I reflect on the sufferings St. Lawrence endured and the faith that carried him through it. I ask his prayers for me, for my family, for all my friends and those reading this blog - that we may, like St. Lawrence, come through the sufferings of this world to share with him in everlasting life.
Altar with gridiron of St. Lawrence Image of Our Lady of Health