With our mind’s eye we imagine the pillar of smoke billowing out of a roaring fire, into which scrolls are being thrown, while the pope and clergy of the city look on, their faces illuminated by the blaze. This was the scene at this location in 326 when the works of Arius and other theologians condemned at Nicea I were burned, a public sign of their rejection by the Church. Tradition holds that the first place of Christian worship on this site was in the house of a priest named Equitus, after whom the titulus would later be called upon its foundation by St. Silvester in the early fourth century. This was the location for both the preparatory meeting of the Roman clergy, in which they prepared their statement of faith for Nicea I, as well as the subsequent reception of the decrees of the council and carrying out of the destruction of the works of those there condemned. Tradition passes down that a basilica in honor of St. Martin of Tours was built nearby in the late fifth century. Later some older buildings nearby were converted into a church named after St. Silvester. St. Silvester I became pope in 314, just after the legalization of Christianity. He oversaw the construction of the Lateran basilica and the other early churches built after the Edict of Milan. Along with this he helped in the development of the liturgy in the city, including in the preparation of the martyrology. He also supported the orthodox belief in the Arian crisis.
Both of these early churches were replaced by the current basilica under Pope Sergius II (r. 844-847). Although it is dedicated to Ss. Silvester and Martin, combining the two titles of the earlier basilicas, it is now more commonly known as St. Martin’s on the Mount. At this time the relics of many martyrs were translated here, being placed in the confessio beneath the high altar. This basilica, restored in the mid-sixteenth century, was more extensively renovated a century later. During this time the church and confessio were completely redecorated in the fashion of the day. The current façade was completed somewhat later, in 1676, although some small parts of the earlier one remain. The Carmelite Order is first mentioned as serving here in the fourteenth century, with their service here continuing to the present time.
Entering the church its baroque style is immediately seen in the nave. The clerestory is decorated with statues of saints and martyrs from the early Roman church. Approaching the altar you come to the confessio--a result of a baroque remodeling of the older crypt, beneath the altar here are kept the relics of several saints, whose names are recorded on plaques along the stairs leading down into the area. Archeological investigations have found structures bearing clear signs of Christian use from the early 6th Century--possibly the remains of this early church.
In the Blessed Sacrament chapel (to the left of the main altar) is an image of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, with the surrounding wall depicting souls in purgatory seeking her intercession. Beneath this altar are kept the relics of Sts. Lautianus, his wife, and Crescentius--all martyrs of the early church. To the left of this is a somewhat idealized image of the interior of the old St. Peter's basilica, memories of which would still have existed when this was executed.
On the left side of the nave is a statue of St. Sylvester I in council at this location, discussing the events surrounding the Council of Nicea . It is interesting to note that, although this meeting would have taken place in the early 4th century, the participants are dressed in 17th century clothing. In the back of the church there is another image of what the interior what of St. John Lateran would have looked like.