Apse of the Church of San Pellegrino

The North West Chapter

This project concerns the restoration of the frescoes located in the apse of one of the most important churches in the Vatican City State, the Church of San Pellegrino. This church is located inside the Vatican City along the eponymous street that coincides with the last stretch of the ancient Ruga Francigena, the road travelled by pilgrims arriving in Rome to the Limina Apostolorum. Before the construction of the Vatican City walls, this road led to St. Peter’s Square through the Viridaria gate.

In 1653, Pope Innocent X (1574-1655) granted the use of this church with its attached cemetery to the Swiss Guard. In 1977, it was entrusted to the Corps of the Gendarmerie.


Behind the baroque facade, with its twentieth-century effigy of its patron saint, lies one of the oldest and most intriguing pieces of Vatican architecture. The small one-room church, with its irregular trapezoidal plan terminating in a semicircular apse, preserves a fascinating mixture of architectural elements and decorative schemes representing various periods. These diverse structural elements permit the retracing of its different phases of construction. The first documentary evidence of the existence of the Oratorium Sancti Peregrini dates back to the pontificate of Leo III (795-816), who almost certainly commissioned the construction of the original nucleus. Traces of this period remain evident in the constructive typology of the perimeter walls, which are composed of overlapping rows of volcanic rock blocks and form the base for a terracotta brick masonry, and in the four arched windows that originally illuminated each of the long walls. During its restoration in 1590, recalled in one of the walled tombstones, these windows were closed and replaced by the two large rectangular windows visible today.

The closing of the original windows and the opening of new ones was necessary due to the raising of the floor by two meters. This was perhaps an attempt to curb the damage of rising humidity levels, which were responsible, among other problematic factors, for the loss of the frescoes on the lower area of the apse.Despite this deplorable loss, the remaining frescoes constitute a precious testimony of constant devotion over the centuries, and a rare intention to preserve their primitivist composition.

At the center of the apse is the most ancient figure: Christ Pantocrator enthroned with his right hand raised. Christ’s physiognomy is strongly derived from the Acheropita of the Sancta Sanctorum. The large halo shows traces of a jeweled krismon, and the composition of plaster mixed with straw dates the fresco to the period of Pope Leo III (750-816) and thus to the foundation of the religious building and its original decoration. The four saints on each side of Christ executed at a later date, two popes and two deacons, cannot be identified due to their lack of specific attributes. The setting, the typology and the clothing of the saints would suggest a dating of the late fourteenth century, however, the free brushstrokes and the more modern execution technique would indicate that they are a remake done in the seventeenth century, using fourteenth century prototypes from Bartolomeo di Piacenza’s restoration in 1392 at the behest of Pope Boniface IX (ca. 1350-1404). The decoration of the triumphal arch, on the other hand, matches stylistically to the period of Pietro Cavallini (1250-1330), one of the major exponents of the Roman school between the end of the thirteenth and early fourteenth century. At both ends are two saints depicted in full length: well preserved is that of St. Paul on the left, with book and sword, while the figure on the right seems irrecoverable and is marked by a simple silhouette made during the restoration of 1912. In the two circles are St. John the Baptist with his characteristic camel hair garment on the left and a saint with a scroll, possibly St. John the Evangelist, on the right. The altarpiece in fresco depicting the enthroned Madonna with Child and angels holding a small temple can be traced to the first half of the fifteenth century and to the school of Arcangelo of Cola da Camerino. Originally placed in the apse, probably under the figure of Christ, the mural painting was later detached and is now inserted in the left sidewall. In the twentieth century, to compensate for the loss of the decoration that once adorned the entire church, the coat of arms of the pontiffs were painted in tempera on the back wall and above the triumphal arch.

The Patrons of the Arts would also like to call attention to the exquisite wooden coffered ceiling in the church, which was restored thanks to the generous contributions of the Pennsylvania Patrons of the Arts.