The Carmelite story of San Silvestro e Martino ai Monti

Sanny Bruijns is a Carmelite sister of the Dutch Province.

As a frequent visitor of the city of Rome, I enjoyed the privilege of being guided by older and wiser Carmelites in exploring the Carmelite places in the eternal city. I remember quite well how impressed I was by my visit to the Basilica of San Clemente with its four historical layers. On my first visit to Rome I was also introduced to the Carmelite church of Santi Silvestro e Martino ai Monti at the Esquiline hill next to the Order’s General Curia. This church, with its seventeenth century façade and dark interior, didn’t really impress me at that stage of my life as a Carmelite candidate. I can imagine this would be the case with some English-speaking members of the Carmelite Family. One of the reasons for this lack of attention might be the absence of a leaflet or brochure in the English language giving a short history and a list of its highlights. For some reason it took me a few decades to discover the Carmelite stories that are hidden in this fascinating church which has even more historical layers than San Clemente. Let me share some insights and explain some highlights one can pay attention to when visiting Saint Martin on the Mountains.

A historical presence

Before Christ, this part of Rome served as a graveyard for the poor and for criminals. The Roman Emperor Augustus (63BC-14AD) removed the cemetery and raised the area in order to build villas for the richer citizens. When one walks to the church a sign on the Viale Monte Oppio tells you that the building is called Titulus Equitii and that it has its origins in the second and third centuries. In recent decades huge work has be done by archaeologists in excavating the third century ‘domus ecclesiae’ and the first century storage hall in the subterranean of the actual church. In the left aisle of the church one can go to the sacristy, where a friar or sacristan can be asked to open the gate in the interior part of the church and switch on the lights of the third century pillared hall in the crypt below the main altar. The rooms in this hall were part of a so-called house-church or ‘ecclesia domestica’ of a Roman Christian called Equitius. Some scholars argue that it is ‘most unlikely that it could have served as a place of worship for any larger community and its liturgy. The original purpose of this fairly modest hall was probably to serve as a storage space for commercial purposes’. Maybe the place could have been a storage hall as part of a villa in the first century before it was transformed into a secret place of worship in the second and third centuries. When one wanders around the pillars and walks on the first century tiles, one can have a feeling of excitement and awe at stepping back 2,000 years in time. This feeling overwhelms you when you realize that medieval Carmelites used the crypt as a burial place for their friars. It is quite an experience to stand face to face with the marble burial plates of Prior General Nicolas Audet (1481-1562) and Prior General Rossi (1507-1578). It comes to mind how close the history of the Order of Carmelites (O.Carm) and the Order of Carmelites Discalced (O.C.D.) are linked with each other. Without Rossi’s permission, Teresa of Avila would not have been so successful in reforming the female and male branches of the Carmelite Order.

When one walks back to an upper floor with these feelings and thoughts in mind, one can easily walk the steps without giving notice to the signatures and remarks of those who found shelter in the crypt during World War II. Their engravings on the wall are touching and bring to the mind the suffering of the Roman people in the twentieth century. It is amazing how one walks through history simply by visiting the lower part of this remarkable church. It took several attempts and visits to discover the crypt and its secrets and I still feel this personal discovery has just started.

A papal presence

From the ceiling of the actual church four Popes keep their eyes on us: Fabiano, Stefano, Innocenzo and Martino. From the ceiling above the maior altar Pope Silvester I (314-335) and St. Martin of Tours are looking at us as the patrons of this impressing church. In the German language the last day of the year is referred to as ‘Silvesterabend’ because Silvester died on December 31. In the crypt we can find a sixth century mosaic portraying the Madonna with Pope St Sylvester. This pope is the one who enlarged and decorated the ‘ecclesia domestica’. He was a contemporary of Emperor Constantine. In his hagiography it is recorded that he confirmed the Acts and articles of the Council of Nicaea, including the Nicean creed, in this church in the presence of emperor Constantine. The story also tells us that he burned the books of the heretic Arius (256-336). In the left aisle one finds a huge fresco on the wall representing this historical event – which might have taken place in this church – with the following text:

In this holy place, once known as the baths of Titus, Domitian and Trajan (emperors), there were held two councils by Pope Sylvester. The first one [was held] in the year of the Lord 324 with the participation of Constantine the Great, St. Helena and Calfuro Pisone, the Prefect of Rome, along with the Roman clergy and 284 bishops. The second one [was held] in the year 325 in the presence of the same Constantine and with the participation of 215 bishops. The Acts of the Council of Nicea in Bitinia were confirmed. Arius, Sabellius and Vittorinus were condemned and their books were burned in the presence of the Emperor (the Baronio Annales, CCCXXX).

In the sacristy one finds a votive lamp, made in silver sheet, given by a devote woman in the 6th century.
Another pope looking at us from on high is Pope Symmachus (498-514), who built a basilica on this site next to the titulus Equitii. He is the one who dedicated the church to Saint Martin of Tours (316-397) in the year 509. In order to dedicate the church to Silvestro, Simmaco had to join the name of Martino to Silvestro because Martino was the first saint not killed and very famous in Europe at that time.
Other popes looking at us are Pope Hadrian I (eighth century) and Pope Sergius II (ninth century). Pope Sergius dedicated the church to Saint Silvester, who was the first canonised pope who did not die as a martyr.

Mary’s presence

I suspect most visitors of San Martino will walk straight away to the left corner behind the sacristy to pray and light a candle in the Chapel of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. When one walks into the church on a Saturday evening one may witness the Marian procession of the Carmelite Community of San Martino ai Monti, dressed in their white cloaks, to pray the vespers in Mary’s chapel. Blessed Titus Brandsma wrote in a lyric way about praising Our Lady on Saturday evening:

On Saturdays they sing it solemnly in their white mantles, before and on the way to the altar of their Mother. As soon as the Salve Regina has been sung, all kneel around the altar to sing the Litany of Loreto. This is prayed every day but, on this day which is dedicated to Mary, the religious gather to sing it in front of the throne of their Queen. Simply by thinking of Mary’s help we feel ourselves strengthened in our weakness, but the Carmelite knows that although all Christians can count on Mary’s help, she has promised special help to all those who wear the garment of Carmel.

Titus refers to the scapular devotion to Our Lady of Mount Carmel. In another corner of the church the scapular vision of Simon Stock is painted by Gaspar Dughet with St Simon praying his Flos Carmeli in a hollow tree while having a vision of Mary on a cloud in the sky. The scapular devotion reminds us of Mary’s protective presence, a devotion which went viral in the Middle Ages. Today it is one of the most practised Marian devotions after the rosary.

As in all Carmelite churches we also find Mary’s prefiguration in the so called ‘Cloud of Elijah’ on another landscape painting of Gaspar Dughet in the right aisle. In Mary’s chapel in the left aisle there’s a second version of Cloud of Elijah by Antonio Cavallucci 1750. In the Carmelite interpretation of the biblical story of Elijah’s servant looking for a cloud in times of great drought (1Kings 18:42-45), Mary appeared to be seated on the cloud that finally appeared on the horizon. She symbolizes the human being, receiving grace from on high. By this grace Mary was capable of carrying the Son of God in her womb and gave birth to Jesus as the human-divine mediator between heaven and earth.

Wherever you find time to sit down in one of the chapels or down in the crypt, Mary is keeping an eye on you in order to remind you to her graceful, pure and protecting presence.

A Carmelite perspective on Elijah

On one of my first attentive visits to San Martini ai Monti I was prompted by a friar to direct my gaze to the seventeenth century landscape paintings of the prophet Elijah by Gaspar Dughet (1615-1675). After entering the church one finds six paintings in the left and twelve in the right aisle. He worked on these frescoes in the period between 1640 and 1655. In painting the Elijah cycle, Dughet might have been instructed by the Spanish Carmelite John Baptist Lezana (1585-1659), who wrote a history of the Order with the life of Elijah as a starting point in the eight century BC. In the Middle Ages up to the seventeenth century, the Carmelites hold a strong belief in the prophet Elijah as the founder of their Order. After reading and meditating the Book of the First Monks, or the so called Liber Monachorum Primorum, I became aware of the tremendous spiritual richness of this document. For centuries it has been taken more seriously than the Rule of Saint Albert because it was suggested by Philippe Ribot that this document goes back to the fourth century. Ribot’s Book of the First Monks and Lezana’s Annals give important clues to a good understanding of the eighteen paintings of the Carmelite Elijah story. One has to start looking at the paintings in the right corner next to the altar. When one follows one’s way to the entrance and then walks up the left aisle to Our Lady’s chapel, an amazing series of illustrations of the life of the Pater et Dux Carmeli unfolds itself. This story begins in the eighth century BC with the dream of Sabach, Elijah’s father:

Elijah left this mantle to Elisha when he was taken from him up into the paradise of delights. In this way Elijah taught the monks professed in this Order that they should wear a white cloak, just as the Lord showed them wearing white to Sabach, the father of Elijah. For, before the birth of his son Elijah, Sabach saw in a dream men dressed in white who greeted him ... This vision showed Sabach how his son Elijah would clothe his followers in the monastic life. For Sabach, beholding men clothed in white, saw in spirit the religious men established by Elijah. Also, those men in white whom he saw were imitators of Elijah, as the exemplar of how to live the monastic life, in whiteness not only in their genuine mental purity, but also in the material white habits which covered them.
In the painting we see white men standing in front of the Porta Aurea in Jerusalem, where Mary’s conception took place. According to medieval chronicles, one of the first foundations was next to the Golden Gate to commemorate Mary’s Conception. In his collection of salutary stories Baldwin Leers recounts:
Another convent was established at the Golden Gate where the blessed Virgin was conceived. Of this place, there is a reference in some Roman chronicle where it is written: “At the time when our Lord Jesus Christ was preaching, some hermits came to Jerusalem from Mount Carmel, some of whom settled at the Golden Gate in Jerusalem, living a religious life from the 7th year after the passion of our Lord, during the reign of the Roman emperor, up to the time of the emperors Titus and Vespasian.
Below Sabacha’s dream one sees three Carmelites in ecstasy at the foot of a tree with two ranks with two female figures, and another rank with three female figures. This brings us to the year 77BC and to the legend of Emerentiana, the assumed mother of St Ann and the grandmother of Mary. The women in the painting can be identified as the daughters of Emerentiana, named Ann and Esmeria. We find their story in the thirteenth century Legenda Aurea of the Dominican Jacobus de Voragine in his story on the birth of Mary. In this legendary source it is told that Ann married three times and gave birth to three Maries: Maria Jacobi, Maria Salome and Mary, the mother of Jesus. Mary points to the risen Jesus, sitting in the top with the cross on his shoulder. In medieval Carmelite tradition, the devotion for the Three Maries was cultivated in their liturgy and art works and inspired by ‘The history of the three Maries’, written by the Carmelite John de Veneta.
Next to these paintings we see the proto-Carmelite Basilides, who lived on Mount Carmel during the Jewish War (68-72AD). Lezana writes in his Annales about an important event in the history of the Carmelite presence in the Holy Land in 69AD. In those years Basilides the Soothsayer lived on Mount Carmel and was consulted by the Roman Emperor Titus. Basilides predicted the emperor’s victory in the Jewish War and the fall of Jerusalem. Because of this prediction Vespasian and Titus saved the lives of the Carmelites on Mount Carmel and those who lived as a community near the Golden Gate in Jerusalem, until the time of the emperors Titus and Vespasian.
In the upper painting we see the so called ‘Oraculum Cyrilli’. The story goes that Cyril was the third prior on Mount Carmel after Berthold and Brocard before the Rule of Carmel was written by St Albert of Jerusalem. We see Cyril saying Mass in a chapel on Mount Carmel with five men kneeling behind him. This brings us to the thirteenth century when the hermits on Mount Carmel gathered together to celebrate the Eucharist. In the Book of First Monks, Ribot gives the letter of Cyril to Brother Eusebius. In this letter Cyril ‘recounts the history of the Order from the capture of the Holy Land by Omar, how the Carmelite hermits were dispersed and then, after the recapture of the Holy Land by the crusaders, they were gathered together by Americ the patriarch of Antioch’.
The following paintings show important events of the Elijah cycle including Elijah’s struggle with king Ahab and his wife Jezebel, the encounter with the prophets of Baal, the revelation on Mount Horeb, the hiding in the brook Kerith, the feeding by the black ravens, and the calling of Elisha and Elijah’s assumption into heaven. While seated on a church bench and pondering the life of the Father and Leader of Carmel one feels surrounded by his inspiring and challenging presence.

A biblical presence

In medieval times Carmelites were known as ‘masters of the word’. Pondering the word of God day and night is part of the Carmelite vocation. In times when books were not available for the people of God, other ways of interiorizing Scripture were used such images and storytelling. While seated in the church benches one’s eyes might spot the Biblia Pauperum, the so-called ‘Bible of the Poor’, on the columns or pillars on the right side of the interior. This Biblia presents a series of over sixty Old Testament images that prefigure New Testament events. They recall how the Word of God was taught to the people of God in earlier days. The images on the left side show us the four evangelists and the instruments of martyrdom used in times of persecution. Pondering upon all these images, one is overwhelmed by the sacrifices of the first Christians and one becomes familiar with the biblical stories in order to interiorize one’s faith.


A person with historical interest will realize how amazing it is to visit this church, either virtually or physically. One walks through the ages by looking at the traces of Roman merchandise, early Christianity, martyrdom, medieval devotion, Teresian Reform and World War II. Someone with a Carmelite heart will feel inspired by the Carmelite story of Elijah and his successors and by the Marian spirituality that is kept alive in this church. In a digitalized world one has the opportunity to visit Saint Martin on the Mountains by making a virtual visit to this hidden treasure of Carmelite spirituality. When one looks for ‘Basilica of Sts Sylvester and Martin, Rome – Matterport’ one can visit the four floors with their highlights. In our visit we are standing on the shoulders of our forebearers and we realize the great gift of belonging to an international fraternity that shares the gifts of our past with one another. May this gift inspire us to live the Carmelite charism in today’s world.

  2. Translated from the Latin text by Craig Morrison, O.Carm.
  3. Falco Thuis: ‘Angelo Paoli, 1642 -1720’ in Carmel in the World LVIII (2019) N1. p.14.
  4. See:; Titus Brandsma: ‘Saturday evening in the church of the Carmelites’ in Carmel in the World LIX (2020) N2. p. XX-XX.
  5. Joannes Baptista de Lezana: Annales Sacri, Prophetici et Eliani Ordinis Beat. Virginis Mariae de monte Carmeli. Romae 1645. Petrus Wemmers translated this work into Dutch and published it in 1666.
  6. Richard Copsey O.Carm., ed.: The Ten Books on the Way of Life and Great Deeds of the Carmelites, including the Book of the First Monks, a medieval history of the Carmelites written c.1385 by Felip Ribot O.Carm. p. 99.
  7. Johannes Soreth O.Carm.: Expositio paraenetica in Regulam Carmelitarum, Ein Kommentar zur Karmelregel. Übersetzt und erläutert von Leo Groothuis O.Carm., Münster 2018, p. 46-47.
  8. A collection of salutary stories and miracles by Baldwin Leers, O.Carm. (d. 1483); translated from the Latin by Richard Copsey, O.Carm.
  9. Petrus Dorlandus: Historia perpulchra de Anna sanctissima, 1501.
  10. Michael Terence Driscoll, O.Carm.: ‘L’Histoire des trois Maries’: an edition with introduction, Washington 1973.
  11. Joannes Baptista de Lezana, quoted from the Wemmers translation. p. 132. Pat Mullins, O.Carm.: The Bollandist Dossier on St Albert of Jerusalem, Rome 2015. pp. 119, 151.
  12. Richard Copsey, O.Carm., p. 79.
  13. Richard Copsey, O.Carm.: ‘Felipe Ribot and his ten books: the Carmelite background and sources’ in In Labore Requies, edited by Fernando Millán Romeral, O.Carm., Rome 2007. pp. 188-189.
  14. Idem p. 189.
  15. Craig Morrison, O.Carm.: ‘From Biblia Pauperum to Lectio Divina, The Word of God in the Hands of the People of God’ in Sentire cum ecclesia, a festschrift in honour of Christopher O’Donnell O.Carm., Rome 2018. p. 17.