San Giorgio Al Velabro
Surrounded by the ruins of the empire that put its patron to death, the humble church of St. George in the Velabrum is a continuing reminder of the faith and sacrifice of that great saint. As we head away from the river in the direction of the church, we see the Arch of Janus (late third/early fourth century after Christ) with its many niches, marking the site of the Forum Boarium, the cattle market of the ancient city. This was located in the area of the city known as the Velabrum, possibly so-called because of the yellow sand (from the Etruscan word velum, “marsh,” and Latin aurum, “gold) that gathered there. Right next to the church itself is a smaller arch built in honor of Septimus Severus by the moneychangers in the market in A.D. 204. This is almost exactly a century before the martyrdom of St. George. While very little of his actual story has come down to us, it can be known for certain that he suffered near the current location of Lod, Israel, most likely in the late third or early fourth century. While many of the stories about him are largely fictional, they seem to indicate that he was a soldier, possibly of Cappadocian descent, and also that he suffered many tortures before his death. He later became a popular patron of soldiers, who looked to him as a model for strength in the spiritual life. His cult became especially popular in Europe when it was brought back with the returning Crusaders.
While the church is currently named for St. George, it has traditionally also been linked with the martyr St. Sebastian. This is due to the church’s proximity to the location where the battered corpse of the saint was thrown into the Cloaca Maxima, the ancient sewer running underneath the site which still functions today. The first Christian structure on this site was a diaconia (deaconry), thought to have been established here in the late fifth century. This was a social services center of the early Roman church, including a distribution center with supplies for the needy, as well as a small chapel. This may have been placed under the patronage of St. George by the first half of the seventh century, when mention of such was made. Pope Leo II undertook a restoration in 682-683 and dedicated the church to Ss. Sebastian and George, a title it would retain into the medieval period. In 741 or 742 a relic of the head of St. George was discovered at the Lateran and brought here by Pope Zachary. Although a popular saint in the East at the time, he was still relatively unknown in the West. Therefore, this church marks one of the first places of devotion to this saint in the Latin Church.
Pope Gregory IV undertook a complete restoration and enlargement of the old deaconry in the years 827-844, effectively turning it into the structure we see today. Although it no longer served as a deaconry, it retained some of its earlier characteristics common to that type of building, such as square clerestory windows and an overall appearance that aimed more for functionality than aesthetic appeal. He also decorated the inside of the basilica with frescoes. Sometime later a marble chancel screen was added, later removed in the thirteenth century. The medieval period left a significant mark on the church, with the addition of a porch and campanile on the outside, and the redecoration of the interior with a ciborium over the altar and new frescoes in the apse, thought to be by Piero Cavallini. Different restorations and minor reconstructions, including roof repairs and a raising of the nave floor, were carried out in subsequent centuries. In 1787, the original columns of the ciborium were taken elsewhere and replaced with the current ones. Structural restorations and strengthening took place throughout the nineteenth century. The current façade is thought to date from this time period as well. In 1909-1910, the apse fresco was restored, and from 1923-1925, a larger restoration was carried out that gave the church the appearance it has today. This included lowering the floor to its original level. In 1993, a bomb placed by the mafia exploded in front of the church, causing heavy damage. A restoration was able to bring the church back to its previous appearance.