Church of San Silvestro, facade. Pen on paper. Saint Sylvester in Capite, interior. Pen on paper. Saint Sylvester in Capite, head of John the Baptist. Pen on paper.
San Silvestro in Capite
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Dedication: Pope Sylvester
Built: 754
Principle Interventions: 1198
The church of San Silvestro in Capite was built during one of the most crucial periods in the fortunes of the Catholic Church. Since the fall of the Western Roman Empire, more than three hundred years before, the papacy had been subject to the ever-weakening power of the Eastern Byzantine Empire which continued to control parts of the Italian peninsula. The rest of Italy was mostly under the control of the Lombard Kingdom, and in 751 they dealt a final blow to Byzantine Italy, taking Ravenna and her territories and establishing an uneasy truce with the Pope in the Duchy of Rome. The church faced a serious risk of being absorbed into the Lombard Kingdom. But destiny and political maneuvering were about to save the day. The Frankish kingdom which covered much of France was an alliance of principalities united under a king who was little more than a figurehead. This lack of a powerful central authority led to a state which was powerful but with little interest in foreign affairs. the power behind the throne at this time was Pepin, 'Mayor of the Palace', head of a devoutly Catholic family.
When Pope Zachary received a letter in 746 from Pepin asking whether the church thought it would be right for a legitimate but powerless king to be deposed in favour of himself, the de facto ruler, the Pope was in no hurry to sanction the removal of a divinely appointed king. But three years later the defeat of Rome's Byzantine protectors was practically certain, and Pepin's request suddenly became interesting. In 749 a reply was prepared, stating that the true king was he who held power, and that was Pepin. A new dynasty at the head of the Franks, which was highly sympathetic to the Church, was precisely what was needed. Stephen II, builder of the church of San Silvestro, became Pope in 752, a year after the defeat of the Byzantines, and set about reinforcing the policies of his predecessor. In 754 the Pope travelled to France to crown Pepin in person, the first instance of a king being crowned, and therefore legitimized, by a Pope, and used the occasion to plead for support against the Lombards. Two years later Pepin descended with his army on Italy, forced the Lombards into submission and ordered them to place the former Byzantine territories in the hands of the Pope. This act was known as the Donation of Pepin, and was the first time that the Pope ruled an independent territory. The Papal States had been born.
It was about this time that the Donation of Constantine was forged, possibly to create a forceful precedent for the agreement between the church and Pepin, and to suggest that the ancient Roman Empire had been reborn in the Frankish Kingdom. As Pope Sylvester had been the recipient of the Donation of Constantine, it may have seemed appropriate to dedicate this new church to him, not only as recipient of a recently forged document, but as the first Pope of a Christian empire. Stephen II was the new Sylvester, Pepin the new Constantine. Relics were gathered to be placed in the church, including the remains of Pope Sylvester. The remains of saints were transferred from the catacombs and other churches, to be buried below the church of San Silvestro, as though called to offer their combined prayers in support of the new centralized power of the Holy Roman Empire.