The earliest archaeological evidence of settlement in the town of Capena, 35 km to the north of Rome, dates back to the eleventh century. The sole exception is the ancient and mysterious church of San Leone, a tiny gem nestling inconspicuously in the corner of the town cemetery on Via Morlupo not far from Capena’s old centre.
The first written documentation describing the church dates back to the thirteenth century, but its foundation definitely dates back to an earlier period (eighth to ninth century). The church came to light when the construction of the cemetery required a lowering of the ground level, revealing the foundations of the building, which contained areas used as an ossuary. Today to enter the church you have to climb an outside staircase.
The interior is unusual in being divided into two aisles instead of three as is much more common in contemporary buildings. A presbytery at the end of the larger right-hand nave culminates in a semicircular apse.
The interior is decorated with frescoes, believed to date back to different periods. The oldest (ninth-tenth century) are those decorating the counter-façade. During restoration work in 1951-1953, some pictorial fragments were found including a geometric decoration on the right and two damaged panels on the left. The first frame shows a Madonna and child with two angels and the second shows a worshipper kneeling on the steps of a throne.
The frescoes in the apse are more striking and mysterious. The figure of Christ is flanked to the right by Saint Peter and Saint Leo and to the left by Saint Paul and a figure always previously described as Saint Benedict. Closer inspection reveals that the “Benedict” figure is actually a nun and it is now believed by some to depict Benedict’s twin sister Saint Scholastica, a saint of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. Below them, from left to right, the frescoes depict the Saints John the Baptist, Mary Magdalene and Luke and the Archangel Michael. The entire set of frescoes was commissioned by an unknown personage named Suffia, according to an inscription beneath the Redeemer proclaiming Queste peture a facte fare Suffia.
The most stunning feature of the church is a marble iconostasis decorated with bas-relief work. This architectural structure was used to separate the officiating clergy from the congregation and is typical of Byzantine churches, with only very few examples in Italy.
There is evidence of a convent of nuns in Scorano, near Capena, dating back to around 1000 AD. The sisters initially belonged to the order of St Gregory of Nazianzus (of Constantinople) but had fled the Byzantine iconoclasm (a period when convents were secularised and nuns were no longer safe) and converted to Benedictine rule. It would not be too far-fetched to suggest that the nuns might have brought with them their precious relics and traditions and this could explain the presence of the iconostasis in its unlikely setting and the figure of Saint Scholastica.
Whatever the truth of the matter, the example in Capena is remarkable for its rarity and for being so well-preserved in its original location.
The decoration on the iconostasis resembles that of other local Carolingian works, but it probably dates from the later period of Pope Leo IV, and this would also explain the church’s name.
At the moment, the church interior can only be viewed by appointment, but a campaign is afoot to hold regular services there and make it more accessible to the public.
A short video of the church can be seen at this link https://youtu.be/mCtUuaVUncQ