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Walking through Rome
A Guide to Interesting Sites in the Eternal City
By Margaret Varnell Clark
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2013 Margaret A. Varnell Clark, Writer, LLC
All rights reserved.
Ancient Church of St. Mary at the Forum
Santa Maria Antiqua
The church of Santa Maria Antiqua is one of the most exciting entries in this book. On the south side of the Roman Forum, the church was built in the 6th century; however, an earthquake in 847 almost completely buried the structure. It was not rediscovered again until 1702. It is an excellent example of an early Christian church built into the remains of a pre-existing pagan building, and particularly interesting because it has not been renovated over the centuries.
The pagan building dates to the 1st century CE. The complex consisted of a central court with three doors that led into a square atrium on the north side; a covered ramp that led to the imperial palaces on the east side; a central chamber with smaller chambers on the south side; and to the west, a large brick building which was believed for many years to be a temple, though scholars are less sure now. The debate also continues as to the original purpose of the complex. Some scholars believe it belonged to the Emperor Domitian (81-96). Others think it was constructed by the Emperor Hadrian (117-138) as part of the Athenaeum (University). Still other scholars believe that the buildings resemble a library, and most lean to this latter interpretation.
The first records of the structure as a Christian church are in the De locis sanctis martyrum of 635, which called it Santa Maria Antiqua. When the building was transformed into a church, the east and west sides of the courtyard were closed in to form aisles and the central hall became the nave. The outer court to the north became the atrium. When the earthquake hit in 847, the building was severely damaged. Pope Leo IV ordered the building abandoned and had a new church built on the opposite side of the Forum. The new church can also be visited; it is now known as Santa Francesca Romana. Over the years, landslides and the crumbling structure buried the main body of the church. A chapel was built into the old atrium in the 14th century, though it was not widely used. Santa Maria Antiqua was rediscovered in 1702 by people looking for building material in the Roman Forum. The apse was excavated somewhat and became a popular tourist site. However, the owner of the property decided to rebury it after only 3 months. Major excavations did not take place until the 1900s when archaeologist Giacomo Boni decided to take on the project.
It has been a difficult church to visit, with appointments having to be made well in advance. However, in the spring of 2013, the fully excavated church will be open to the public for the first time in more than 12 centuries.
Visitors enter the structure through the atrium which has frescos that date to the time of Hadrian and some classical sculptures. Going through the glass door, one will be standing in the narthex of the original church. The herringbone pattern pavement is called opus spicatum and dates to the 1st century CE. Directly ahead is the nave which has frescos of biblical scenes. Beyond that is the Bema. This portion has seats along the walls and biblical frescos. Today, a Bema is more often associated with a Jewish synagogue, but in ancient Rome they were used by secular authorities as a place of judgment or courtroom. They had a raised seat for the judge, which could also be used as a lectern, and seats along the walls. Early Christians also incorporated them into early churches and it is believed they were used as teaching or lecture rooms. There are several references to Bemas in the New Testament, including: Matthew 27:19; John 19:13; Acts 25:10; and Romans 14:10.
Continuing on, the next small room is the presbytery which is paved with opus Alexandrinum. This is particularly exciting as some references state that this type of flooring, which is a highly geometric and somewhat Byzantine in design, had not been introduced to Italy until the 11th century. There are also numerous frescoes in the presbytery, all of which date to the 8th century. There are two 8th century chapels on either side of the presbytery filled with frescoes. The Chapel of Theodotus is on the left and the Chapel of the Holy Physicians is on the right. Scholars and archeologists have done an exceptional job documenting the 2690 square feet of frescoes found throughout and an onsite guide is planned for visitors when the church is opened to the public. The earliest painting they have dated so far is located on the wall to the right of the apse in the back of the presbytery. Known as a Maria Regina, it dates to the 6th century and shows the Virgin Mary enthroned, wearing a garment with pearls in the style of a Byzantine empress. It may be the earliest surviving depiction of Mary as Queen of Heaven. The Chapel of the Holy Physicians has several frescoes of medical saints which were painted during the early 8th century. Among those pictured are St. John of Edessa, St. Celsus, St. Abbacycus, St. Cosmas, St. Damian, and at least one unidentifiable female saint. Historians believe that people came to the chapel to pray and be healed by the saint's interventions. This is a tradition that is common in the Eastern Church and was gaining in popularity in Rome during the era of the Byzantine Papacy (537-752).
The most striking image of Christ is in the second level of the apse fresco. He is shown seated with his right hand raised in a blessing. There is a tetramorph of the four evangelists on either side of him. A symbolism of the tetramorph relates to the visions of the Old Testament Prophet Ezekiel (Ezekiel 1:10) as well as the Book of Revelation (Revelation 4:7) in the New Testament. It is a winged 4-headed creature that has the animal heads of the 4 evangelists. Specifically, St. Matthew is represented by a winged man, St. Luke by an Ox, St. Mark by a Lion, and John the Evangelist by an Eagle. The wings represent the divinity of the Evangelists. While this creature is a little creepy looking, it was a very popular symbol in early Christianity. It is commonly seen surrounding an image of Christ in Glory on the spherical ceiling inside the apse of churches. Similar, though, later frescoes of Christ flanked by the evangelists can be seen in the churches of Santa Pudenziana, San Clemente, and Santa Maria in Trastevere.
Pope Paul I is also shown in this apse fresco. He is depicted with a square nimbus, which tells us that he was still alive when the fresco was painted and dates it to between 757 and 767.
Santa Maria Antiqua
1 Largo Romolo e Remo
(Forum Romanum archaeological site)
Opening in the Spring 2013
Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem
Basilica di Santa Croce in Gerusalemme
Built around 325 by St. Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine, the Basilica di Santa Croce in Gerusalemme is one of the seven pilgrim churches of Rome. The church was built next to Helena's palace, the Palazzo Sessoriano. The story is told that Helena had soil from Jerusalem brought to Rome for its foundation, hence the dedication of the basilica to the city of Jerusalem. The church was built to house the Passion Relics and the basilica has a large collection of relics from the Holy Land supposedly brought back by St. Helena.
The basilica has been remodeled several times. There is an interesting story about a brick which was discovered by workmen on February 1, 1492 while restoring a mosaic. The brick was inscribed with the words Titulus Crucis (Title of the Cross). Behind it was a fragment of wood which had the word "Nazarene" inscribed in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek. Legend suggests that this was a relic of the cross on which Christ was crucified. St. Helena is said to have been given the relic while on a trip to Jerusalem. She divided the piece of wood into three parts, giving one to the Emperor Constantine to be kept in Constantinople, keeping one in Jerusalem, and sending the last to the basilica in Rome. The relic was supposedly hidden in the wall around 455 to protect it from the attacking Visigoths. Other relics kept in the church include two thorns from Christ's crown of thorns; an incomplete nail from the crucifixion; the bone from the finger of St. Thomas that he placed in the wounds of the Risen Christ; and small pieces of the Scourging Pillar to which Christ was tied as he was beaten. A larger piece of the pillar is kept in the Church of St. Prassade.
In 983, a monastery was added to the church by Pope Benedict VII. Inside the western door, there is a 17 verse epitaph for Pope Benedict VII (974-983) which tells of his founding of the monastery. The poem says he gathered monks who would both sing praises to God "night and day" and do charitable works for poor people.
Substantial renovations to the church were undertaken by Pope Lucius II in the 12th century, which included a basic floor plan of nave, aisles, a transept, and an apse. In addition to redesigning the interior of the church, Lucius II also had a portico and an 8-story Romanesque bell tower added in the 12th century. The front of the church has a baroque façade which was built under the direction of Pope Benedict XIV (1740-1758). The interior decoration is also baroque and dates from the 18th century. Benedict XIV also had new streets developed which connected this basilica with St. John in Lantern and St. Mary Major.
In the nave of the church there are 8 pink granite Corinthian columns from Aswan, Egypt. These are the only parts of the ancient church which are still visible since the baroque renovations. A painting of Our Lady Presenting St. Helena and Constantine to the Trinity by Corrado Giaquinto in 1744 decorates the ceiling of the nave. The wooden ceiling on which this was painted was added in the 18th century and covered 12th century frescoes. The frescoes seen today were rediscovered in 1913 by workmen surveying the roof. The main altar of the church is covered by a baldachin from the 18th century renovation. The 4 columns supporting it, however, are believed to come from the original basilica. Below the altar in the upper church is a basalt urn, containing the relics of St. Caesarius and St. Anastasius. The apse fresco shows scenes from the legend of the recovery of the True Cross at Jerusalem. There is some controversy as to the artist of this work. Some believe it to be Pinturicchio, others think it was painted by Antoniazzo Romano about 1492, and it has also been suggested that it is by an anonymous painter from the Umbrian school. All agree that it is from the 15th century and that it was commissioned by Cardinal Bernardino Carvajal.
Behind the apse, there are two chapels, the Chapel of St. Helena and the Chapel of the Pietà. The Chapel of St. Helena is down a flight of stairs to the right of the main altar. It is believed to have been her private chapel. When the church was consecrated, this was considered the holiest part of the complex. The statue in the chapel was an early Roman copy of a statue of Juno that was found in the Ostia. An unknown artist added arms, a head, and a cross to transform the figure into St. Helena. Although the Chapel of St. Helena was originally constructed to be at ground level, it is now almost 6.5 feet lower than the modern street. The original decorations including mosaics commissioned by Emperor Valentinian III (425-455) were replaced when the chapel was redecorated by Baldassare Peruzzi in the 16th century. There are rooms adjacent to the chapel, however, which were part of the original 4th century Sessorian Palace of St. Helena. The altar piece once held three painting by Rubens: Christ Crowned with Thorns, The Crucifixion, and St. Helena. They were removed in 1724 over concerns of water damage from the dampness of the surrounding chapel. They are now housed in the Notre Dame du Puy Cathedral in Grasse, France.
The Chapel of the Pietà, also known as the Gregorian Chapel, is of particular interest to pilgrims. The 1536 Decree on Purgatory, issued by the Council of Trent, linked the freeing of souls from Purgatory to the celebration of the Eucharist on specific altars. This is one of those designated altars. Dating from 1574, the altar is a famous reliquary, shaped as a triptych; it holds almost 200 relics and has a 13th or 14th century mosaic of the suffering Christ in the center. This chapel can be reached by descending a flight of stairs to the left of the main altar.
The most famous relics kept at the church can be found in the Chapel of Relics. These relics include fragments of the Holy Cross of Jesus, found by St. Helena on Calvarium in Jerusalem. This chapel is located down a flight of stairs on the left side of the church.
If one walks around the back of the Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem, some of the original Roman masonry and remnants of a medieval cloister that was once adjacent to the church can be seen in a few places.
Note: The monastery that was adjacent to this church was active from 938 until 2011. In May 2011, Pope Benedict XVI closed the monastery because of rumors of a lack of liturgical, financial, and moral discipline. The basilica's abbot, Simone Fioraso who was a former Milan fashion designer, was removed two years prior. In April 2009, the monastery received publicity for the performances of The Holy Dance by a nun at the monastery, Sister Anna Nobili, a former exotic dancer. Reportedly, she and the other nuns, known as the Jesus Dancers, performed a special dance with a wooden crucifix for the monks, which became a regular Tuesday evening event.
Fioraso and a group called the "Friends of Santa Croce" allegedly used other unusual strategies to raise money for renovation of the church and monastery. The tactics reportedly included the opening of a hotel, concerts, televised Bible-reading marathons, and hosting celebrity visitors. It was the monks' bookkeeping, however, that likely led to the closure. The official inquiry by the Vatican's Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life has not yet been made public, though the Vatican has released statements.
"An inquiry found evidence of liturgical and financial irregularities as well as lifestyles that were probably not in keeping with that of a monk," said Vatican Spokesman Father Ciro Benedettini. The monastery was closed and the 20 Cistercian monks were transferred to other monasteries in Italy.
Despite the controversy, the church itself is still open to visitors and Mass is said daily.
Helena was the consort of Emperor Constantius and the mother of Emperor Constantine. She traveled widely in the Holy Land and brought many relics back to Rome including the Santa Scala, or Holy Steps. Constantine appointed her Augusta Imperatrix and gave her unlimited access to the imperial treasury to acquire relics and bring them back to Rome. She is usually depicted in art as holding a cross, as she is credited with finding the True Cross. She is considered a saint by the Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Eastern, and Roman Catholic churches, as well as the Anglican Communion and Lutheran Churches. Her feast day in the Roman Catholic Church is August 18.
Points of Interest
The Chapel of the Holy Relics which has a large collection of relics from the Holy Land including the finger of St. Thomas which he used to touch the wounds of Christ.
The Chapel of St. Helena in the Sessorian Palace. (down a flight of stairs to the right of the high altar) The two adjacent rooms are part of the 4th century Sessorian Palace.
The brick inscribed Titulus Crucis can be seen in the outer relic chapel.
Church of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem
Piazza di Santa Croce in Gerusalemme 12
00185 Rome, Italy
Telephone: 06 70 61 30 53
Castle of the Holy Angel
The Castel Sant'Angelo isn't technically a church. It is a mausoleum that was designed by the architect Demitriano for the Emperor Hadrian. Originally called the 'Hadrianium', the structure consists of three overlapping stone cylinders surrounded by a circular façade, with a spiral ramp on the inside. The walls are 11 feet thick and, when first built, there was a garden and bronze chariot featuring the Emperor Hadrian dressed as the sun god on top. Today there are 5 floors in all. The first floor is the base of the ramp; the second floor is comprised of prison cells; the third floor has a large courtyard and once served as the military headquarters; the fourth floor has lavishly decorated Papal apartments; and the fifth floor is a terrace overlooking the river.
Both Hadrian's and his wife Sabina's ashes were interred here. Succeeding Roman Emperors were also laid to rest in the mausoleum. The last recorded internment was Caracalla in 217. The building was included in the Aurelian Walls, a line of city walls built between 271 and 275 by Flavius Augustus Honorius. These walls enclosed all seven of the hills of Rome, the Campus Martius, and the Trastevere district. The Aurelian Walls remained in continuous use as Rome's primary fortification system until 1871.
Excerpted from Walking through Rome by Margaret Varnell Clark. Copyright © 2013 Margaret A. Varnell Clark, Writer, LLC. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc..
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