Category: Early Christian church

The History of Rome: Santa Cecilia and Santa Maria in Trastevere

Another article in a series on the history of Rome, Italy.

Rome’s Trastevere District

Trastevere is a district of Rome to the west, officially Rione XIII. “Trastevere” (trahs TAY veh ray) means “Across the Tevere.” “Tevere” is the Italian name for the Tiber, the large river that flows through Rome. It is an ancient and medieval district full of narrow lanes and twisting alleyways. It is also home to two interesting very early Christian churches, Santa Cecilia and Santa Maria in Trastevere.

Santa Cecilia

The church is dedicated to St Cecilia, a 2nd century Roman martyr and patron of musicians. The Italian pronunciation is “chay CHEE lee ah.”

The first church on the site was built in the either 3rd or the 5th century, during excavation work its baptistery was discovered beneath the present Chapel of Relics.

The church was rebuilt in the early 9th century and St Cecilia’s remains were brought from the catacombs of St Calixtus to the church. It was rebuilt-remodeled again in the 18th century.

Santa Cecilia Courtyard - Rome Italy

The Courtyard of Rome, Italy's Santa Cecilia

The front façade was designed in 1725; you walk through the monumental entry and into a courtyard. In front of the church building proper is a garden courtyard with an ancient water vessel adapted as a fountain. The campanile is from the 12th or 13th century.

The 24 Corinthian columns are from the first church.

Stefano Maderno’s beautiful sculpture of Cecilia is in front of the sanctuary. The discovery of her body by Pope Paschal in a catacomb in the 9th century is depicted in a 12th or 13th century fresco at the end of the aisle. Her body was brought to the church and re-interred after the discovery. Her tomb was reopened in 1599 and her body was apparently found intact and incorrupt. Maderno made a sculpture of her; his inscription can still be seen on the floor, testifying that she was depicted just as he saw her.

Santa Cecilia Interior - Rome Italy

The interior of Rome, Italy's Santa Cecilia

The Gothic canopy was made, and signed, by Arnolfo di Cambio in 1292. It is supported by four columns of black and white marble and has Cosmatesque decoration.

The Byzantine style apse mosaic dates from 820 and depicts Christ in Roman clothes being crowned by the Hand of God. He is wearing lati clavi, which was a sign of high rank in Roman society. He is flanked by from left to right; St Paul, St Cecilia, Pope Paschal I, St Peter, St Valerian and St Agatha. Below them on the band 12 lambs surrounding the Lamb of God are seen leaving Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The church’s upper gallery was originally a women’s gallery and is now the nun’s choir

Excavation

Santa Cecilia is built upon an Imperial Era house. You can see the excavations; the ticket office is at the rear of the church on the left side as you enter.

Roman houses from the 2nd and 3rd century have been excavated. One of them is supposedly St Cecilia’s. Evidence of Republican period buildings have also been found. Back then this area was a commercial district; the brick basins uncovered indicates that it was owned by a craftsman; possibly a tanner.

Santa Maria in Trastevere

Some sources say this is the first church where Mass was celebrated openly. Legend surrounds this church’s founding; some information puts its construction at 221, although mid 4th century is more likely. It was rebuilt in the mid 12th century and again in the mid 19th century. Santa Maria in Trastevere contains an odd mixture of Ancient Roman artifacts and construction and early, medieval and relatively new Christian art and architecture.

Santa Maria in Trastevere - Rome Italy

The front of Rome Italy's Santa Maria in Trastevere Church

The façade was rebuilt in 1702; the four Baroque statues above the portal depict Sts Calixtus, Cornelius, Julius and Calepodius. The mosaics are 12th century. They depict the parable of the wise and the unwise maidens. The Blessed Virgin is in the center. The right side maidens are crownless and have allowed their lamps to extinguish.

The door has recycled Imperial Rome stone cornices and the narthex contains a collection of pagan and early Christian inscriptions (3rd century) on the wall and fragments of 9th century sculpture and medieval paintings. The sarcophagi are from the 3rd and 4th centuries.

The campanile is 12th century.

Santa Maria in Trastevere Mosaic and Arch - Rome, Italy

The Mosaic and Triumphal Arch in Rome Italy's Santa Maria in Trastevere

The spectacular main apse mosaic is also from the 13th century remodel project and is attributed to Pietro Cavallini. Christ and St Mary are enthroned and flanked by saints and popes. The mosaic’s left side shows Pope Innocent II holding a model of the church, St Lawrence and Pope St Callixtus. On the right side are Peter and Pope St Cornelius, Pope St Julius and St Calepodius.

The panels between the windows are also mosaics and are late 12th century. They show scenes from the life of the Blessed Virgin. From the left they are: The Birth of Our Lady, The Annunciation, Nativity, Epiphany, Presentation in the Temple and The Falling Asleep of Mary. The last one shows the soul of Mary in the arms of Our Lord.

Santa Maria in Trastevere Apse Mosaic

The Apse Mosaic of Rome, Italy's Santa Maria in Trastevere Church

The triumphal arch’s frescoes are 19th century, the episcopal throne in the apse is ancient.

Weird Stuff

And now for some of the oddness that is Santa Maria in Trastevere.

Inside the church in various places are the Latin words “Fons Olei (oil spring).” Legend has it that a crude oil spring bubbled up here during Augustus’ rule. The local Jewish community interpreted it as a sign that God’s grace would soon flow into the world. Later, because of this interpretation, this location became a meeting spot for the first Roman converts to Christianity.

Another oddness; at the steps at the end of the right aisle you can see some black marble weights. These are ancient standard weights, which the Romans first kept in the temples and later in the churches.

Santa Maria in Trastevere Front Stained Glass Windows - Rome Italy

The Stained Glass Wndows of Rome Italy's Santa Maria in Trastevere


If you are planning a visit to Italy soon I have written 2 walking tour guide books to Rome that you can purchase here or at Amazon or Barnes and Noble plus I have a great deal of travel information about Italy and Rome here at my Travels webpages.

 

I have an album of photos from Rome and other places in Italy in my photo gallery.


The History of Rome: Papal Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore

Another article in an occasional series on the history of Rome.

Founding and Construction

Santa Maria Maggiore Front

The Front of Santa Maria Maggiore - Three Image Panorama

Santa Maria Maggiore (St Mary Major) is one of 4 papal basilicas in Rome along with San Giovanni in Laterano (St John in the Lateran), San Paolo Fuori le Mura (St Paul Outside the Wall) and San Pietro in Vaticano (St Peter in the Vatican). It is one of the 4 churches the Pope holds Mass in and each church’s plot of land is a little piece of the Vatican. Built in 8 years from 432 to 440, Santa Maria Maggiore sits on the summit of the Esquiline Hill, on a place that legend says was the location of an August snowstorm in 358. A childless couple was visited by the Virgin during their sleep and were told to build a church on the spot where snow fell the next morning. This led to the church first being called Santa Maria della Neve (St Mary of the Snow). Every year in August the legend is re-enacted by Rome Catholics who drop white flower petals from the dome during the feast day festival. Over the centuries the church was expanded and remodeled but its interior remains true to its original construction; its layout looks very much like a 1st century Roman basilica, which for them was not a church but in fact a shopping mall/civic center building. It has a long tall nave, two aisles (one on either side) and a semi-hemispherical dome at the far end. Its overall length is 92 m, its overall width is 80 m and the nave is 30 m wide. It’s 75 m high. The ceiling is said to be gilded with gold brought back from the New World. The columns inside are recycled from an older Roman temple.

Mosaics and Art

Santa Maria Maggiore Apse Mosaic

Santa Maria Maggiore Apse Mosaic Created 1295 CE. Handheld shot at ISO 800.

The mosiacs in this church are nothing less than spectacular and should be the main focus of a visit. The dominant work of art in Santa Maria Maggiore is doubtlessly the apse mosaic. Created in 1295, it features Jesus and Mary surrounded by representations of the Tree of Life, the Apostles and other liturgical symbols. A truly stunning work, it set the standard for representations of Mary in Catholic art for centuries.

Santa Maria Maggiore Triumphal Arch Mosaic

Santa Maria Maggiore Triumphal Arch Mosaic and Baldochino. Handheld shot at ISO 800

The Triumphal Arch is also similarly beautiful. It illustrates scenes from Christ’s life and its theme is The Infant Savior. Because these works are older than the Council of Nicea, the Triumphal Arch in this church includes a scene that didn’t make the cut in the official New Testament (Christ as a baby is brought to a temple but His holiness causes the temple statues to crack and fall from their pedestals). Thus Santa Maria Maggiore’s Triumphal Arch mosaic is the only example of Christian art that contains a scene of Christ’s life not in the Bible.

Standing in the back of the nave you can see directly above the columns and architraves and underneath each window mosaics of Old Testament history. Research has dated them to circa 432-440, in the pontificate of Pope Sixtus III. Since the natural light in the church is very low, the best way to see them is to be in the church just prior to a service. They are then lit with artificial light and they absolutely glow! Some of them were heavily restored with paint during the Middle Ages, and some were reconstructed in 1593 and later.

Of the original 42 panels, 27 have survived to today. Fifteen have been lost through the ages; some of those when the Pauline and Sistine Chapels were built (you can see the archways at the end of the nave built for their entrances).

Additions

The Sforza Chapel is interesting because it was designed by Michaelangelo in 1564 (and completed in 1573 by Giacomo della Porta). So many of his works are now “off limits” to the general public that it is nice to be able to not only walk up to one of his creations but actually walk into it. The original entrance to this chapel was a large arch, but it was demolished in the mid-1700’s. This church also has a Sistine Chapel, but this Sistine Chapel is nothing like the famous one in the Vatican. Any chapel built by a Pope named Sixtus (there were 5 of them) is named “Sistine.” Laid out in a Greek Cross plan with a magnificent dome capping it, the Sistine Chapel known officially as Blessed Sacrament Chapel is a truly outstanding creation. It was designed by Domenico Fontana and work began on it in 1585 and is the burial place for Pope Sixtus V (ah ha!).


If you are planning a visit to Italy soon I have written 2 walking tour guide books to Rome that you can purchase here or at Amazon or Barnes and Noble plus I have a great deal of travel information about Italy and Rome here at my Travels webpages.

I have an album of photos from Rome and other places in Italy in my photo gallery.