The Santa Maria in Trastevere is easily my favourite church in Trastevere. Whenever I travel to Rome, I try to reserve a few moments of my time to visit this specific church. The Santa Maria would perhaps also have been my favourite church in all of Rome, had not some pope almost two millennia ago decided to construct a church that became the Santa Pudenziana. Yes, the Santa Pudenziana wins by a nose, if only because of its late fourth or early fifth century apse mosaic. However, what the latter church regretfully lacks, is the charming streets, alleys and piazzas of Trastevere surrounding it. I am sorry to say, but the Santa Pudenziana is located in a neighbourhood that is slightly run-down. Trastevere, on the other hand, is not just charming and beautiful, but also bristling with activity, especially during the evening and night.
On the lovely square on front of the church, the Piazza di Santa Maria in Trastevere, sits Carlo Fontana’s 1692 fountain. It has an octagonal base and the steps are often occupied by tourists, especially young people, enjoying a drink and life in general. The square and the fountain are popular meeting points. In the evening and at night, one can usually find street artists here, like living statues, dancers, singers and fire breathers. They perform under the watchful eyes of the Carabinieri, who are always present, yet keep a respectful distance. Unfortunately, the location also attracts annoying street vendors, who will try to sell you their junk. They are just annoying, not dangerous. Ignore them and they will usually go annoy someone else. If you are looking for a nice restaurant that serves affordable and delicious meals, I recommend you do not go to one in the square – they tend to be expensive – but to try one in the vicinity. Just around the corner are two of my favourites, Capo de Fero – try the rigatoni democratici! – and Alle Fratte di Trastevere, known for its fantastic Neapolitan cuisine.
Back to the Santa Maria in Trastevere. One could easily write a book or a dissertation about this church, its history, its architecture and all the art the visitor can find in- and outside the basilica. I will just stick to what I can actually show my readers.
The Santa Maria is often named as one of the oldest churches in Rome and as the first church in which masses were celebrated in public rather than in private. A passage in the Historia Augusta states that “when the Christians took possession of a certain place, which had previously been public property, and the keepers of an eating-house maintained that it belonged to them, Alexander rendered the decision that it was better for some sort of a god to be worshipped there than for the place to be handed to the keepers of an eating-house”. The Alexander mentioned here is of course the Roman emperor Severus Alexander (222-235), who was known for his religious tolerance (he was probably falsely charged with Santa Cecilia’s execution).
The passage is sometimes interpreted as referring to a location trans Tiberim, across the Tiber, where Pope Calixtus I (217-222) may have constructed and administered a house church. According to tradition, Calixtus was martyred nearby in 222. The same tradition holds that the pope was thrown down a well and drowned. On this spot, which is just south of the Piazza di Santa Maria in Trastevere, the San Callisto Church was built in the eighth century. The church’s titular priest is the Dutch cardinal Wim Eijk, but you probably will not find him here and the church is not open to visitors (I have only once seen the doors open: when maintenance was going on; visits were not an option then). The well that was reportedly used to drown Calixtus – the Pozzo di San Callisto – is to the south of the church, but you cannot see it. You have to enter the private car park of the Circolo San Pietro to get there. Alternatively, you can use Google Earth, but it is barely visible there.
Early church history
The tradition that the Santa Maria in Trastevere was built on the site of Calixtus’ house after his death is not backed up by evidence, nor is the tradition that this house church was on property that the emperor Severus Alexander had donated to the Christian community. It seems to be much safer to assume that the church was founded later, in the fourth century during the pontificate of pope Julius I (337-352). There is some fairly solid archaeological evidence to accept a mid-fourth century foundation, which still makes the Santa Maria one of the oldest churches in Rome. It is hard to tell whether it was really the first church in which mass was read in public, but it is certainly not impossible. It is often claimed that this is the oldest church in the city dedicated to the Virgin Mary. This may very well be so, but it is also possible that the church was in fact re-dedicated to her in the eighth century.
The present church is mostly twelfth century and the result of a rebuilding ordered by Pope Innocentius II (1130-1143). Innocentius’ pontificate was anything but easy. He was born Gregorio Papareschi and was a native of Trastevere. Papareschi owed his election to papal chancellor Aimeric, who was supported by the powerful Frangipani clan in Rome. Upon Pope Honorius II’s death on 13 February 1130, Aimeric and the cardinals that were on his side made sure that Papareschi was elected as Honorius’ successor in a ceremony from which all cardinals who would have opposed his election were excluded. He was subsequently inaugurated and moved to the Lateran Palace.
The other cardinals, of course, objected, held their own conclave in the San Marco and chose Pietro Pierleoni from the mighty Pierleoni clan as Pope Anacletus II. Anacletus was much more popular in Rome than his opponent. The majority of the cardinals supported him and he also had support from the vast majority of the Roman people. Innocentius was soon forced to flee the city. However, Anacletus had little support outside Rome and the most famous and influential clergyman of the twelfth century, Bernardus of Clairvaux, was on Innocentius’ side. Anacletus’ Jewish ancestry – among his great-great grandfathers was a Jew who had converted to Christianity – made sure that he would be forever unacceptable to Bernardus, and Bernardus’ influence on the kings and princes of Europe was immense (he would later play a large part in calling the Second Crusade).
But Anacletus did have allies and his most important one was King Roger II of Sicily, whose territories included much of Southern Italy. The papal schism did not end until January 1138, when Anacletus suddenly died, or rather a few months later, when Anacletus’ successor Antipope Victor IV submitted to Innocentius. Innocentius could then have dedicated himself to important work for the Church, but instead he chose a policy of confrontation. He organised the Second Lateran Council in April 1139, deposed anyone who had been ordained by Anacletus and excommunicated King Roger, even though the latter had tried to reconcile with the pope. Innocentius then foolishly attempted to invade Roger’s territories, but he was defeated and captured on 22 July 1139.
The pope was forced to sign the Treaty of Mignano, in which he had to recognise Roger as the legitimate king and ruler of all of Italy south of the river Garigliano. Innocentius then had little more than four years left for rebuilding the Santa Maria in his native Trastevere, which he probably did around 1140. He was never popular in Rome and no one shed any tears when died in 1143. He was originally buried in the San Giovanni in Laterano, but moved to the Santa Maria in 1308. His simple tomb – which is nineteenth century by the way – is in the left aisle of the basilica. Innocentius can also be seen in the apse mosaic. He is on the left side of the conch, holding a model of the church in his hands (see above). His name is also mentioned in the second row of the text of the epigraph (INNOCENTIVS HANC RENOVAVIT PAPA SECVNDVS).
One of my sources (Verhuyck; see below) claims it was actually Anacletus who rebuilt the church. His work was subsequently “hijacked” by Innocentius. This is not as silly as it sounds. Pietro Pierleoni is in fact listed as a titular cardinal of Santa Maria in Trastevere (1120-1130). He obviously had ties to this specific church. But since there is no direct evidence that he rebuilt the Santa Maria, I will stick to the official story and credit Innocentius with rebuilding the basilica.
Later renovations and facade
Although the basilica dates from the twelfth century, it was renovated on several occasions. There were two renovations in the sixteenth century, another one in 1617, a fourth in 1702 involving the portico and finally a very important fifth in 1865-1866. The last renovation addressed both the interior and exterior of the church, but has left only a few traces on the outside. Frescoes were painted on the facade, but they are badly faded today. Initially, on my first visit to Trastevere, I assumed they were medieval – perhaps even early medieval – but I soon realised they simply suffered the same fate as the nineteenth century frescoes on Santa Pudenziana‘s facade. If you look closely, you may be able to see what was actually painted here. In the pediment, there is basically a scene from the Book of Revelation with Christ in the centre between seven candlesticks. Angels and the Evangelists, painted as a lion, an eagle, a man and a bull, are on either side. The Hand of God presents Christ with a laurel crown from heaven. The work was apparently of poor quality and the colours may have suffered in the scorching Roman sun.
Of much better quality are the twelfth century mosaics below the pediment. Although they are much, much older, the colours are still fresh. We see the Virgin Mary in the centre, breastfeeding baby Jesus. Two tiny figures are kneeling at the Virgin’s feet. We do not know who they are, possibly people who commissioned and paid for the mosaic. Five women are flanking Mary on either side.
One interpretation is that they are the virgins from the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins in Matthew 25:1-13. Matthew indeed mentions ten virgins, but states that “five of them were wise, and five were foolish”. There seem to be only two somewhat foolish virgins in the mosaic, as only two have let their oil lamps burn out (the parable also mentions a bridegroom, who is nowhere to be seen). Another interpretation is that the women with a lit lamp are virgins and those with a lamp that has burned out widows (cf. Santa Pudenziana). This interpretation sounds plausible. Date palms painted during the nineteenth century renovation are below the mosaic, next to the windows. The twelfth century campanile also has a mosaic, featuring a Madonna and Child.
The portico is the work of Carlo Fontana (1634/38-1714), the architect who was also responsible for the fountain in the square. On the balustrade above the arches are statues of Saints Calixtus, Cornelius, Julius and Calepodius. Three of them were popes and Calixtus and Julius have already been mentioned. We will meet Cornelius and Calepodius in a minute when we go inside.
The narthex of the basilica contains a collection of inscriptions, both pagan and early Christian. One of the most peculiar is an inscription by a Roman named Marcus Cocceius, who proudly declares having been married to his wife for 45 years and 11 days without ever having had a fight (SINE VLLA QVEREL(A)). That is quite an achievement. I only read about this inscription in a book after my visit to Rome in 2015 and was eager to find it when I returned to the Eternal City in early 2017. The inscription can be found on the right wall of the narthex.
Floor and ceiling
The columns in the nave were most likely pillaged from the Baths of Caracalla. The capitals used to have faces of pagan deities. These were badly mutilated during the 1865-1866 restoration, possibly in a fit of religious zeal. One could easily point the finger at the pope who ordered the renovation of the church, Pius IX or Pio Nono (1846-1878). He is sometimes charged with having “castrated” statues displaying male nudity and having covered the damaged genitals with a plaster fig leaf. But in this, he was no different than some of the other popes and fig leafs have also been placed on statues and painted on frescoes during the pontificates of some of Pius’ predecessors. The whole story about The Great Castration seems to be made up by Dan Brown in Angels and Demons. There is no evidence to accuse Pius of having orchestrated the mutilation of the pagan deities on the capitals in the Santa Maria. It looks more like a spontaneous action.
Originally, the roof of the Santa Maria would have been open. Domenichino – Domenico Zampieri (1581-1641) – added the beautiful gilded and coffered wooden ceiling in 1617 (see above). Above the columns are frescoes from the nineteenth century which have definitely fared better than their counterparts on the facade. The three stained glass windows above the entrance are also 19th century. They show – from left to right – Popes Julius, Calixtus and Cornelius. And although it is a faithful copy of an original Cosmatesque floor from the thirteenth century, the floor of this church is the work of nineteenth century artists as well. While the aforementioned frescoes and windows are not spectacular, the floor is beautiful. This is especially the case in the morning, when light enters the church through the windows in the facade.
Apse mosaics part 1
The mosaics in the apse are deservedly famous. It can be difficult to take a good picture of the entire apse. Part of the view is blocked by the ciborium or baldacchino over the altar, which in itself is rather unspectacular. One can divide the artworks in the apse into three categories:
- the mosaics from the twelfth century at the top,
- the mosaics from the thirteenth century by Pietro Cavallini in the middle and
- the sixteenth century frescoes by Agostino Ciampelli (1565-1630) at the bottom.
The twelfth century mosaics in the conch and on the arch above it are wonderful. The people in the mosaics look much more realistic than those in the Byzantine-style mosaics that can be seen in churches like the Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, the Santa Maria in Domnica and the Santa Prassede. The latter are from the ninth century and the Romans clearly changed their tastes over the centuries as they became less interested in copying what was done in Constantinople and created a style that was a return to the Classical style which can be seen in churches like the Santa Pudenziana.
In this mosaic, only Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary have a halo. The practice of showing the pope who built or rebuilt the church with a square blue nimbus if he was still alive was apparently also discontinued, as the mosaic shows pope Innocentius II on the extreme left without one. It is, by the way, quite possible that he was already dead by the time the mosaic was finished. The pope is shown holding a miniature model of the Santa Maria. On Innocentius’ right side are Saint Laurentius (Saint Lawrence; martyred in 258) and pope Calixtus. Four people can be seen on the right side of Christ: the Popes Petrus (Saint Peter), Cornelius and Julius, and Calepodius. Calepodius is traditionally seen as the first titular priest of the church – the PBR behind his name probably means presbyter. He was martyred in 232 and a Roman catacomb was named after him. His remains and those of many others were translated to churches in Rome when the Roman countryside became unsafe in the ninth century. Paulus or Saint Paul is notably absent in this mosaic. He is usually coupled with Peter in mosaics, but not here. An explanation could be that Peter was added because he was a predecessor to Popes Calixtus, Cornelius and Julius, who are also in the scene. Paul had never been pope, of course.
In the centre, Christ and the Virgin Mary are sharing a throne. Mary is wearing expensive looking robes and a crown. Christ is presented with a laurel crown from above by the Hand of God. They are holding an opened scroll and a book respectively. Mary’s scroll should read LEVA IEVS SVB CAPITE MEO ET DEXTERA ILLIVS AMPLEXABITVR ME, though I think it actually reads ‘dexera’, and I am not sure about the ‘amplexabitur’ part either. The text is Song of Solomon 2:6 (and repeated in 8:3) from the Old Testament. It translates as (KJV): “His left hand is under my head, and his right hand doth embrace me.” The text in Christ’s book is VENI ELECTA MEA ET PONAM IN TE THRONUM MEUM, “come, my chosen one, and I will put you on my throne”. This is apparently not a text from the Bible. One source I found claims that “It uses the same words Christ speaks to Mary in the Golden Legend when she enters Heaven”. I am only vaguely familiar with the Golden Legend, but it appears to be of a later date – around 1260 – than the mosaic. The text remains a puzzle.
Let us now take a closer look at the texts on the scrolls that the prophets Isaias (Isaiah) and Hieremias (Jeremiah) are holding. They can be seen to the left and right of the conch, on lower part of the arch that surrounds it. Isaiah’s scroll reads ECCE VIRGO CONCIPIET ET PARIET FILIVM, which translates as “Look, a Virgin will conceive and bear a son”. The text on Jeremiah’s scroll is CHRISTVS DOMINVS CAPTVS EST IN PECCATIS NOSTRIS, or “Christ the Lord was captured in our sins”. Isaiah’s text is from Isaiah 7:14, although the full line from the Vulgate is “propter hoc dabit Dominus ipse vobis signum ecce virgo concipiet et pariet filium et vocabitis nomen eius Emmanuhel”, so the text refers to one “Emmanuel” and not to Christ. Jeremiah’s text is from Lamentations 4:20, but the King James translation does not refer to our sins at all. Rather, it states that “the anointed of the Lord, was taken in their pits” (???). I leave it to more knowledgeable people to solve this puzzle. But note that near the end of both scrolls is a bird cage, which could refer to the “captus est” part (i.e. captivity) of Jeremiah’s scroll.
Above the figures in the conch and above the prophets are the four Evangelists in the guise of – from left to right – a lion, a man, an eagle and a bull. They represent Mark, Matthew, John and Luke respectively. In the centre is not the Lamb of God on a throne (cf. Santi Cosma e Damiano and Santa Prassede), nor an image of Jesus Christ (cf. San Marco). Instead, we see a cross and the alpha and omega, a symbolic representation of Christ. “I am Alpha and Omega” is from the Book of Revelation, as are the symbols for the four Evangelists and the seven candlesticks. The Lamb of God is present in the mosaic though, and can be seen in the middle of a row of sheep representing the twelve apostles just below the epigraph.
Apse mosaics part 2 and frescoes
The mosaics in the middle, in the body of the apse, are the work of Pietro Cavallini (1259-1330). He made them in 1290-1291. The mosaics show six scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary. From left to right we see:
- Nativity of the Virgin;
- The Birth of Jesus;
- Adoration of the Magi;
- Presentation in the Temple and
Below is the whole collection. Note the pensive Joseph in the scene of the Birth of Jesus, and the Virgin in the arms of Jesus in the Dormition mosaic.
The Latin texts below the mosaics are from a medieval Maria hymn. The mosaics were commissioned by cardinal Bertoldo Stefaneschi, brother to the more famous Giacomo Gaetani Stefaneschi. On the central mosaic panel in the lower part of the apse, below the middle window, we see a tondo with a Madonna and Child, flanked by Saints Paul and Peter. Paul carries a sword, the weapon with which he was executed. The kneeling figure is the aforementioned cardinal Bertoldo Stefaneschi. His family’s coat-of-arms can also be seen elsewhere in the church, on the tomb of cardinal Pietro Stefaneschi (see the picture below), who died in 1417. To the left and right of the mosaic panel are frescoes by Agostino Ciampelli (1565-1630), a well-known Counter-Reformation painter.
The Santa Maria in Trastevere has many chapels. The two most interesting ones are, in my honest opinion, the Cappella Altemps at the end of the left aisle and the Cappella del Coro at the end of the right aisle.
The first was commissioned by cardinal Marco Altemps, a German whose real name was Mark Sittich von Hohenems (1533-1595). He was titular cardinal of the Santa Maria in Trastevere from 1580 until 1595 and the Altemps chapel was completed in 1587. His uncle, pope Pius IV (1559-1565), features heavily in it (Altemps’ mother, Chiara de’ Medici, was the pope’s sister). The walls of the chapel have frescoes by Pasquale Cati (1550-1620) that depict scenes from the Council of Trent (1545-1563), a council that was held in response to the success of the Protestant Reformation. On the picture included in this post, you can see the pope’s coat-of-arms behind the cardinals on the left. His name is spelled “PIVS IIII”. Pius presided over the Council’s final session.
The chapel – which as of 2017 seems to have been converted into a site reserved for prayer – is, however, more famous for an icon named the Madonna della Clemenza. This icon is old, very old. It is probably late seventh or early eighth century, though apparently some experts believe it is from the late fifth century. The Virgin Mary, dressed as a Byzantine empress, is in the centre of the icon, with Jesus Christ on her lap. She is flanked by two angels and someone is kneeling at her feet. Mind you, this is a huge icon (this video gives a good impression). Unfortunately, it is also badly weathered in some places, but still very much worth seeing. The supplicant at the Virgin’s feet may be the pope who commissioned the icon. The name of Pope John VII (705-707) is often given. The icon’s frame actually has a text. My untrained eyes were unable to read it, but apparently “according to Bertelli the surviving part of the inscription reads “… DS QVOD IPSE FACTVS EST +ASTANT STVPENTES ANGELORVM PRINCIPES GESTARE NATVM … A … (The image made itself… +Even the angels stand in awe that this same god was born from her.).” Carlo Bertelli, La Madonna, 34.” (see this source, Michael Anton Matos’ thesis)
The Cappella del Coro d’Inverno or Chapel of the Winter Choir also has an important icon, the Madonna di Strada Cupa, or “Madonna of the dark street” in English. The superb Churches of Rome Wiki has some information on this icon, which was obviously painted much later than the Madonna della Clemenza:
“The street of that name, now lost, was a rural byway below the slopes of the Janiculum nearby, and the icon was over the gate into a vineyard owned by the Nobili family. At the start of the 17th century it acquired a popular reputation for miraculous powers, so the pope ordered its transfer and enshrinement here. Rather sadly, the devotion soon lost its intensity and the chapel was sold as a private family funerary mausoleum in 1627.”
Finally, make sure you take a look at the beautiful cupboard for storing the holy oil (olea sancta). It can be found at the beginning of the nave. It is signed OPVS MINI – the work of Minus -, which has led experts to attribute the cupboard to Mino da Fiesole (ca. 1429-1484). We have seen some of his work in the Badia Fiorentina in Florence.
- All the Popes. From St. Peter to Francis;
- Capitool Reisgidsen Rome, 2009 Dutch edition, p. 212-213;
- John Julius Norwich, The Popes: A History, chapter X;
- Luc Verhuyck, SPQR. Anekdotische reisgids voor Rome, p. 215-217;
- Santa Maria in Trastevere on Churches of Rome Wiki.
Update 19 January 2017: text and pictures have been updated.
Update 3 February 2022: pictures have been improved.