The Santa Maria in Cosmedin is a church that is located on the Forum Boarium, Ancient Rome’s cattle market. Just to the north was another forum, the Forum Holitorium, which was a vegetable market. Both forums were obviously very important trading locations in Antiquity. A reconstruction of early Rome from the Capitoline Museums (see below) gives an indication why. In the image, we see the river Tiber meandering off to the left. The Aventine Hill, at that time sparsely populated, is at the bottom of the picture. The Capitoline and Palatine Hills are to the north behind the city walls (the Capitoline is the hill with the large Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus on it). Between the three hills is a piece of flat lowland by the river. Here we find a small river port and a bridge at a point where it was easiest to ford the Tiber even before a bridge had been constructed.
It is easy to understand why the two forums were located here. Trade goods – vegetables, cattle, livestock, olive oil – could be brought across the Tiber here or could be delivered to the river port by boat. The part with all the water, just behind the port, is the Velabrum, which was still a swamp at that time (cf. Rome: San Giorgio in Velabro). It was here that – according to one tradition – the basket with the twins Romulus and Remus was found by a she-wolf, who suckled them.
The church I discuss here incorporates elements of two ancient structures. One is the Ara Maxima, a large open-air altar dedicated to Hercules. The link between Hercules and cattle is clear: one of his twelve labours was to steal the cattle of a giant called Geryones. Hercules of course completed the labour, killed the giant and herded his cattle away. In the Roman version of the legend, Hercules then travelled to Italy. There, near the Aventine Hill, another giant named Cacus stole some of the cattle, before Hercules killed him and took the cattle back. Then either Hercules himself or some of the local residents, glad to be rid of the monster, built the Ara Maxima. Parts of it can be seen in the crypt of the Santa Maria.
Obviously the Ara Maxima was not really built by either Hercules or the grateful residents in the area. The traditional date for Hercules’ journey to Italy is 1235 BCE, but the altar was constructed much later. It seems to have been built during the Regal era (753-509 BCE). It was then restored in the second century BCE, possibly by the famous Roman general and politician Scipio Aemilianus, who was censor in 142-141 BCE. The remains in the crypt date from this period. The road to the east of the church, behind the block of buildings, is nowadays called the Via dell’Ara Massima di Ercole.
The other building is often called a statio annonae. The annona was Rome’s grain dole for the poor and ordinary citizens of the community. A statio annonae was thus the office used for administering the grain supply. It should be noted that the theory that the building was such an office is quickly falling out of favour. There was certainly a statio annonae in this region, but the Atlas of Ancient Rome believes it was located at the foot of the Aventine Hill. The authors of the Atlas argue that the building that was ultimately incorporated into the Santa Maria in Cosmedin was actually a consaeptum sacellum, an enclosed shrine which was connected to the Ara Maxima and held the cult statue of Hercules. This shrine already existed during the Republican era and was later restructured during the Imperial Age. The authors credit two emperors with this remodelling who were particularly dedicated to Hercules: Commodus (180-192) and Maximianus (286-310).
The building on the Forum Boarium was rectangular in shape and had seven columns on the side of the facade and three on the two shorter sides. The back wall was closed and made of brick, but there must have been an opening with a ramp leading to the Ara Maxima. The columns of the facade survived, as did three columns of the left side, which can be found in the left aisle of the Santa Maria.
In the late fifth or early sixth century, an oratory was set up in the complex of the Ara Maxima and the statio or – more likely – the consaeptum sacellum. A proper church may then have been built by pope Gregorius the Great (590-604) at the end of the sixth century, but there is no documentary evidence. The church has three apses, a clear sign of Greek influence. It was probably built in its current form and then granted to Greek monks in the eighth century by pope Adrianus I (772-795). At that time, the emperor in Constantinople was on the side of the iconoclasts during what is usually called the First Iconoclastic Period, which started with the emperor Leo III the Isaurian in 726 and ended with the Seventh Ecumenical Council in 787 (there was a Second Iconoclastic Period between 815 and 843). Iconoclasm in Constantinople forced many Greek clergymen to seek refuge in Rome, where veneration of icons and religious imagery were still held in high regard. One group of monks ended up in the Santa Maria, then called the Santa Maria in Schola Graeca. Note that the road to the side of the church is called the Via della Greca, another reference to Rome’s former ethnic Greek community.
The word ‘Cosmedin’ also has Greek origins. There are basically two theories with regard to the name Santa Maria in Cosmedin. One is that it refers to the Kosmidion near Constantinople, a monastery dedicated to Saints Cosmas and Damianus (cf. Santi Cosma e Damiano). A rival tradition holds that the church was simply beautifully decorated and was therefore nicknamed “kosmidion”, or “beautiful thing”. After the church was damaged during Robert Guiscard’s Sack of Rome in 1084, it was rebuilt in 1123 by pope Calixtus II, who was pope from 1119 to 1124.
Calixtus’ restoration provided the wonderful Cosmatesque floor, which can still be seen today. It is a bit cracked and damaged, but at least it is original, unlike the floors in some other churches (cf. Santa Maria in Trastevere). Note the huge circular porphyry slab in the middle (the one with the cracks; see above). Calixtus also had the church decorated on the inside, but only traces of the medieval frescoes remain. The Santa Maria was turned into a Baroque church in the early eighteenth century, but Giuseppe Sardi’s additions, including a Baroque facade, were removed again in 1899. The idea was to restore the church’s original medieval look, but the result is not very impressive and there can be serious doubt about whether the church ever really looked like this in the Middle Ages.
The Santa Maria is clearly a Greek Catholic basilica. I have already mentioned the three apses. There used to be separate galleries above the two aisles for people who were unable to or prohibited from joining the mass below, but these were removed during pope Calixtus’ restoration. The rood screen between the nave and the altar was not removed and is another indication that this church is used by a community that follows the Byzantine rite. In this case, it is Rome’s Melkite community, which mainly consists of Syrian and Iraqi Catholics. The Melkites had used the Santa Maria in Domnica since 1734, but were forced to move to the Santa Maria in Cosmedin in the 1930s.
The visitor is not allowed to enter the medieval scola cantorum, the enclosure used by the choir singers. It is therefore difficult to get a good look at the altar, the ciborium and the apse frescoes. The altar is actually an ancient bathtub, the ciborium a medieval addition made by one Deodatus (Adeodato di Cosma, who died in about 1332) and dated to 1294. The conch of the apse has a scene of the Virgin Mary – to whom the church is dedicated of course – with baby Jesus on her lap. She is flanked by four saints, Augustinus, Felix(anus?), Dionysius and Nicolaus. The frescoes look really old and medieval, but in fact they are not. They were painted in the nineteenth century, but the artists gave them a medieval look and they are quite convincing from a distance, at least to the untrained eye. However, it must be said that this is probably in part due to the damp in the church, which has damaged the paint. This is most apparent in the two apses of the aisles, where one can get a little closer to the works of art. The chapel on the left is dedicated to Our Lady of Loreto (in the Marche; see the picture above), the one on the right to Saint John the Baptist.
Mosaic and Bocca della Verità
The church’s sacristy has a very old mosaic on display, depicting part of the Adoration of the Magi. In fact, we only see an arm of one of the Magi presenting a gift to baby Jesus, who is sitting on his mother Mary’s lap. Also present in the scene is an angel, and the man behind Mary is presumably Joseph. I suppose the mosaic was once part of a bigger work of art, but I do not know for certain. It dates from the early eighth century and is usually thought to have been made during the pontificate of pope John VII (705-707). The mosaic had originally been placed in Old Saint Peter’s Basilica, and I regret to say I do not know how it ended up here in the Santa Maria in Cosmedin.
The church is probably most famous for the object that was placed in the narthex in 1631 and that draws hordes of tourists every day: the Bocca della Verità. Put your hand in the Bocca (Italian for ‘mouth’) and the Bocca will bite it off if you tell a lie. I actually tried that on my first visit to Rome in 1996. I told a flagrant lie and now I have to type this post using my left hand only. The Bocca is for real.
But what exactly is the Bocca? The face on the huge, 1200 kilo marble disc is usually identified as that of Oceanus, a deity and the personification of the sea. What the disc was used for is unknown. It may have been a manhole cover, as the Cloaca Maxima, the famous sewer of Rome, is nearby. However, why would a manhole cover be made of marble? And why would anyone make a manhole cover that weighs over a ton? A better guess is perhaps that the Bocca was part of a fountain, but solid evidence is sadly lacking.
Most tourists only queue up to see the Bocca della Verità and do not even bother to go into the church. It is usually nice and quiet in there. When you have finished taking stock of the interior, go outside, cross the street and take a look at the church again. Notice how unusually tall its campanile is. It is over 34 meters tall and was added to the church during the twelfth century restoration of pope Calixtus II.
On the Forum Boarium, one can also find two Roman temples from the late Republican period (ca. 100 BCE). The circular temple was dedicated to Hercules Olivarius. ‘Olivarius’ means ‘olive oil trader’ and probably refers to the Forum Holitorium nearby, where olive oil was sold as well as vegetables. It is likely that the temple was commissioned by a guild of olive oil merchants. It was once believed that the temple had been dedicated to Vesta, because of its circular shape, but this view has been abandoned long ago. Hercules was obviously the most popular deity in this part of Rome. Not only do we find the temple of Hercules Olivarius and the Ara Maxima (see above) here, but in the late fifteenth century a gilded bronze statue of the hero was dug up on the former Forum Boarium. It was later placed in the Palazzo dei Conservatori – now part of the Capitoline Museums – where it can be admired today. Hercules is usually portrayed with a full beard, but here he is clean-shaven. The statue is from the second century BCE.
The other temple is dedicated to Portunus. This is hardly surprising, as Portunus – what’s in a name! – was the god of harbours and Rome’s river port was nearby. Needless to say that both pagan temples only survived because they were converted into Christian churches. The temple of Hercules became the San Stefano Rotondo, not to be confused with the more famous church on the Caelian Hill of almost the same (nick)name. The name was changed to San Stefano delle Carrozze, until it was changed again to Santa Maria del Sole in the seventeenth century, when the church was re-dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The temple of Portunus became the Santa Maria Egiziaca, named after Saint Mary of Egypt, a prostitute who repented and converted to Christianity. Both churches were deconsecrated in the twentieth century. They were restored and are now temples again, but can unfortunately not be visited.
– Capitool Reisgidsen Rome, 2009 Dutch edition, p. 202;
– Luc Verhuyck, SPQR. Anekdotische reisgids voor Rome, p. 213-215;
– Santa Maria in Cosmedin on Churches of Rome Wiki;
– The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 1, p. 218, p. 424, p. 430, p. 433 and p. 436-438;
– The Atlas of Ancient Rome, part 2, table 173.
Update 12 January 2017: pictures have been updated.
Update 31 July 2018: text and pictures have been updated.