The Santa Maria Antiqua is a little jewel on the edge of the Forum Romanum. It is a ruined sixth century church that is no longer used for religious services. The church can be visited on the ticket that gives access to the Forum, and at the moment it should still be possible to walk around freely. This may change in the near future. Soon, access may very well be restricted to people who join a guided tour (much like is now the case with Livia’s House on the Palatine).
Inside the church are vulnerable frescoes, covering a space of some 250 m². Quite a few of the frescoes are badly damaged or weathered, but many have been restored very well. These frescoes are wonderful, and some have labelled the church the “Sistine Chapel of the Middle Ages”. Most of the frescoes were painted during the pontificates of four popes: Martinus I (649-655), John VII (705-707), Paulus I (757-767) and Adrianus I (772-795). An earthquake in 847 supposedly made the church unusable, although its atrium continued to be used for several more centuries.
The church can be found behind the Temple of Castor and Pollux, of which a large platform (actually a heap of rubble) and three columns remain. First there is the so-called Oratory of the Forty Martyrs, which will be discussed below. If you turn right here, you will get to the atrium of the Santa Maria Antiqua and then to the church itself. To enter the church, go through the double doors and make sure you close the outer doors before opening the inner doors: you are entering a climate controlled space which was created to preserve the frescoes.
In the days of the Roman emperors, one could find the entrance to the access ramp of the Palatine Hill here. This Rampa Imperiale was constructed by the emperor Domitianus (81-96) to connect the imperial palace on the hill with the political, religious and commercial centre of Rome down below, the Forum Romanum. The ramp was an immense covered walkway, some 300 metres long, zigzagging its way up the hill in seven segments and going up to a height of some 35 metres. Part of the ramp has been opened to the public and the entrance is in the left aisle of the church. Unfortunately, it is not yet possible to reach the top of the hill, since the current ramp only goes as far as a platform which offers a nice view of the Forum.
More archaeological research is needed to fully clarify the functions of all the buildings close to the bottom end of Domitianus’ ramp. And even if more evidence becomes available, it may not be sufficient to answer all of our questions. Nevertheless, it should be possible to make a reasonably plausible reconstruction of this part of the Forum. The image included in this post, taken from Google Earth, might be helpful.
The large hall to the left of the church may have been the waiting room for people wanting to visit the emperor in his palace on the hill. The area where the church itself is located was presumably part of the reception facilities as well. These facilities – rooms and courtyards – were used until well into the sixth century. Even before part of the complex was converted into a church, Christian frescoes had been added to some of the walls and one of these has partially survived on the so-called Palimpsest Wall (see below). The conversion into a church was effected during the reign of the Eastern Roman emperor Justinus II (565-578) and the Santa Maria Antiqua was first mentioned in a pilgrim’s guide in 635. The church is not the oldest Christian building on the Forum (that would probably be the Santi Cosma e Damiano), but it is certainly very old.
The popes mentioned above all made contributions to the decoration of the church and its atrium, and most had a tendency to paint over the work of their predecessors. In 847 an earthquake hit Rome and caused much damage in the Forum area. It is not clear how severe the damage to the Santa Maria Antiqua was, but in any case the church seems to have been abandoned in favour of an oratory dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul on the other side of the Forum, near the Colosseum. This would ultimately become the church of Santa Maria Nova, nowadays usually called the Santa Francesca Romana. Monks, presumably following the Benedictine rule, continued to use the atrium of the old church, which they covered with a roof and converted into some kind of replacement church dedicated to the Egyptian hermit Saint Anthony Abbot (251-356). The new church was again abandoned, presumably in the eleventh century and possibly because of damage suffered during the Norman sack of Rome in 1084. The truth is, however, that we simply do not know what happened.
We do know that in the thirteenth century, a new church was built more or less over the Santa Maria Antiqua. It was called the Santa Maria Liberatrice, with the Liberatrice part referring to the fictional heroics of Pope Sylvester I (314-337), who was credited with having liberated Rome from a dragon that had been terrorising the Forum (the brave pope allegedly chained the monster with a silk chord and then bludgeoned it to death with a crucifix). The new church was given a Baroque makeover in 1617. Importantly, the Santa Maria Liberatrice did not completely cover the site once occupied by its predecessor. In fact, the garden behind the new church was above the apse of the old church. In 1702, gardeners digging in this garden discovered the apse and its frescoes. The frescoes were still in fairly good condition and an artist named Francesco Valesio (1670-1742) documented them in a watercolour, which can be found here.
It would take another 200 years before serious excavations were started. In 1900-1902, the Santa Maria Liberatrice was demolished. It would have been possible to conduct archaeological research underneath the church without destroying it, but the ideology of the time was that post-imperial buildings were no longer welcome on the Roman Forum. The decision to demolish the Santa Maria Liberatrice seems outrageous by today’s standards, and it certainly did little to preserve the frescoes. These were now exposed to the elements and quickly began to deteriorate. Despite conservation attempts, the situation became so bad that the Santa Maria Antiqua was closed to the public in 1980. Restorations were only begun in earnest in 2004, and the church was reopened in 2016.
Exploring the Santa Maria Antiqua
A tour of the church starts in the atrium outside. It has the scanty remains of frescoes executed during the pontificates of John, Paulus and Adrianus, but also some that were made in the tenth and eleventh centuries, when monks used the atrium as a replacement church (see above). Some of the better preserved frescoes were moved inside. To be honest, this is not the most interesting part of the complex. My memory is a little hazy, but I do recall not having taken a single picture here. So let us proceed into the church itself.
The Santa Maria Antiqua is but a small church. In the middle of the nave one can still see the contours of a pool in the shape of an octagon. This was not a baptismal font, but a pool (impluvium) in the centre of a courtyard (quadriporticus) that was part of the reception complex. The church once had a schola cantorum or choir enclosure, which was erected by Pope Martinus in the mid-seventh century. The remnants of it can be seen at the end of the nave. Part of Pope John’s early eighth century pulpit has been preserved and can be found in the left side of the nave.
In the sanctuary we can see an icon of the Madonna and Child, suspended from the ceiling (see the first image in this post). I assume this is a copy, the original is in the Santa Francesca Romana. Actually, I should write originals, plural. The icon above the altar of the Santa Francesca was long considered to be twelfth century, but a cleaning in 1950 led to the conclusion that it was actually a twelfth century overpainting of a much older icon dating from – perhaps – the sixth century. This discovery also put a different light on the tradition that a crusader brought the icon back from present-day Turkey. It is now considered much more likely that the sixth century icon used to be in the Santa Maria Antiqua.
The old and new icon were detached from each other and the former was placed in the sacristy of the Santa Francesca, while the latter was returned to its previous location above the altar. In 2016, the old icon was carried to the Santa Maria Antiqua in solemn procession and put on display there. Although I am not 100 percent sure, it seems plausible enough that it was returned to the Santa Francesca soon after.
To fully appreciate how special the collection of frescoes in this ruined church is, some historical background information might be helpful. The oldest frescoes in the Santa Maria Antiqua were executed shortly after the Eastern Roman Empire had taken back Italy from the Ostrogoths in 554. Soon the peninsula was threatened and partly overrun again by the Lombards, but the territories that were held by the Romans, including Rome itself, were administered by an Exarch who ruled from Ravenna. Most popes were loyal supporters of the emperor in Constantinople, Martinus I (649-655) being a notable exception (he was ultimately kidnapped and died in exile).
In 726, the reigning emperor Leo III the Isaurian (717-741) instigated a policy of iconoclasm, which involved the destruction of scores of icons and frescoes depicting saints in the eastern provinces of the Empire. But iconoclasm was deeply resented in the West and opposed by members of the clergy, including popes. It is telling that the sixth and seventh century frescoes in the Santa Maria Antiqua were left untouched. In fact, while the first iconoclastic period would not end until 787, two popes in Rome – Paulus and Adrianus – not only ignored the imperial decrees, but even added new cycles of frescoes to the Santa Maria Antiqua. It is hard to tell whether they were deliberately giving the emperor in Constantinople the finger, but it is not easy to miss the fact that the Santa Maria Antiqua was located next to the Palatine Hill, where the emperor formally still had a palace.
The fact that Santa Maria Antiqua’s sixth to eighth century frescoes have survived, while most of those in other parts of the Eastern Roman Empire were destroyed makes this a unique location. Visitors should realise that the entire interior of the church was once frescoed. A video presentation with CGI reconstructions of the church decorations should be available in the near end of the right aisle (someone was kind enough to post it on YouTube too). All frescoes have captions with some basic information so that visitors can get an idea of what they are looking at. I will now discuss some of the highlights in the church.
The apse of the sanctuary must have been beautiful once, but the frescoes here are very damaged. The conch of the apse used to feature “a majestic Christ among seraphim”, but even Christ himself is now barely recognisable. If you look closely, you will spot a figure with a blue square nimbus. This is Pope Paulus I (757-767), the pope who commissioned these frescoes. The blue nimbus indicates that he was alive when the frescoes were made. Above the conch is a large fresco of the Crucifixion, but unfortunately it is damaged and its left part mostly destroyed.
To the right of the conch, on the apse wall, is the single most interesting part of the frescoes in the entire church: the Palimpsest Wall. The term refers to the practice of painting new frescoes over older ones. In this case, researchers have identified several layers of paint, four of which actually still feature people. The oldest of these is a mid-sixth century fresco of Maria Regina, Our Lady the Queen. The Queen is depicted as a Roman empress, with the child Christ on her lap. On her right is a woman or an angel (but the wings are missing) with a bowl. There must have been a similar figure on the left once, and this is clear evidence that this fresco predates the church. The left side of the fresco was simply destroyed when part of the wall was knocked down and the apse built.
In the late sixth or early seventh century, a fresco of the Annunciation was painted over the Madonna and Child. Not much of it is visible today, but one can see part of the face of the Virgin on the left and a bit more of the so-called “Fair Angel” on the right, including part of his wing. The lower part of the palimpsest has two figures who can be identified as Doctors of the Church (see the image on the left). The one on the right is labelled – in Greek – as John Chrysostom (died 407), who was archbishop of Constantinople. The other is presumably Saint Basil the Great (ca. 329-379), bishop of Caesarea. This part of the frescoes was executed after 649 and may be attributed to Pope Martinus I (649-655).
In the top part of the fresco, we can see another face of one of the Doctors of the Church. At first glance, he appears to be peeping over the shoulder of Our Lady, but this fresco was actually executed much later, during the reign of Pope John VII (705-707). The saint is Gregory of Nazianzus or Gregory the Theologian (ca. 329-390). The words ‘Gregorios’ and ‘Theologos’ – in Greek – are still visible. Note that on the other side of the conch we can still spot part of the name of Saint Augustinus, this time in Latin. Western Doctors of the Church were given Latin captions by Pope John, Eastern Doctors Greek captions.
In the top part of the apse wall, there are frescoes of four popes. They are, from left to right: Pope John VII, Pope Leo the Great (440-461), an unknown pope and Pope Martinus I. Pope John commissioned these frescoes, and he is depicted with a square blue nimbus.
Chapel of the Medical Saints
To the right of the sanctuary is the so-called Cappella dei Santi Medici, the Chapel of the Medical Saints. Originally, it was the diaconicon of the church, the room where liturgical vestments and books were stored. It later became some sort of healing shrine, where sick people would come to pray and meditate, hoping to be cured by divine intervention. The chapel was frescoed during Pope John’s pontificate.
When I visited the Santa Maria Antiqua, there were frequent video presentations in the chapel, with a device projecting images onto the walls. Since the frescoes are quite damaged here, the presentations give a better idea of what the chapel must have looked like in the past. Among the medical saints portrayed on the walls – the so-called Anargyroi, those who provided medical services for free – we immediately recognise the famous twins Saints Cosmas and Damianus, who were depicted more than once.
Chapel of Theodotus
Since it is located to the left of the sanctuary, this chapel may originally have been the prothesis of the church, the room where bread and wine for the Eucharist were prepared. The frescoes in this chapel were commissioned by a certain Theodotus, an important church official who held the rank of primicerius. Theodotus was active during the pontificate of Pope Zacharias (741-752) and served as an ambassador to the Franks, soon to become the Pope’s principal allies in the fight against the Lombards. The chapel is in fact dedicated to two somewhat obscure martyrs from the East, Saints Quiricus and Julietta (or Julitta). According to tradition, they were a young boy and his mother, who were martyred in Tarsus during Diocletianus’ persecutions at the beginning of the fourth century.
A thorough restoration has left many of the frescoes in good condition. A square fresco that is almost intact depicts the Crucifixion (see above), with Christ wearing a blue sleeveless tunic known as a colobium. The text on the titulus of the cross is in Greek. Christ is flanked by two large figures who are labelled Saint Mary and Saint John the Evangelist. These labels are in Latin. There are two smaller figures in the scene as well, and one of them is labelled LONGINVS. Longinus was the Roman centurion who pierced Christ’s side with a lance (the Holy Lance or Spear of Destiny), and this can actually be seen in the fresco. The other soldier presents Christ with a sponge soaked in vinegar.
Below the Crucifixion is a rectangular fresco, damaged in the middle, but fairly well preserved at the sides. It shows the Madonna and Child venerated by Saints Peter and Paul, with part of Paul’s balding head still visible. Paul was from Tarsus, where Quiricus and Julietta were martyred, and the two martyrs themselves are depicted as well. The former is the young boy on the right with his hands in the orans position; his mother is depicted to the left of Saint Paul. There are two more figures in the scene, both with blue nimbuses. The one on the right, his face rather blurred, is Theodotus, holding a miniature version of the chapel. On the left we see Pope Zacharias.
Surrounding Theodotus’ head is a text in Latin, most of which is illegible today. However, it is still possible to make out the words BIRGO [=VIRGO] MARIA QVI [APPELLATUR] ANTIQA. This is solid evidence that the church was in fact known as the Antiqua in Theodotus’ time.
The largest fresco cycle in the church can be found in the left aisle, and we are fortunate that substantial parts of it have survived. The frescoes were commissioned by Pope Paulus I (757-767). They are divided into four registers, the top two registers showing scenes from the lives of Noah, Jacob and Joseph. The lowest register is made up of painted curtains or vela. The largest and most interesting register is actually the one right above the vela. It shows Jesus Christ enthroned in the centre, flanked by almost two dozen saints from the East and the West (there are 22 saints in total, 9 on the left, 13 on the right). All of the saints were once labelled. Most labels have survived, and these are all in Greek again, even the names of the Western saints.
Oratory of the Forty Martyrs
This little building is often confused with the Santa Maria Antiqua. But the oratory is definitely a separate building, usually called an aula. It was constructed during the reign of Domitianus. Its original function is unknown. Perhaps it was part of the palace reception facilities as well and the theory that it served as a guardhouse near the ramp to the Palatine sounds quite plausible. The aula was presumably converted into a separate place of Christian worship during Pope John’s pontificate, so between 705 and 707. Although a church in its own right, it seems very likely that it had close ties to the Santa Maria Antiqua.
The Forty Martyrs of Sebaste were forty soldiers in the Roman army during the reign of either Diocletianus (284-305) or Licinius (Constantine the Great’s brother-in-law; 308-324). They served in the ranks of the Legio XII Fulminata and were tortured because of their Christian faith. The soldiers were stripped naked and forced to stand outside on a frozen pond during a bitterly cold night. 39 of the martyrs stayed true to their religion, but one lapsed and ran to the hot baths that had been prepared nearby. But lo and behold, his place was taken by one of the guards, who was so impressed that he became a Christian himself and made the number forty again. The information panel in the oratory did not tell what happened next, but tradition dictates that the frozen bodies of the soldiers were burned the next day (and the poor soldier who lapsed was no doubt punished in Hell).
The decorations inside must have been impressive once, but not much is left of them. In the apse, we can still see some of the forty martyrs standing on the frozen pond in their loincloths (or up to their knees in water, the perspective in not very good). One of them can be seen leaving for the hot baths, and the guard who will replace him is visible as well. The left wall has some more remains of frescoes. Now we see the forty martyrs as saints, with matching halos. What is interesting about these frescoes is that the saints are depicted as individuals: their faces are all different.
All in all I spend nearly two hours exploring the premises of the Santa Maria Antiqua. It was a marvellous experience. I sincerely hope the church will remain open to the public. Since we cannot be sure this will be the case, the best advice I can give is to visit the Santa Maria Antiqua as quickly as possible!
- Santa Maria Antiqua website;
- Page about the Palimpsest Wall;
- Santa Maria Antiqua on Churches of Rome Wiki;
- Oratorio dei Quaranta Martiri on Churches of Rome Wiki.
 It is sometimes erroneously called the Temple of Augustus.