The Santa Maria della Consolazione – Our Lady of Comfort – is a church near the Forum Romanum that appears to be in need of comfort itself. Its state of maintenance is rather poor. Not that it looks like it is about to collapse, but weeds growing from the roof and gutters is never a good sign. The history of the church is closely connected to the Tarpeian Rock next to it. This southernmost tip of the Capitoline Hill has been used for executions since the earliest days of Rome. According to legend, a Vestal Virgin named Tarpeia had been bribed by Titus Tatius, king of the Sabines. She let in the Sabine army, which occupied the Roman citadel on the Capitoline, but was then herself treacherously killed. Henceforth the Rupes Tarpeia was used to execute criminals, especially traitors and murderers.
In the Middle Ages, the Tarpeian Rock was still (or again) used for executions, this time by hanging. In 1385, a nobleman on death row named Giordanello degli Alberini donated two gold florins to have an icon of the Madonna painted which would be visible for those who were about to be hanged. The Madonna could give the prisoners a little comfort during the final moments of their life. The icon was set up on the wall of a granary and served its purpose until, in 1470, it was held responsible for a miracle. A young man who had been convicted of murder, but who claimed to be innocent, miraculously survived his hanging. This was seen as divine intervention and the man was pardoned. It was now decided that the icon needed to be moved to a church, which was to be built close to the Tarpeian Rock. With full support from Pope Sixtus IV (1471-1484) the first version of the Santa Maria della Consolazione was constructed in record time. The architect involved was Baccio Pontelli (ca. 1450-1492) and Antoniazzo Romano (1430-1508) painted frescoes for the apse. He also made sure that the by now famous icon of the Madonna got a fresh lick of paint (see below).
Starting in 1583, a new and much larger church was built on the same spot. Two chapels from the old church were preserved and incorporated into the new church. The job to build this church was entrusted to the architect Martino Longhi the Elder (1534-1591). When Longhi died some eight years after the project had commenced, the church itself was complete, but the façade was not. Work on the façade was abandoned around 1600, leaving only the lower part finished. It was not until 1827 that Pasquale Belli (1752-1833) added the upper part. The statues of the four prophets – Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel – were also put in place in the early nineteenth century.
The interior of the church is very simple and sober. This is not a church full of artistic highlights, but it is certainly not boring either. A rather curious fact about this church is that two artists nicknamed Il Pomarancio provided works of art for it. Cristoforo Roncalli (ca. 1553-1626) was responsible for two paintings on the side walls of the sanctuary, while Antonio Circignani (1560-1620) painted frescoes for the Cappella dei Vignaroli. His father Niccolò was also nicknamed Il Pomarancio. What is interesting is that several guilds in Rome leased chapels in the Santa Maria della Consolazione and had them decorated. The aforementioned vignaroli were vine-growers and other guilds active here were those of the fishermen, animal herders and waiters. In this respect, the church somewhat resembles the Santa Maria dell’Orto in Trastevere, which is a genuine guild church.
The icon of Our Lady of Comfort is among the artistic highlights of the church. Antoniazzo Romano retouched and perhaps repainted it when the first version of the Santa Maria della Consolazione was built after 1470, but to what extent he made changes is not clear. The style, however, is slightly more reminiscent of fifteenth century icons, so I assume that the 1385 icon looked a bit different. The chapels on either side of the sanctuary also have icons of the Virgin, in this case Our Lady of Grace (Santa Maria delle Grazie) on the right and Our Lady in Portico (Santa Maria in Portico) on the left. Neither icon is original. The former was stolen and replaced with a twelfth century copy, while the original of the latter can now be found in the church of Santa Maria in Campitelli.
Not to be missed is the relief of the Mystical Marriage of Saint Catherine of Alexandria by the sculptor Raffaello da Montelupo (ca. 1505-1566). He was a student of the great Michelangelo. His Mystical Marriage can be found in the first chapel on the left, the Cappella Dondola. It was made in the 1530s, so it could already be admired in the first version of the Santa Maria della Consolazione. The relief shows how Saint Catherine – with her famous spoked wheel tucked under her arm – “marries” Christ and thus dedicates her virginity to Him.
- Capitool Reisgidsen Rome, 2009 Dutch edition, p. 203;
- Luc Verhuyck, SPQR. Anekdotische reisgids voor Rome, p. 271;
- Santa Maria della Consolazione on Churches of Rome Wiki.
 Livius 1.11.