I was unable to take a good picture of the church of Santa Maria in Monticelli. The church is on a street that is not very broad and full of parked cars. Photographers who try to take a few steps back quickly find themselves with their backs against a fence. I have therefore chosen to include a diagonal photo of the church in this post. At least it brings out the medieval bell-tower of the building quite well.
The aforementioned brick tower gives a clue about the age of the church. The façade clearly dates from the Baroque era, but the tower is from the twelfth century. The church was consecrated in 1101 by Pope Paschalis II (1099-1118). It was then again consecrated in the same century during the pontificate of Pope Innocentius II (1130-1143). Two consecrations in about forty years is quite remarkable and not easily explained. Maybe there was a thorough remodelling of the church, but another option is that there was a restoration after a fire or some other event that had caused catastrophic damage.
Between 1710 and 1720 the Santa Maria in Monticelli was transformed into a Baroque church by order of Pope Clemens XI (1700-1721). For this project Clemens hired the architects Matteo Sassi (1647-1723) and Giuseppe Sardi (1680-after 1768). The former is not so famous, but he was an associate of Carlo Fontana. Moreover, he was an uncle of the architect Ludovico Rusconi Sassi (1678-1736), who worked on the church of San Salvatore in Lauro (Ludovico’s mother was Matteo’s sister). The latter designed, among other things, the façade of the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, which was later removed again. A second large renovation took place in 1860 under the direction of the architect Francesco Azzurri (1827-1901).
Things to see
With so many architectural interventions it should not come as a surprise that not much is left of the original medieval church. I already mentioned that the bell-tower has been preserved, in the apse we find a small piece of a medieval mosaic and the church furthermore has a crucifix from – presumably – the fourteenth century. The rest of the art is from a later date, and the interior of the church is basically nineteenth-century. It is certainly a nice interior. The large pillars in the nave are covered in marble that features black and white patterns. The choir is dominated by the colours red, blue and gold. Here we find a tiny fragment of what must have once been a large mosaic of Jesus Christ. The rest of the mosaic was lost during the renovation in the eighteenth century, but the face of the Saviour was itself saved. It was simply too sacred to be destroyed, or so I presume. This happens more often in Rome, see for instance the church of San Bartolomeo all’Isola or the cathedral of San Giovanni. The vine scrolls surrounding the head of Christ were painted in the nineteenth century.
The ceiling of the nave was painted with frescoes by Carlo Ruspi (1798-1863). He is most famous for restoring ancient Etruscan frescoes. For this church he chose to paint six strong women from the Bible. The two most formidable among them must be Judith and Jael. Judith decapitated the Assyrian general Holofernes, while Jael killed the Canaanite general Sisera by hammering a tent peg into his skull. Between them Abigail has been painted, the second wife of king David. On the other side we see another wife of the king, Bathsheba. She was actually the wife of a Hittite named Uriah. David left her pregnant and then made sure her husband died in battle. Bathsheba gave birth to a child, but it died after just a couple of days. Later she gave birth to Solomon, David’s future successor. The last two women to be depicted are Esther and Deborah.
The best-known work of art in the side chapels is probably the Flagellation of Christ by Antonio Carracci (1583-1618). Carracci came from a family of painters: his father Agostino and uncle Annibale were painters as well, and so was his father’s cousin Ludovico. The Flagellation hangs in the second chapel on the right. In the eighteenth century the French painter Jean-Baptiste van Loo (1684-1745) overpainted it with another representation of the Flagellation. In 1860 the two versions were separated, and Van Loo’s work can now be found in the first chapel on the right. The next chapel has the aforementioned medieval crucifix. It is a finely crafted object. Christ’s body appears to be emaciated. The Saviour moreover has a tormented look and his mouth is open.
Lastly, I would like to mention the chapel to the right of the choir, which is very special. The chapel is dedicated to Christ the Nazarene and was refitted in 1900 in the neo-Byzantine style. The painter of the frescoes was Eugenio Cisterna (1862-1933). The altarpiece of Jesus wearing the crown of thorns is said to be from Meknes in Morocco. It was supposedly taken to this church in 1681. This is a strange story, as Morocco is anything but a Catholic country. However, this does not mean that the story cannot be true. In 1681 Morocco was ruled by the Alouite dynasty. During his long reign the sultan Moulay Ismail (1672-1727) made Meknes the capital and launched large-scale building activities. For his projects he used thousands of Christian slaves from Europa, many of whom were Catholics from Spain, Portugal, France or Italy. They were the unlucky sailors and inhabitants of the coastal areas who had been captured by the notorious “Barbary Pirates”. Two Catholic orders, that of the Mercedarians and that of the Trinitarians, were involved in caring for the Christian slaves. It is therefore not impossible that the painting offered the slaves in Morocco some comfort during their toils. Perhaps a representative of one of the orders, or an ambassador, had it shipped to Rome.
Source: Churches of Rome Wiki.