Revisiting an Old Church

Santa Maria Antiqua in Rome


Brother Charles

Nave without icon
Santa Maria Antiqua, Nave

The elderly are venerable. Women and men in whom goodness has resided for long decades are venerable. We treat them with respect, love them, and love to be in their presence. Places are venerable, too, when good things have happened time and again in them. Our College chapel is such a place. The sacred mysteries of the Christian religion have been celebrated and shared there for almost ninety years. And it has become a refuge of serenity for many during the course of any one day. Today’s blog is about another chapel named in honor of Saint Mary. This one goes by the name of “Old Saint Mary’s” and has been so called for more than a millennium.

Sarcophagus SMA copy
Sarcophagus of Santa Maria Antiqua, second half of the Third Century. Jonah under the vine, on the left, prefiguring the baptism of Jesus, on the right. In between are an orans and a seated philosopher (representing the deceased?), and the Good Shepherd.

Recently restored and open for visiting since March, Santa Maria Antiqua lay in the forum of Rome, nestled under the Palatine Hill, former home to the Roman emperors. When Rome had become only a shadow and symbol of its former greatness, barely protected and sometimes left undefended by Ravenna and Constantinople, generations after the replacement of the traditional Mediterranean religions by Christianity, churches began to appear in the old public spaces of the City.

Santa Maria Antiqua, Palimpsest Wall, right side of the apse, Sixth through the Eighth Centuries

Santa Maria Antiqua flourished as a Christian center when the Church still celebrated its liturgy in Greek. Christian artists worked to create plastic expressions of their faith for the first time within its walls. One can see the debt that they owed to finest of traditional Greek and Roman image-making. Marble sarcophagi survive there that show scenes of gods and goddesses giving way to Hebrew and Christian stories of faith. The depiction of holy men and women move in palimpsest from classical forms to what, in common parlance, we call Byzantine iconography.

Four Martyrs 3
Santa Maria Antiqua, Four Martyrs Whose Names Are Known Only to God, Chapel of Theodotus, Eighth Century

After centuries of use, Santa Maria suffered damage from an earthquake in 847 that led to its closing and the transfer of its movable treasures to a new church at the edge of the forum, Santa Maria Nuova (New Saint Mary’s). Chief among the pieces inherited by the new site was the sacred icon of Mother and Child, much weathered from use, and venerable in its own right.

Santa Maria Nuova (on loan at present to Santa Maria Antiqua), Icon of the Madonna and Child, before the Eighth Century

Santa Maria Antiqua was established in the middle of the Sixth Century and enjoyed special papal patronage for three centuries, with major additions to its artwork under Popes Martin (649-653), John VII (705-707), Zachary (741-742), and Paul I (757-767). Unearthed in 1900, the church underwent careful restoration work from 1980 to the present and has been re-opened to the public since March of this year. A special exhibit highlighting the history and layers of artistic programming, Santa Maria Antiqua tra Roma e Bisanzio, is open for viewing until September 9.

photo credits: Santa Maria Antiqua tra Roma e Bisanzio,
edd. Maria Andaloro, Giulia Bordi, and Giuseppe
Morganti. Milan: Electa, [2016] & Brother Charles

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