Thursday, October 19, 2017

Santa Maria Antiqua in the Roman Forum

Among the ruins of the Roman Forum, the center of public life in the ancient city, there lies half-hidden an ancient church called Santa Maria Antiqua. It was constructed sometime in the second half of the 6th century within an older building at the north-west corner of the Palatine hill, and remained in use until 847, when it was partly buried by a mudslide off the hill caused by an earthquake, and abandoned. It remains came to light in 1702 when another church built on the same site much later was being restored; in 1901-2, the newer church was demolished to free it up. With the completion of extensive restoration work, it was for a time reopened to the public as part one the regularly visitable areas of the Forum archeological zone, but has recently been closed again; the possibility of future visits is apparently “under review.”

Santa Maria Antiqua contains a remarkable amount of Byzantine fresco work from several different periods of its brief (by Roman standards) life. Many of these are in fairly bad shape, but many others are remarkably well preserved, considering how long they lay buried and neglected, and they give us an interesting sense of what Christian churches might have looked like in antiquity. Our thanks to Fr Alex Schrenk, a priest of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, for sharing with us these photos taken during a recent visit.

The roofed structure next to the trees on the right is an Oratory dedicated to the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste; Santa Maria Antiqua is to the right of it from this point of view.
A frescoed niche with three holy mothers and their children: St Anne holding the Virgin Mary, Mary Herself holding Jesus, and St Elizabeth holding St John the Baptist.
The mother of the seven brothers whose martyrdom is described in 2 Maccabees 7, here given the name of Salome, with Eleazar to her left. They are the only Old Testament Saints whose feast is traditionally kept on the general Calendar of the Roman Rite, as a commemoration on the feast of St Peter’s Chains. The Byzantine tradition holds that Eleazar, whose martyrdom is recounted in 2 Maccabees 6, 18-31, was the teacher of her seven sons, although this is not stated in the Biblical text.
One of the most famous things in the church is this “palimpsest”, in which frescoes from two different periods can be seen, one on top of the other, the older layer revealed by the partial disintegration of the newer. 
A frescoed column
The ancient building within which the church is located was part of a large structure that led into the Imperial palace on the Palatine hill. (The word “palace” actually comes from “Palatine.”) It is believed that at first, Santa Maria Antiqua principally served the Greek-speaking imperial administrators housed within the ancient palace; there majority of the Saints depicted in the church are Greek, as indicated by the names written in the frescoes.

St Anne with the Virgin Mary
The Adoration of the Magi above, and the Carrying of the Cross below, with two Saints in medallions, the Apostles Andrew and Paul.
A deesis scene, as it is called in Greek, a supplication, with Christ between the Virgin Mary and St John the Baptist.
Four Saints “quorum nomina Deus scet (scit) - whose names God knows.”
A Crucifixion scene from the 740s. Christ is dressed in a blue garment with Roman bands of rank, and flanked by Our Lady, St John the Evangelist, and two smaller figures; of the latter, the one one the left is labelled as Longinus, the Roman soldier who pierced Christ's side, and the other is holding up a sponge soaked in vinegar.

A fresco of various Saints, together with the donor Theodoretus on the right, and his son on the left, depicted smaller than the Saints, and with square blue haloes, conventions of the age which indicate that they are people still living.
The left wall of the church has a huge frescoe, relatively much better preserved, with Christ surrounded by nine Latin Saints and eleven Greek ones.

This extremely ancient icon (possibly of the 5th century), was originally kept at Santa Maria Antiqua; after 847, when the church was abandoned, a new church called Santa Maria Nova was constructed on the other end of the Forum to replace, and the icon has been kept there ever since.
The apse of Santa Maria Nova now has a copy under the apsidal mosaic, which was executed in the 1160s. The church is more commonly known as Santa Francesca Romana, after a very popular Roman Saint of the 15th century who is buried in the crypt.

 /ra For this reason, a new church called Santa Maria Nova (New St Mary, now Santa Francesca Romana) was erected nearby by Pope Leo IV, on a portion of the ruined temple of Temple of Venus and Roma, where once stood a chapel commemorating the fall of Simon Magus.[5] Santa Maria Antiqua suffered further damages during the Norman Sack of Rome (1084). The church of Santa Maria Liberatrice (Sancta Maria libera nos a poenis inferni) was built in 1617 on its ruins, but then demolished in 1900 to bring the remains of the old church to light.[6]  

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