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Santa Maria Egiziaca

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Santa Maria Egiziaca was the dedication of the ancient rectangular temple on the Piazza della Bocca della Verità when it was in use as an oriental-rite church. This is in the rione Ripa. Piranesi engraving on Wikimedia Commons here.

The dedication was to St Mary of Egypt (not the Blessed Virgin Mary).


The temple was built in the first century BC and was dedicated to Portunus, the god of harbours (not to Fortuna Virilis, as formerly asserted). This was because the main city port of ancient Rome was just to the north, where transhipment boats from the seagoing ports at Ostia and Porto tied up. There is an English Wikipedia article on it. [2]

It was built to a cheap design. Instead of having a cella (the room containing the divine image) surrounded by detached columns on all sides, it has four fully round Ionic columns at the entrance, a pair behind these flanking the entrance portico and then four half-round columns attached to the cella on each side. Finally, another four half-round columns decorate the back. There are candelabra and festoons carved on the frieze, also lion protomes. The bulding materials are travertine limestone and tuff, which gives the edifice a rough appearance but there would have been an original coating of stucco possibly painted in colours.

The whole edifice is on a high plinth, and the entrance is approached by a flight of stairs.

History of churchEdit

Conversion of temple to churchEdit

To convert the building to a church, the entrance wall of the cella was demolished and the gaps between the columns of the portico filled in so as to create one large room. This was done in 872 by a benefactor named Stephen Stefaneschi, and the dedication was originally to Our Lady under the title of Santa Maria in Gradellis. The church was later also known as Santa Maria in Secundicerio. Stefaneschi was a judge, and also the so-called secundicerius which means the number-two functionary at the Papal court. In other words, he was the deputy in secular affairs to Pope John VIII.

A fragmentary epigraph recording the foundation was dug up here in 1571, during the building of the convent. Hülsen transcribed the surviving part of it, as follows:

Hoc dudum fuerat fanum per tempora prisca, Constructum Phoebo mortifero Iovi, Quod Stephanus veteri purgavit iudex atque decora....

("This once used to be an ancient temple, constructed [to the honour of] Phoebus and the death-dealing Jupiter, which the judge Stephen purified from the old shit and beautiful things...[put in?]")

Mary of EgyptEdit

The dedication to St Mary of Egypt is first recorded in 1492. She was a 5th century prostitute of Alexandria, who was converted at the Holy Sepulchre during a visit to Jerusalem and who then fled into the Judean desert to be a hermit and to do penance until she died there.

Her major interest in art history is that she was confused with St Mary Magdalen in western Europe in the Middle Ages, and many of the famous paintings of the Penitent Magdalen in a cave or hut actually refer to her.

By this time, the church was parochial and had the Bocca della Verità area as its parish.


In 1560 one of the rulers of Armenia, under attack by both Turks and Persians, sent an ambassador called Saphar Abgaro to Pope Pius IV. The Armenians have had an independent church since the beginning of the 4th century, using the Armenian rite, but an Armenian Catholic Church in communion with the Holy See has existed since the 13th century (this began in the Kingdom of Cilicia or Sis).

The pope granted the Catholic Armenians the church of San Lorenzo dei Cavallucci. This little church, a dependency of San Nicola in Carcere, was very near the north end of the Ponte Fabrizio. However, when Pope Pius V enlarged the Jewish Ghetto this area was included, and the church was deconsecrated as were all the others in the Ghetto zone. In compensation, the pope granted the Armenians the church of Santa Maria Egiziaca after suppressing the parish (which was taken over by Santa Maria in Cosmedin). A hospice for Armenian pilgrims run by Armenian monks was built next door. The work was undertaken in 1571, and overseen by Giulio Antonio Santori who was cardinal of San Bartolomeo all'Isola.

Pope Clement XI (1700-21) ordered a restoration, and the provision of a new hospice and convent. A façade was added which hid the old temple frontage, but this was demolished during the French occupation in order to reveal the front columns of the temple again. Also, a terrace was created in front of the church and convent entrance which was surrounded by a low stone wall.


In 1921 the entire complex was sequestered by the government, as a result of lobbying by the archaeological establishment, and the monks moved out. The church was deconsecrated and converted back into a temple by removing the blocking between the front columns, re-building the entrance wall to the cella and also the back wall. The convent and hospice were completely demolished in 1930, and the little enclosed terrace in front was destroyed by excavating the old staircase.

The Armenians were left with their seminary church of San Nicola da Tolentino agli Orti Sallustiani, to which they removed any artwork that could be transported in 1924. The Armenian College is adjacent to this church, which is now the centre of Catholic Armenian life in Rome


Layout of complexEdit

The building of the Ponte Palatino and massive demolitions have completely changed the character of this neighbourhood. The former church now sits in a small public park, but formerly faced north into the Piazza di Ponte Rotto which was next to the riverbank where the Ponte Rotto used to be when it was intact. The façades of the church and the Casa di Pilato were opposite each other. A wide street ran south of this piazza, along the right hand side of the church to the Piazza della Bocca della Verità. The convent was next to the left hand, eastern side of the church and on the other side of that was the Via delle Carrozze which was replaced by the present Foro Boario.

A comparison between old photos of the mid 19th century (see links below) and the Piranesi engraving of the mid 18th century is instructive. The latter does not show the entrance columns, but simply has a row of three large rectangular windows over the entrance doorway. The latter had a doorcase with several orders of molding, and a triangular pediment. The entire façade was also crowned by a triangular pediment, the left hand corner of which was subsumed into the convent building (Piranesi was being tidy in not showing this oddity). The pediment tympanum contained a fresco or relief in an elliptical tondo.

After the façade was scraped off by the French, the church's frontage merely had the four ancient columns supporting the pediment and rough brick walling in between. The convent incorporated the east wall of the church, and was built around a small rectangular courtyard which had an exit into the Via delle Carrozze in its south-east corner. There were two parts to the complex separated by this exit, a larger L-shaped one to the north and east, and a smaller one to the south which extended behind the far end of the church. These parts were the hospice and convent.

Layout of church properEdit

The back wall of the temple had been demolished to extend the church at some stage, presumably when the convent was built. This gave a long, narrow rectangular space; the internal corners of the presbyterium beyond the ancient temple were chamfered. There was a large external side chapel on a square plan, which was part of the convent building. This was accessed immediately to the left inside the church's main entrance; its own entrance was double, separated by one of the ancient portico columns. 

Fittings and artworksEdit

Fragments of early medieval frescoes survive, possibly dating back to the original conversion of the temple, depicting the life of Our Lady together with saints and also more recent ones showing the life of St Mary of Egypt. There are also depictions of the life of St Basil.

The main altar had an altarpiece of the patron saint by Federico Zuccari. There were two tombs of prelates named Oregio in the church; Giuseppe Oregio (1669) was on the right, and Nicola Oregio (1672) on the left. Angeli in 1903 described these two as cardinals, but they do not seem to be in the lists.

The side chapel contained a model of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, an interesting change from the usual Christmas cribs.

There was another inscription discovered in 1571, which Cardinal Santorio ordered to be attached to the main altar. It read:

Virginis in variis radiat domus alta figuris, quae Dominum castis visceribus tenuit, cuius amore pius Stephanus cum conjuge fretus, cum gentisque pium quod nitet auxit opus. Nobilis, ingenuus, doctissimus, integer, almus aetherium est, et erit culmen is Ausoniae. Praesulis octavi nunc tempore iure Ioannis, templa dicenda dei plena favore pio, ut simul angelicum teneat super aethera thronum, sitque sui pulchrum seminis inde genus.


Coarello, P: Rome and Environs, An Archeological Guide, English trans. UCP 2007

External linksEdit

"Romeartlover" web-page

Nolli map (look for 1090)

"Vedute di Roma" photo gallery

University of Buffalo photo gallery

Armellini (p. 611)

"De Alvariis" gallery on Flickr

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