The dedication is to the Blessed Virgin Mary, under her special Roman title of Our Lady, Liberator (or Liberatrix, if you want to play at Latin).
Before the downfall of the Papal government of Rome in 1870, the present rione of Testaccio was almost completely uninhabited. However, after the government of Italy made Rome its capital the neighbourhood was rapidly developed as a working-class suburb. At the end of the 19th century, the only pastoral outlet that the new neighbourhood had was the mission established by the Daughters of Divine Providence (Figlie della Divina Provvidenza) at Santa Maria della Divina Provvidenza a Testaccio, also the first church of the new rione. Pope Leo XIII was well aware of the need to evangelize the industrialized proletariat produced by the 19th century, and supported a scheme to build a church big enough for the entire new working-class neighbourhood of Testaccio.
Initially, its future administration was to be entrusted to the Benedictines of Sant’Anselmo on the Aventine nearby, which is the Generalate of the Order. However the Benedictines had to pull out early on, owing to being fully committed to establishing a college and liturgical institute, and also because several Benedictine congregations object to administering parishes. The responsibility for the new church was transferred to the Salesians.
The church was designed by Mario Ceradini, and was completed in 1908 in what is described as a Romanesque-Byzantine style.
It was initially to be called Santa Maria della Provvidenza in honour of the religious congregation which was in the neighbourhood first, but when the old church of Santa Maria Liberatrice al Foro Romano was demolished in 1900 it was decided to use that title instead. Santa Maria Liberatrice has its remote origins as a devotion in an image of Our Lady venerated in the Chapel of St Zeno in the basilica Santa Prassede.
Many artworks from the old church were transferred, including a venerated fresco of Our Lady which was enthroned over the main altar. It had been in the apse of the old church, and had been rescued by the Benedictine oblate nuns at Tor de’Specchi. They also helped financially with the cost of the entire project -which was substantial.
This remains the only parish church of the district, and is the focal point of its layout. Since the closure of Santa Maria della Divina Provvidenza in 2008, it is now the only church in the rione.
The Salesians remain in charge.
The present titular is Giovanni Lajolo, who was appointed in 2007.
Layout and fabricEdit
The building is on the plan of a Latin cross, and has a nave of three bays with side aisles. Then comes a transept which is wider than the nave, and finally a single-bay sanctuary incorporated into a large semicircular apse.
The “Byzantine” appellation seems to derive from the horizontal stone stripes inserted into the red brick fabric of the exterior walls of the church. However the ancient Romans invented this building style of alternating several courses of brickwork with narrower ones of stone, and called it opus listatum. The architects of the Byzantine Empire only inherited it.
The pitched roofs are in grey slates, instead of the usual red tiles.
Instead of a separate campanile, this church has a large, low square tower over its crossing. This has an arcade of five open arches on each side, separated by stone columns with imposts. There is a slated pyramidal cap.
The central nave walls have three round-headed windows each, one for each bay. However, the side aisle walls have six each. The ends of the transepts are monumentally treated. Each has a gigantic panel with stepped edges recessed into the brickwork, of a shape which recalls a church with a four-sided apse at the top. This panel contains three very tall and narrow round-headed windows. Finally, the apse has two round-headed windows, located at the ends of the curve of the wall.
The façade has a single storey, and three zones corresponding to the central nave and side aisle frontages. It is in brick, with sixteen stone stripes up to the gabled roofline of the central nave. The side aisles have single sloped rooflines.
The central frontage is slightly brought forward is relation to the side aisle frontages. It contains an enormous recessed panel with a stepped edge, running from the lintel of the main entrance almost to the gable. This is of the same shape as the transept panels.
The façade has three matching entrances for nave and aisles, the central one being larger and more ornate. This central portal has an arch of several moldings but no imposts, enclosing a tympanum displaying a mosaic with a Calvary motif. Between the tympanum and the door is a very solid stone block lintel. Enclosing the curve of the arch is a very wide and rather overpowering stone archivolt in a frame, with the spandrels containing tricunx motifs. The side entrances are similar but smaller, and the doorcase arches are singly molded.
Above the main entrance is an arcade of seven round-headed windows in stone, separated by small Corinthian columns which are on high plinths and do not reach the archivolt springers. Above this in turn are stone relief coats-of-arms of the two religious institutions involved in the foundation (Salesians and Tor de’Specchi) flanking those of Pope Pius X.
The main decorative feature on the façade are two large mosaics, one above the other, which are allegedly copies of two frescoes at Santa Maria Antiqua but are obviously products of the School of Beuron. The lower one is of Our Lady enthroned and venerated by saints, and the one above is a Crucifixion.
These mosaics were initially badly fixed, and almost fell off by 1925 when they had to be restored.
The short nave has three bays, with three arcade arches having two pairs of pink Baveno granite columns on each side with oversized carved rectangular cushion capitals. These capitals feature the symbols of the Evangelists on the long sides, with cross motifs on the short faces. They are very well done.
The ceiling is barrel vaulted, with lunettes over the three upper nave wall windows on each side. The vault and side walls are completely undecorated, being rendered in a pale tan colour.
The counterfaçade has a row of seven stained glass windows by Luciano Bartoli, depicting scenes from the life of Our Lady.
Above these windows is a wall aedicule with a gable supported on a pair of columns themselves on brackets. This contains a mosaic epigraph, which (unusually) is in Italian, and reads:
Questa chiesa perpetua il culto di S. Maria Liberatrice eredi, tando titolo e icone dell'omonima chiesa demolita che dal secolo XVI all'anno 1899 nel foro Romano tenne il luogo e custodi le memorie di S. Maria Antiqua, primo santuario di Madre di Dio nel mondo. I Salesiani del Ven. Giovanni Bosco, con l'aiuto del loro cooperatori e delle nobile Oblati di Tor De Specchi, eresso il rinovato santuario perche fosse solenne, e non perituro. Omaggio a SS Papa Pio X nell'anno giubilare el suo sacerdozio Anno D. MXMVIII.
The side aisles each have a blind arcade of three unadorned arches, and are barrel-vaulted. Each arch contains two stained glass windows depicting saints.
The pillars of the crossing are square, without capitals or arch imposts, and match the attached rectangular piers either side of the entrance. They have dadoes revetted in a pale grey-green marble, a feature that is replicated on the aisle side walls and the counterfaçade.
Notable is the black and white mosaic pavement down the middle of the nave, which features the signs of the Zodiac.
The aisles have side altars (not chapels as such). There are three of these:
The far bay of the right hand aisle has an altar dedicated to St Joseph.
The near bay of the left hand aisle has one dedicated to St Anthony of Padua, and the far bay has one dedicated to St Anne, the mother of Our Lady.
The baptistry is a segmental apse opening out of the first side arch of the right hand aisle. It is an addition to the original design. The apse arch is surrounded by frescoes of the twelve apostles, and the apse wall has a very interesting fresco showing Christ the Lamb of God hanging sacrificed in a tree which represents the Church.
On the trunk of the tree is a quotation from St Paul's letter to the Romans (11:24): "You have been taken from a wild olive tree, and grafted into a good olive tree". This is an allusion to the rite of baptism.
Flanking the sanctuary are two sacristies, with entrances from both the sanctuary itself and the transept. These portals have very wide archivolts, recalling those over the church entrances.
The sanctuary has a large apse, frescoed by Luciano Bartoli in 1964. The main conch fresco shows Our Lady of Sorrows. The lower wall has charming depictions of Salesians performing acts of charity for poor people in the early 20th century, also nuns. The latter cannot be the Tor de' Specchi oblates, because they are enclosed, so presumably are the Daughters of Divine Providence who once had their headquarters in Testacchio.
The main altar has a large flat-topped baldacchino in red marble, supported by black granite columns with networked cushion capitals. The interior cupola of this baldacchino has a vine motif. The icon of Our Lady, Liberator is enshrined behind the altar in what amounts to a minature Cosmatesque ambo.
The lectern, pulpit and Paschal candlestick are all well designed, and repay inspection.