Santa Maria in Trastevere is a 12th century minor basilica of ancient foundation in the rione Trastevere, and is also a parish and titular church. The postal address is Via della Paglia 14/C, which is a side entrance. The main entrance is on the Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere.
The church has always been the focus of local religious and civic life and, as has been famously remarked, if Trastevere were a small city on a dusty hilltop in southern Italy, instead of being a district on the 'wrong' side of the river in the heart of Rome, Santa Maria in Trastevere would be its cathedral. Pictures of the church on Wikimedia Commons are here. There is an English Wikipedia article here.
It was probably built by Pope Julius I (337-352), as he is on record as having built a basilica trans Tiberim. Limited archaeological investigations recently under the Altemps Chapel, as well as epigraphic evidence, has established a mid-4th century foundation date as being fairly sound.
However, tradition claims that it may have been built earlier, perhaps as early as soon after Pope Callixtus' death in 222 . The latter pope was martyred near this place, where the church of San Callisto now stands, and it was imagined that the basilica stands on the site of his house-church. There is no historical evidence for this, although the pope's residence was probably close by. He was buried in the Catacomb of Calepodius on the Aurelian Way, and Pope Julius built a basilica there dedicated to him.
in the acts of a synod of 499 the titulus is given as titulus Iulii. However, by the time of another synod in 595 the dedication had become Iuli et Callisti. This re-naming of the titulus after Callixtus as well as the founding pope is the apparent source of the tradition mentioned above, that the church was founded as his memorial chapel. But this is surmise.
It used to be believed that this was the first church in Rome to be dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, but it is now thought that it was re-dedicated to her by Pope Adrian I towards the end of the 8th century when he ordered a restoration. The motivation is thought to have been the presence of an already old miraculous icon of Our Lady (just possibly the one now in the Altemps Chapel).
Shrine of martyrsEdit
Pope Gregory IV effected a major re-ordering just after the year 790. In that period, the countryside around Rome had been overrun by various bands of marauders (including Muslim ones), and the city could no longer guarantee the safety of pilgrims visiting the catacombs. As a result, most of the catacombs were abandoned and forgotten, and the venerated relics of the martyrs brought into the city to be re-enshrined in its churches. This often involved creating a fake catacomb under the sanctuary by either digging out an underground chamber, or by raising the floor of the sanctuary. Pope Gregory did the latter here, and enshrined the relics of SS Callixtus, Cornelius, Pope Julius and Calepodius. This is the historical witness to the abandonment of the Catacomb of St Calepodius and the basilica that Pope Julius had built there.
He also founded a college of priests here to administer the basilica. Rather oddly, this action of his was not as bishop of Rome because back then Trastevere was part of the diocese of Santa Rufina (later Porto Santa Rufina), and only joined the diocese of Rome in the 14th century.
The church was rebuilt in 1140 under Pope Innocent II (1138-1148). He kept the basilical plan, at a time when the Gothic style was gaining popularity in Northern Europe, and apparently plundered the ruins of the Baths of Caracalla for building materials. It is not now easy to decide what was scavenged then, and what was kept from the earlier building; this puzzle especially applies to the columns.
During some Holy Years in the Middle Ages or later, when plague or flooding prevented the use of the churches outside the walls, this church was counted among the seven churches in the pilgrim itinerary. This practice continued into modern times, and is commemorated on the central door.
There was a restoration between 1580 and 1595, when the entrance doorways were altered, and another one in 1596 when the transept ceiling was inserted.
The magnificent nave ceiling was inserted in 1617. Before then, the roof would have been open.
In 1702 the narthex was rebuilt. Beforehand there were four Ionic columns supporting a horizontal entablature, from which a single-pitched tiled roof sloped up to the nave frontage. This flimsy arrangement was probably threatening to collapse. The columns were re-used.
In 1865-66, the church was heavily restored and redecorated on the orders of Pope Pius IX. The results can only be described as mixed. Much archaelogical data was revealed, and then destroyed without being properly recorded. Some of the ancient carved stonework was vandalized. The nave frescoes are of this project, as well as the faded ones on the façade. Stained glass windows were inserted into the façade, and the side aisles provided with barrel vaults (they had cross vaults previously). The transept roof was heavily restored.
The history of the church as a title for cardinal priests goes back to the earliest cardinals. The title here was, by tradition, given to St Calepodius when he was created cardinal in the early 3rd century (or, at least, given rank equivalent to that of cardinal; he would have been the priest of the church with functions similar to that of later cardinals).
The title was later changed to SS Iuli et Callisti, but when Santa Maria in Trastevere was rebuilt it was changed again. Among later titulars can be found Henry, Duke of York (later recognized as King Henry IX of England and Henry I of Scotland by the Jacobites), appointed in 1759.
The most famous titular priest of recent times was Józef Cardinal Glemp, who died in 2013. He was succeeded by Loris Francesco Capovilla, appointed in February 2014 but who died in May 2016. His successor is Carlos Osoro Sierra, appointed in November of that year.
Layout and fabricEdit
The church has a classic basilical plan to the nave, with aisles and external chapels. The roof of the nave is pitched and tiled, and a separate roof of the same kind runs transversely over the presbyterium transept. This gives the main roofs the shape of a T. There is a segmental apse, and on each side of the apse is a large rectangular chapel which is a separate architectural entity. The one on the left is the famous chapel dedicated to Santa Maria della Clemenza. A medieval campanile stands over the near end of the right hand aisle, and a Baroque narthex occupies the entrance façade.
A series of external chapels, not part of the structure of the basilica, lead off each side aisle. There are five off the right hand aisle, and six off the left hand one as well as the sacristy and its antechamber. They are of different shapes, sizes and styles.
The narthex or portico was rebuilt by Carlo Fontana in 1702. It has five arches of identical size, flanked by a pair of Ionic pilasters and with a deep entablature above. The middle three arches are framed by four four Ionic columns in blue-grey marble, supporting a section of the entablature brought forward. Above the entablature is a parapet, and above the colonnade the parapet is balustraded. Four Baroque statues above this balustraded section depict SS Callixtus, Cornelius, Julius and Calepodius. The contemporary wrought iron railings which close off the arches are themselves worthy of examination.
The façade of the nave above the narthex has a row of three identical round-headed windows in a brick wall which has very badly faded 19th century fresco work. Four date palms are in between the windows, while on the walls fronting the aisles are representations of the two cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem which are now almost illegible.
From the top of the aisle rooflines to the triangular pediment above the façade is cavetto, that is, it bends outwards. This is so that the mosaic it bears does not look foreshortened when viewed from outside the narthex.
This mosaic is medieval, probably from the 12th century. It is thought that Pietro Cavallini restored it in the 13th century. The subject now is the parable of the wise and foolish maidens, with ten of them flanking the Blessed Virgin in the center breast-feeding the Christ Child. The two foolish maidens on the near right side are not wearing crowns, and they have let their lamps burn out. However, examination reveals that they have been clumsily altered to this appearance, and there is dispute as to the original identity of these ten women. They may be Roman virgin martyrs, or merely imperial court attendants. There are two tiny figures kneeling either side of the Virgin, and these are anonymous donors. Above her is a small lamb, the Agnus Dei.
The tympanum of the pediment contains another very badly faded 19th century fresco of Christ in glory. He is seated in the midst of seven candelabra, with a pair of angels in attendance and with a figure of Pope Pius IX kneeling at his feet. Above the angels are symbols of the Evangelists.
The campanile is from the 12th century, in brick and of four storeys above the aisle roofline. The storeys are separated by decorative cornices, and the tower is also decorated with small roundels of purple porphyry and green verde antico. The clock has been in the second storey for about 250 years. Near the top, a triangular-topped canopy covers a mosaic of the Madonna with Child. Oddly, there is a bell in a wire frame on top of the tiled pyramidal cap which rings the hours (the clock works, and is kept in good condition).
In the narthex, there is a large collection of pagan and early Christian inscriptions (3rd century), and some fragments of 9th century sculpture as well as medieval frescoes. There are also bits of sarcophagi, and Renaissance memorial floor-slabs which are badly worn.
The inscriptions or epigraphs on the walls certainly repay inspection if you know Latin. Many of the pagan ones were collected from the tombs on the Appian Way in the 18th and early 19th centuries, and put here in the 1860 restoration. Archaeologically this was a pity, because opportunities for identifying the owners of many of the tombs were thus lost. Other epigraphs were discovered in restorations of the church fabric, and here has proved a suitable and safe place to display them.
At the left end of the narthex is a mediaeval sarcophagus which bears a relief of the heraldic lion of the Papareschi family, to which Pope Innocent belonged. It is very realistic, and probably dates from the 12th century. At that time almost nobody in Rome would ever see a lion (the nearest surviving were in what is now Algeria), so the sculptor of this piece would have copied a Classical work since lost. The plinth on which this work is placed bears an inscription commemorating mediaeval cardinals. The other sarcophagus fragment here, to the left, is of the 4th century.
The symbol of Trastevere is a lion, and it has been suggested that this lion was the inspiration for it.
Above these sarcophagi is a 15th century fresco of the Annunciation, a theme repeated on a panel on the left hand side of the front wall of the church. The standing figure on the left hand side of the latter work is an unidentified saint. The corresponding panel on the right hand side, showing the Nativity, was repainted in the 19th century restoration.
The lower courses of the walls of the narthex sport carved marble slabs known as plutei, decorated with geometric patterns as well as with plant and animal motifs. These may be ancient, or may have been carved for the first basilica and re-used here. Especially noteworthy is a 9th century relief of two peacocks drinking from a vase, which is a Persian motif originally.
The three doorways into the church have doorcases made from stone cornices from the Imperial period, reused from an ancient building. At present the two side doors lead into the side aisles, but before the 16th century the three doors were together and opened into the central nave. The cardinal responsible for the alteration, Marco Altemps, is commemorated by an inscription over the side doors: Marcus Syticus Card[inalis] ab Altemps, huius basil[icae] tit[ularis]. His full name was Marcus Sittich von Hohenems Altemps.
As mentioned, the central, main door has served as a Holy Door during Jubilee years. The post-mediaeval years concerned were 1625, 1700, 1825 and 1900 and the reason was that the basilica of San Paolo fuori le Mura was unusable because of flooding or because (in 1825) it had burned down. The epigraph on the door itself commemorates this: Haec est porta Domini, justi intrabunt in eam ("This is the gate of the Lord, the just will enter by it"), a quotation from Psalm 68. Above the lintel is a tondo containing the Greek characters MPΘY standing for Mητηρ Θεου or "Mother of God".
The side doors have triangular pediments above, flanked by little figures which were robbed from the altar of SS Philip and James set up by Cardinal d'Alençon and now in the left transept. The right hand pair are Christ and St Peter, but the left hand man and woman are unknown. Perhaps they could be put back where they belong?
Around the corner from the back door is the Community of Sant'Egidio,  which is renowned for its charitable services for the homeless. The soup kitchen feeds about 1.600 a day. The church has a long tradition for charitable work, and St Frances of Rome (1384-1440) used to come here to pray for strength to assist those in need.
The left hand side door leads straight into the aisle, but the right hand one leads into a tiny room before you emerge into the church. This lobby is actually the first storey of the campanile. It contains more of the plutei that you noticed in the narthex, as well as a large wooden crucifix. This bears two plaques commemorating Jubilees, those of 1900 and 2000.
The nave has twelve bays, and is divided from the aisles by twenty-one antique granite columns of varying widths and with assorted ancient Ionic and Corintian capitals. The odd number is because the right hand side of the first bay is occupied by the campanile and entrance lobby.
The columns seem to come from a variety of sources, and warrant individual examination. It is thought that they, with their capitals and bases came from the Baths of Caracalla, but the original source of the grey granite was a quarry in the Eastern Desert of Egypt called Mons Claudianus, and of the pink granite from one at Aswan in Egypt (those of you who have visited the Pyramids of Egypt might remember that the Great Pyramid contains a sarcophagus in pink granite. It is the same stone as here). The capitals and bases are in limestone, and are intricately carved. If you look closely at some of the former, you will see male and female faces peeping out. These have been identified as pagan deities, and an old guess is that they are Isis, Serapis and Harpocrates. Incredibly, it is recorded that they were deliberatly mutilated in the 1860 restoration; it is sincerely to be hoped that this was not ordered by anybody in charge.
The columns support horizontal entablatures rather than arches, which makes the church look much older than it is -the arrangement is called a trabeation, and was old-fashioned even in ancient Roman times. The reason it was used here was architectural, because to build arcades using these columns would have meant that the roof would have had to be much higher and would have been unsafe as well as very expensive. In other words, the church was designed to fit the columns and not the other way round.
On the nave walls above the columns are frescoes of saints. These sixteen paintings were ordered by Pope Pius IX and executed in the years 1865-66 by different artists. Usefully, they are labelled with the names of the saints concerned. Oddly, the backgrounds of these paintings are faked to look like mosaic work. The artists are listed as: Left side- Cortes, Wedmer, Sereni, Bartolommei, Sogni, Scaccioni and Fontana; right side- Fracassini, Minocchi, Cappanari, Vincenzo Mercuri, Chiari and Marini. This list only has thirteen names, so some of them painted more than one.
The three windows above the entrance have 19th century stained glass, depicting (left to right) the three saintly popes Julius, Callixtus and Cornelius.
There is a fine 15th century aumbry or holy oil cupboard at the beginning of the nave (on the right-hand side), which is thought to be by Mino da Fiesole. It is in carved and gilt marble, and has the tag Olea Sancta on the little brass door. The attribution depends on the signature: Opus Mini. Notice the little figure of Christ holding his Cross at the top, with blood pouring from his side into a chalice. This aumbry used to be in the sacristy, the logical place for it, but was thrown out in the 19th century restoration and fortunately put here instead of being sold on.
The Cosmatesque floor was restored and re-laid in the 19th century, but overall is faithful to the original design.
The carved wooden pulpit halfway down the nave on the left hand side is worth a glance. It is 18th century, and floats on one of the columns with access via a little spiral staircase.
The frescoes which decorate the triumphal arch were also added during the 19th century restoration, and depict the Blessed Virgin and Child with angels and the patriarchs Moses and Noah. The arch is supported by two more monolithic granite columns.
Domenichino designed the gilded and coffered wooden nave ceiling, and also painted the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin (1617) in the octagonal cove in the middle. It is thought that the geometric pattern of the coffering is based on the Aldobrandini coat-of-arms, since a cardinal belonging to this family funded its creation.
In a cove near the entrance is the church's dedication. It reads: Dei Matri Virginiq[ue] Mariae, in caelum Assumptae, Petrus Card[inalis] Aldobrandinus S[anctae] R[omanae] E[cclesiae] Camer[arius] d[ono] d Anno MDCXVII ("Peter Aldobrandini, cardinal and Camerlengo of the Holy Roman Church, gave [this church] as a gift to the Mother of God and Virgin Mary, assumed into heaven, in the year 1617").
Towards the sanctuary, the corresponding cove has an epigraph which reads: In hac prima Dei Matris aede, taberna olim meritoria, olei fons e solo erumpens, Christi ortum portendit ("In this, the first shrine of the Mother of God, formerly a noted tavern, a fountain of oil erupting from the ground predicted Christ's birth"). This refers to an ancient and strange legend, dealt with further below.
The transept is structurally separate from the nave, and has its own coffered wooden ceiling. It is in gold, blue and red and was commissioned by Cardinal Giulio Santorio in 1596. The central cove has a wooden statue of Our Lady being assumed into heaven, while the coats-of-arms to the sides are of the cardinal and of Pope Pius IX. The latter's restoration of the church included this ceiling.
Sanctuary mosaics -12th centuryEdit
The mosaics on the conch or semi-dome of the apse, together with the wall into which it is inserted, were executed soon after the church was finished, perhaps 1148. The style is, interestingly, more Classical than Byzantine especially as regards the main central seated figures of Christ and Our Lady and St Peter on the right of them.
The wall containing the apse displays the prophet Isaiah on the left, holding a scroll reading: Ecce virgo concipiet, et pariet Filium ("Behold, a virgin will conceive and give birth to a Son"). On the right is the prophet Jeremiah, and his scroll reads: Christus Dominus captus est in peccatis nostris ("Christ was caught in our sins"). This is a puzzle, since it is not a quotation from Scripture (but see Lamentations 4:20). At the top of the arch is a cross with the Greek letters A and Ω (Alpha and Omega), and this is flanked by the Seven Candlesticks of the Book of Revelation. The symbols of the Evangelists are to the left and right, and by the scrolls of the prophets are two cages containing a bird each. The meaning of this symbol, also to be found on the mosaic at San Clemente, is another puzzle but here it seems to allude to Jeremiah's scroll.
The main mosaic depicts Christ enthroned with Our Lady at his right hand, flanked by saints and popes. The Hand of God emerges from a wreath above his head. On the left side are Pope Innocent II, holding a model of the church identifying him as the builder, St Lawrence and Pope St Callixtus. On the right side are Peter the Apostle, Pope St Cornelius, Pope St Julius and St Calepodius.
Below this main mosaic is an epigraph, which reads in bad Latin verse: Haec, in honore tuo, prefulgida Mater honoris, regia divina rutilat fulgore decoris. In quo Christe sedes manet, ultra secula sedes. Digna tuis dextris est, quam tegit aurea vestis. Cum moles ruitura vetus, foret hinc oriundus. Innocentius hec renovavit, papa secundus. ("This [church is provided] in your honour, outstanding Mother of honour, it shines with the king's splendour of beauty. In which the throne of Christ remains, the seat for eternity. It is fitting to accompany you, since gold has touched it as clothing. When the old edifice was about to fall into ruin, this one was about to rise from it. Innocent, the second pope [of that name] renovated this [church]").
Below this in turn is a frieze with the Lamb of God and the Twelve Apostles represented as a herd of sheep in procession. Behind the last lamb on each side are the two holy cities Bethlehem and Jerusalem.
The incidental details of this mosaic cycle, such as the fruit and flowers on the soffit of the apse arch, are worth noticing.
Sanctuary mosaics -13th centuryEdit
In the body of the apse below the sheep, and on each side, the series of mosaic panels are the work of Pietro Cavallini, probably made 1290-1291. They form a strip broken by three round-headed windows in the apse, and show scenes from the life of the Blessed Virgin.
It can be dark here, but it's possible to ask the sacristan to switch on the lights so that the mosaics can be seen better. I would recommend that you look at them as they are first - it would have been just as dark here when they were made. The first from the left is the Birth of Our Lady, followed by the Annunciation, Nativity, Epiphany, Presentation in the Temple and The Dormition or Falling Asleep of Mary. The last one shows The Soul of Mary in the Arms of Our Lord.
These particular mosaics witness to a continued fidelity to the Byzantine tradition in the use of colours, forms and themes in Roman sacred art even at this late stage. One very interesting detail is in the Nativity panel, where St Joseph is shown sitting off to one side, looking rather tired. He is actually depicted in deep thought. The apocryphal tradition that influenced the Byzantine iconic tradition of the Nativity, had it that the Devil seriously tempted St Joseph into suspecting that the baby was as the result of Mary's having had an affair. In many Byzantine icons of the same scene, you can see the Devil as a little hairy man but he is not shown here.
Finally, below the central window in the apse is a mosaic panel by Cavallini showing SS Peter and Paul presenting the donor of the mosaics, one Cardinal Bertoldo Stefaneschi (from a noble Trastevere family), to the Madonna and Child in a nimbus or rainbow halo. It has the cardinal's family coat-of-arms, which you can spot on his tomb, as well as an inscription which reads: Virgo, Deum complexa sinu servanda pudorem, Virgineum matris fundans per secula nomen, Respice compunctos animos miserata tuorum ("Virgin, embracing God in her bosom and keeping modesty, establishing the name of a virginal mother for ever, have mercy and look on the repentant souls of your [devotees]").
The frescoes on either side of these are late 16th century, and are by the highly regarded Counter-Reformation artist Agostino Ciampelli. They show angels carrying objects which are symbols of Our Lady, many of them featuring in the Litany of Loreto.
The high altar is preceded by a low marble screen made up of transennae, which are pierced marble slabs. Some are old, but others are 19th century. These are often to be found in Roman church windows in place of glass.
The baldacchino over the altar was added in the 19th century restoration, and is by Virginio Vespignani. It is in a pseudo-mediaeval style and has four Corinthian columns, which are described as porphyry, with gilded capitals. The stone is certainly not the genuine imperial porphyry, which comes from a quarry in the eastern desert of Egypt and has not been quarried since the 4th century.
The altar itself is the original 12th century one, and is made up of ancient marble slabs. The frontal now has a modern icon of the Holy Face in the very ancient Byzantine tradition known as the Mandylion.
Below the altar is the confessio or underground chamber where the relics of SS Callixtus, Cornelius, Julius and Calepodius are interred. They were moved here from the Cemetery of Calepodius in about 790, and the confessio provided for them. Unlike several other churches in Rome, the confessio here is not now open to the public because you would have to crawl under the altar to get into it. The original arrangement must have included stairs down for pilgrims in the ends of the transepts, as is still the case at Santa Francesca Romana.
The 12th century episcopal throne in the apse is of grey-streaked cipollino marble (?) from the island of Euboea in Greece, and has a pair of griffins as arm-rests. It is placed on a block of multi-coloured pavonazzetto marble from what is now Turkey, and has Cosmatesque work in the floor in front of it.
It is flanked by the wooden stalls of the priests of the college attached to the church, which were provided in the 19th century restoration.
To the right of the high altar is a Paschal candlestick, again Cosmatesque and actually made by the Cosmati family. It is helical in form, a "barley-sugar" column which has been described as resembling a python having an orgasm. This silly remark actually points at an ancient and obscure tradition, that there were twisted columns in the original Temple of Solomon which were looted by the Romans and ended up in the old St Peter's Basilica. These columns in turn were imagined to have echoed a cultic object called the Nehushtan, a bronze snake on a pole kept in the Jerusalem Temple and which was meant to have been a source of healing for the Israelites during their Exodus. Christians regarded this as a prefiguring of the Cross of Christ, hence the Paschal theme.
In between this and the baldacchino may be seen a finestrella or little aperture which is traditionally the site of the "Fons olei". There is an inscription in the floor in front of it, and one in the ceiling above already mentioned. The floor inscription reads: Hinc oleum fluxit, cum Christus Virgine luxit. Hic et donatur venia, a quocumque rogatur. Nascitur hic oleum, Deus ut de Virgine, utroque terrarum est oleo Roma sacrata caput. Versus qui olim legebantur ad fontem olei. ("From here oil flowed, when Christ shone from the Virgin. Here also pardon is given, asked for by whoever. Here oil is born, as God from the Virgin, and by both oils Rome is made the sacred head of all lands").
It refers to a legend claiming that a natural oil spring appeared here in either the same year as the Nativity or in 38 BC, and was copious enough to flow into the Tiber along the present Via della Fonte d'Oleo. The location was at a taberna, or inn. The legend was mentioned by St Jerome in the 4th century, and also by Eusebius of Caesarea. The former wrote that the Jewish community in Trastevere interpreted it as a sign that God's grace would soon flow into the world and that, because of the spring, the taberna became a meeting spot for the first Roman converts to Christianity.
In geological reality the region of Lazio around Rome has several small, shallow oil-fields the largest of which is at Ripi some 70 km from Rome, so the event seems possible.
The description of the side chapels is anticlockwise, starting from the bottom right hand aisle where the shop is to be found, through a doorway to the right. You can buy guidebooks and postcards here.
Above the shop doorway is a 15th century icon of the Madonna and Child in a gilt frame.
This chamber used to be the portarium, or the headquarters of the church's custodians. Their job would have been to watch over the church's fittings and also to eject undesirables. These would not have been just potential thieves and troublemakers, but also the stray dogs and pigs which used to infest the streets of Rome until well into the 19th century.
The first chapel on the right hand side is dedicated to St Frances of Rome. It was finished as the funerary chapel of the Busi family, to which she belonged, in 1727 and has an altarpiece by Giacomo Zoboli (1681-1767) showing her receiving Communion during Mass. The painting has a frame in green verde antico marble, and is flanked by a pair of Composite columns in yellow Siena marble. These only support a pair of postes (inverted plinths) instead of a pediment. However immediately above them is a large lunette window, which hence gives the impression of a luminous segmental pediment. This superb late Baroque architectural joke deserves notice.
On the left hand wall is the memorial to Cardinal Giovanni Battista Bussi of 1726, and on the right hand wall one to Cardinal Pietro Francesco Bussi of 1765. Both were designed by Francesco Ferrari (not the painter, who was dead by then), with sculptural details by Giovan Battista de' Rossi.
Chapel of the CribEdit
This tiny chapel is claimed to be the oldest in the church, and to date from the restoration by Pope Gregory IV. In which case, it is older than the main church. However, as it stands it is a little square box with a saucer dome, decorated in cream with gold highlights in a restrained Baroque style. This is as a result of a restoration sponsored by Cardinal Francesco Antonio Finy and executed by Filippo Raguzzini; the work entailed the loss of frescoes by Raffaellino da Reggio.
The altarpiece of the Nativity is by Stefano Parrocel.
Chapel of Our Lady of SorrowsEdit
However when the chapel was commissioned by Cardinal Francesco Cornaro in 1652 it was dedicated to St Frederick of Liege, and had an altarpiece which was a copy of a work by Giacinto Brandi showing the saint being assaulted by an evildoer. The original painting was being kept in the sacristy by the late 19th century.
The crucifix was then over a wooden altar at the entrance to the main nave, where the aumbry now is, and Nibby in the mid 19th century was surprisingly rude about the altar's design (pessimo gusto). The crucifix, then believed to be by Pietro Cavallini, was in front of a badly decayed fresco Calvary allegedly by Antonio Viviani nicknamed Il Sordo da Urbino.
The re-ordering and re-dedication was as a result of the 1860 restoration, when the cross was replaced by the Mino aumbry and brought here. In 2015 it was restored on the initiative of Cardinal James Stafford as a gesture of solidarity with poor and unemployed people in Rome.
Above, the chapel has a saucer dome divided into eight unequal sectors in a Maltese Cross pattern. These display stucco reliefs of putti frolicking, and angels playing music are in the pendentives.
Chapel of SS Peter and PaulEdit
The fourth chapel on the right is dedicated to SS Peter and Paul, was erected at the end of the 16th century but is now completely neglected. The altarpiece, Christ Giving the Keys to St Peter, is by Giuseppe Vasconio. The vault has a fresco of God the Father, and there is a monument to a female member of the Lunghi family by Rinaldo Rinaldi of 1838.
Next along the aisle comes the large, very impressive late Baroque (1745) polychrome marble monument to Cardinal Pier Marcellino Corradini. The cameo-style portrait in its oval tondo is especially realistic, and shows the cardinal as a very fat bald man with a large Roman nose. The marbles used are black for the cenotaph sarcophagus and the base, green verde antico for the portrait surround and an interesting yellow and red marble for the setting of the epigraph below. The colour combination is rather bilious, but designers of polychrome Baroque funerary monuments often deliberately aimed to unsettle the viewer slightly in this way.
On the other side of the monument is a side exit, which used to lead into the church's cemetery -long disused. The parish churches in Rome used to have cemeteries attached, but the French occupiers at the end of the 18th century passed a law forbidding burial within the city walls. The large new cemetery of Campo Verano was provided instead. The cemetery here has a little oratory called Santa Maria Addolorata in Trastevere standing in it, which you can see if you go round into the Via della Paglia.
Relics of the MartyrsEdit
At the steps at the end of the right aisle there is a grated niche. In it you can see some chains, a marble ball and some black and red marble stones. These last are ancient standard weights, which the Romans first kept in their temples and later in the churches. The chains are described as having been used on martyrs being taken to execution, while the ball is said to have been tied around the neck of Pope St Callixtus when he was martyred by being thrown into a well. (The well is at the south side of the nearby church of San Callisto, but you can only see it if you trespass into the adjacent private car park. You are liable to be chased off if you do.)
Because of the confessio, the transept is elevated and you have to go up some stairs to get to it. The right hand wall is entirely occupied by the enormous white marble Armellini monument of 1524 by the school of Andrea Sansovino. It was commissioned by Francesco Armellini Pantalassi de' Medici for himself and his father Benvenuto, even though he was cardinal of San Callisto and not of here. He is on the left and his father on the right, reclining on their respective sarcophagi in mirrored poses. Our Lady is in a tondo over each. In the middle are SS Lawrence and Francis with God the Father above. Predictably, the work has been described as being of the school of Sansovino although it appears that the cardinal designed it himself.
Above the monument is an organ donated by Cardinal Altemps at the end of the 16th century. It is richly frescoed and gilded, and is still in good working order.
Against the far wall of the transept is a monument to Cardinal Stanislaus Hosius (his name is usually given in Latin; in his native Polish it is Stanisław Hozjusz). He was a very important figure in the Counter-Reformation struggle against Protestantism in Germany and Poland, and this can be discerned from the two epigraphs on the base of the monument. One reads Haec scripsi vobis de iis qui seducant vos ("I have written these things concerning those who would seduce you"), and the other Catholicus non est, qui a Romana Ecclesia in fidei doctrina discordat ("He is not a Catholic, who disagrees with the Roman Church in doctrines concerning the faith"). The bust in a circular tondo shows a very full beard, which was fashionable among clerics at the time. The colour combinations of the polychrome marble here are more harmonious than with the Corradini monument, being dominated by lilac and violet veining.
Chapel of the Winter ChoirEdit
At the far side of the transept, to the right of the apse, is the so-called Chapel of the Winter Choir. It has this name because the collegiate priests serving the church used to chant the Divine Office here in winter, when the main church could get too cold for comfort (especially in the morning).
The chapel is reserved for private prayer, and casual visitors are asked not to enter. Please take this request seriously, because mentally vulnerable people sometimes come here to find some peace. If you barge in taking photos, you risk an unpleasant confrontation.
The room used to be an annexe to the sacristy. However, it was first converted into a chapel on the orders of Pope Urban VIII after 1624 to house a popular icon of Our Lady known as the Madonna di Strada Cupa. The street of that name, now lost, was a rural byway below the slopes of the Janiculum nearby, and the icon was over the gate into a vineyard owned by the Nobili family. At the start of the 17th century it acquired a popular reputation for miraculous powers, so the pope ordered its transfer and enshrinement here. Rather sadly, the devotion soon lost its intensity and the chapel was sold as a private family funerary mausoleum in 1627. It remained serving this function until renovated as a choir chapel by Henry Stuart, Duke of York (regarded by Jacobites as King Henry IX of Great Britain), when he was made a cardinal in 1759. This is why the British royal coat-of-arms is above the door.
The original design of the interior is attributed to Domenichino, but his contribution stopped when he moved to Naples in 1629. The polychrome marble high altar is part of the Stuart restoration, and has the icon enshrined in a setting featuring stucco angels attributed to Alessandro Algardi. The painting on the left hand wall depicts The Flight into Egypt and is an 18th century work in the style of Maratta. The one on the right hand wall is of St John the Baptist, and used to be an altarpiece in a side chapel off the left hand nave. It is 16th century, and has been attributed to Antonio Carracci.
The matching chapel at the end of the left aisle is known as the Altemps Chapel. It was commissioned by Cardinal Marco Altemps and built by Martino Longhi the Elder, being completed in 1587. As well as a mortuary chapel for himself (his memorial slab is immediately inside the entrance), the cardinal intended it as a commemoration of the Council of Trent and the campaign against Protestantism by his uncle Pius IV, and the spectacular frescoes witness to this.
The coats-of-arms of Cardinal Altemps and of Pope Pius IV are over the entrance, and their portraits feature in a niche high above the altar. The frescoes of the Council on the side walls, and the stucco work, are by Pasquale Cati of 1588. The frescoed ceiling features the Assumption in the central oval tondo, with the other panels showing scenes from the life of Our Lady interspersed with four smaller oval tondi showing the Evangelists.
However, the chapel has been more famous for some time as the home of the icon of the Madonna della Clemenza (Our Lady of Mercy), which is arguably the most precious art treasure in the church. There are several icons of Our Lady in Rome which are claimed by tradition to be ancient. However, this one truly is so because it is early 8th century at the latest and some experts argue for a date as early as the late 5th century. This would make it one of the oldest icons of Our Lady in existence, and possibly the original reason why the church was re-dedicated to her. The further opinion is that it was painted in Rome, and possibly commissioned by a pope.
The icon is an encaustic panel formed from three cypress boards, and depicts the Madonna and Child between two angels. Our Lady is depicted as a Byzantine empress dressed in purple, and there is a supplicant kneeling at her feet. The work was covered in silver leaf by Pope Gregory III (731-741), and Pope Leo III (795-816) donated a large purple veil to hang in front of the image.
The icon has been recently cleaned and restored.
Next to the entrace to the Altemps Chapel is the impressive polychrome marble monument to Roberto Altemps. He is shown as a baby-faced youth in a ruff, his bust being in a tondo embellished with a wreath and a scallop shell. Appearances are deceptive, because he was the soldier son of Cardinal Marco Altemps and his military background are alluded to by the trophies in the bottom panel, and the figures of Minerva and Victory sitting on the pediment. He was only twenty when he raped a teenage girl, and would have expected a routine pardon because of his exalted status. Pope Sixtus V decided to make an example of him to the other Roman nobles, and let the due process of law take their course. He was executed for the crime.
On the left hand wall of the transept are two interesting monuments flanking an altar. The right hand one belongs to Cardinal Pietro Stefaneschi (died 1417), and was was sculpted by Paolo da Gualdo Cattaneo. We know this, because he included his signature in the epitaph. The reclining figure of the cardinal is very realistic, and the entablature of the canopy above him has a strip of Cosmatesque work. The epitaph is flanked by two shields bearing his family's heraldic device (you will have seen this already in the apse, as he commissioned the lower mosaics), and shields and epitaph are separated by twisted columns.
The tomb on the left hand side is to Cardinal Philippe d'Alençon, who died in 1397, and is the work of Giovanni d'Ambrogio. His French nationality can be guessed at from his shield, which bears fleurs-de-lys. The scene below his effigy shows the Dormition of Our Lady, in marble relief.
The altar between the two tombs is dedicated to SS Philip and James, Apostles, and was founded by the latter cardinal. It is in the Gothic style, with a pair of spirally ribbed Corinthian columns embellished with Cosmatesque work supporting a gabled canopy with a pointed arch. Above the column capitals are four little figures of saints; four others were removed, and are now over the side doors at the entrance to the church. The altarpiece is a 16th century painting showing the Martyrdom of SS Philip and James, which was commissioned for the altar by Cardinal d'Alençon because he appears in it on the right. In the tympanum above is a relief carving of the Assumption, and below the painting is an inscription placed here by Cardinal Altemps in 1584, describing how he moved the altar from somewhere in the transept nearer the main altar -where it was in the way ("ne transversam navem Templi occuparet").
The entry to the sacristy is at the far end of the left hand aisle, before the transept steps. It has an antechamber, which is often to be found accessible because the parish offices are through here. On the other hand, the sacristy itself is kept locked.
One of the often overlooked treasures of the church is the pair of tiny 1st century mosaic panels in the antechamber. They are originally from Palestrina, and one depicts birds (gallinules) while the other shows a seaside scene with boats and dolphins. Because they are ancient Roman rather than Christian works of art, and because their location leaves them rather vulnerable, there has been some pressure to remove them to a museum.
Opposite these on the wall is a relief depicting The Resurrection of the Dead, by Nicola La Sala. Bernini is suggested as having either designed the sculpture, or re-touched it. Near it is an ancient sarcophagus with a bust of the deceased, formerly used here as a holy water stoup.
The sacristy itself was erected by Cardinal Stefano Nardini in 1474, as the inscription over the doorway proclaims. It used to contain the original Brandi painting of St Frederick executed for one of the side chapels.
There is also a cross-shaped crystal reliquary ,holding a relic of Pope St Urban I. It was made in 1761, and presented to the church by Cardinal Henry Duke of York. The Cardinal's coat-of-arms can be seen on the leather case it is kept in.
To the left of the sacristy entrance are two identically designed tombs in the form of epitaphs framed in yellow marble on black marble plinths, and topped by obelisk-shaped green marble tablets bearing relief portraits of the deceased in tondi. The only difference in design between the two monuments is that one has a black epitaph tablet, and the other a white one (yin and yang?), also the portrait on the left is in gilded bronze while the right hand one is in marble. The obelisks rest on bronze lions.
The left hand monument is to Giovanni Gaetano Bottari, of 1775. The right hand one is to Alessandro Lazzarini, of 1820. He died in 1836, so designed this architectural whimsy for himself.
Chapel of St JeromeEdit
It has a superb Baroque dome, in which the oculus is supported by four stucco angels. It also has an unusual altar with an odd perspective device, as if the altarpiece was at the end of a short passage flanked by pilasters in pavonazzetto marble which is also used for the main pair of altar columns. The altarpiece is a painting of St Jerome by Gherardi, and the chapel is dedicated to him.
For more illusionistic Baroque by the same architect, see the Chapel of St Cecilia at San Carlo ai Catinari.
Chapel of the Sacred HeartEdit
As it stands, this chapel is not very interesting. It used to be dedicated to St John the Baptist, but when it was re-dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus the altarpiece was banished to the Winter Choir.
The present altarpiece depicts the Sacred Heart, a painting of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart is on the left hand wall and the saucer dome contains a fresco of her with the Christ-Child by Nicola Trometta.
Monument to Pope Innocent IIEdit
In the narrow space between this chapel and the next is the tomb of Pope Innocent II, who was buried here because he was from the Papareschi who were, at the time, one of the most powerful families in Trastevere. He was originally buried in San Giovanni in Laterano, but was moved here after that basilica was damaged by fire in 1308. However, he had to wait until the 1860 restoration to get a tomb, ordered by Pope Pius IX. It is a rather academic neo-Classical work, featuring a sarcophagus with strigillate decoration. In the lunette above is a scene from the life of the pope.
The Nolli map of 1748 indicates that there used to be a tiny chapel here.
Chapel of St FrancisEdit
The Ardize chapel dates from 1591, and is dedicated to St Francis of Assisi. The altarpiece of him, the side pictures and the fresco work are by Guidotti. The saucer dome shows God the Father Adored by the Heavenly Host.
The low balustraded screen is 19th century, but was put here before the 1860 restoration.
Chapel of Our Lady of Divine LoveEdit
The Spinosa Chapel was built in 1618 and dedicated to SS Marius and Callixtus; Marius was chosen because the founder was called Mario Spinosa. The altarpiece showing the two saints is by "Procaccini" (which one?).
The chapel is now re-dedicated to Our Lady of Divine Love, who has her shrine on the Via Ardeatina -Santuario della Madonna del Divino Amore. A modern copy of the venerated icon to be found at the shrine is to the left.
The first chapel off the left hand aisle is the small octagonal baptistry, although it used to be dedicated to St Michael the Archangel before the re-ordering by Cardinal Altemps in 1592. The original date of erection seems to be in the 14th century. There was a restoration in 1920, ordered by Pope Benedict XV whose coat-of-arms is above the entrance.
The wall behind the font shows The Baptism of Christ.
The baptistry is now disused. This is because it is tiny -if you admit the absolute minimum for a modern baptism of the priest, the baby, the parents, the god-parents, two fat nonne and the photographer, there would hardly be room for anyone else.
The church is advertised as open daily:
07:30 to 21.00.
This is nowadays a very generous period of opening for any Roman church. However, the shop is not usually open in the lunch period.
(Note, however, that there was a report in 2013 that the church was found closed in the lunch period. This might have been because the custodian was taken ill or called away.)
Unfortunately some of the aisle side chapels are usually kept gated and unlit, and certain of them are neglected. Hence, it is difficult to appreciate the artworks in them. Serious visitors could take an electric torch, or inquire in the parish office -it helps to be knowledgeable about what you want to look at.
The Mass times are:
Weekdays, 9:00 and 17:30.
Sundays and major solemnities: 20:00 (anticipated), 8:30, 10:30, 11:30, 17:30, 18:45.
Of the Sunday Masses, the one at 11:30 is the main parish Mass of Sunday. The 18:45 Mass is of the Byzantine rite. The other Masses may not be celebrated on the church's high altar, but in one of the side chapels.
A priest is available for Confession before and after each Mass.
The Parish Office is open 9:30 to 12:00, which is when you should be able to visit the sacristy antechamber.
The major feast of the church is the Assumption, on 15 August.
During Advent and Christmas, the famous church crib is on display in the Crib Chapel, or in the narthex. It shows the Nativity scene as if it were taking place in the piazza, with a model of the front of the church dwarfing the tiny figures. The first of the "Youtube" videos in the "External links" below features it.
- ↑ According to one tradition, there was a dispute between Christians and the tavern keepers in the area over the right to use an assembly hall. The case was brought before Emperor Alexander Severus (222-235), who decided in favor of the Christians, saying that religious worship, no matter in which form, was better than drunkenness and debauchery.
- ↑ www.santegidio.com
Nolli map (look for 1165)
"De Alvariis" gallery on Flickr -portico (Excellent gallery of ancient epigraphs.)
Youtube video by Lucyro (Beware, inappropriate music.)