Santa Maria Antiqua

An earthquake buried this early Roman church. Recent excavations exposed layers of wall painting.

Santa Maria Antiqua, located at the foot of the Palatine Hill beside the Roman Forum (originally part of the Roman emperor Domitian’s palace complex of c. 81–96 C.E.), consecrated in the 6th century with paintings from the 6th, 7th, and 8th centuries. Special thanks to the World Monuments Fund, Giuseppe Morganti, Werner Schmid, and the Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Roma

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Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:00] We’ve just walked through one of the oldest churches in Rome, Santa Maria Antiqua.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:17] What’s so fascinating about Santa Maria Antiqua is the paintings that span several centuries, from a time when very few paintings remain.

Dr. Zucker: [0:21] The church is located on the slope of the Palatine Hill. That word “palatine” is where our English word for “palace” comes from. That’s because the Roman emperors had their palaces on this hill.

[0:37] We think that Santa Maria Antiqua reused an older building that may have been a guard house for the palace. There’s a ramp that would allow chariots to move up to the top of the hill.

Dr. Harris: [0:42] It’s really interesting to think about this transformation from pagan Rome to Christian Rome. Of course, the key figure in that transformation is Constantine, who makes it legal for Christians to practice their religion and who, by legend, converts to Christianity at the end of his life.

Dr. Zucker: [0:59] Constantine is also important because he moves the capital from Rome to a new capital named after him, Constantinople, in the east. Now, what this means is that Rome becomes politically less important. Let’s fast forward now to the 6th century, and that’s when this church is consecrated, when Rome is no longer a grand imperial city.

Dr. Harris: [1:19] But you have this Christian population, and you have churches that have been established by Constantine, including the Old St. Peter’s.

Dr. Zucker: [1:27] And later Santa Sabina, for example.

Dr. Harris: [1:29] And Santa Maria Antiqua, with its very unique paintings.

Dr. Zucker: [1:33] But in 847, there was a terrible earthquake.

Dr. Harris: [1:41] Between the earthquake and the 17th century, when a new church was built on this site, Santa Maria Antiqua was forgotten.

Dr. Zucker: [1:42] Somebody was digging around in the garden of that new church and uncovered a small portion of the original. There was a little bit of excavation done, but interestingly, the church was reburied. It wasn’t until the very beginning of the 20th century that that new church was removed and scientific excavations began.

[1:59] Between 2001 and 2016, important conservation work was done on the paintings. The chapel is once again open to the public. This is thanks to the Romans, of course, but with help from the Norwegians and from the World Monuments Fund in New York.

Dr. Harris: [2:14] We get to go back and see what Christian Rome was like in the 6th, 7th, and 8th centuries.

Dr. Zucker: [2:20] Let’s look at paintings from each of those periods.

Dr. Harris: [2:23] Let’s start with the painting on the wall that’s gotten most attention. This is called the Palimpsest Wall. Now, the word “palimpsest” refers to, usually, a piece of paper, parchment, where the original writing has been scraped off, so the paper can be reused. The idea is a surface that has layers of content.

Dr. Zucker: [2:51] In other words, it hadn’t been scraped off completely. There might be traces. You can get a sense of the use and reuse of the wall. This is just to the right of the apse at the far end of the church.

Dr. Harris: [2:58] The oldest figure here is referred to as Maria Regina. Maria, Mary, Queen of Heaven. “Regina” in Latin means “queen.”

Dr. Zucker: [3:08] That’s an appropriate name because she’s dressed as if she’s a Byzantine empress. She’s wearing a crown. She’s bedecked with pearls and gems.

Dr. Harris: [3:13] She’s very frontal. She’s static, symmetrical.

Dr. Zucker: [3:17] On her lap, she holds the Christ Child. Just to her left, we see an angel. You had mentioned that this was symmetrical, and because of that, we know that there would have been another angel on the opposite side. When the apse was cut into the wall, we lost that angel.

Dr. Harris: [3:32] The next layer dates to about 50 years later. Here, we see an angel, referred to as the Fair Angel, and then on the left, part of the face of Mary. We know that this was a scene of the Annunciation, of the angel Gabriel announcing to Mary that she is going to conceive the Christ Child.

Dr. Zucker: [3:54] Look how radically different the style of painting is. We have this modulation of light and shadow. We have a sense of the turn of the figures. It’s so different from the flat, frontal quality of Maria Regina.

Dr. Harris: [4:09] As if that’s not complicated enough, we have yet another layer, where we see a male figure peeking above the shoulder of Maria Regina. This is a Church Father wearing a gold halo, who’s also very frontal, like Maria Regina.

Dr. Zucker: [4:23] You can just see, against the blueish-gray field, Greek writing, which is also from this latest layer.

Dr. Harris: [4:30] Art historians don’t know why this wall and other parts of the church have layers of paintings.

Dr. Zucker: [4:35] Let’s turn around and go to the other side of the sanctuary to look at a pier where there is a more intact painting from the 7th century.

Dr. Harris: [4:37] This is an image from the Book of Maccabees.

Dr. Zucker: [4:40] This is Solomone and her seven sons. She watched her seven sons executed for their faith.

Dr. Harris: [4:46] Very important subject for early Christians, who were also persecuted for their faith.

Dr. Zucker: [4:52] What I find so striking about this painting is the energy and naturalism. This is so different from the Maria Regina. Look at the way that light and shadow model the folds of her drapery.

Dr. Harris: [5:02] That sash around her head and that crosses her torso, the highlights are made with quick strokes of paint.

Dr. Zucker: [5:14] It’s clearly referencing a classical tradition that was interested in rendering form in the round.

Dr. Harris: [5:15] Although she’s very frontal, her body is elongated.

Dr. Zucker: [5:19] Christianity is finding its own pictorial language. Painters of this time want to represent the divine, not the physical realm, which is one of the reasons you have this kind of elongation, this attenuation of the body.

[5:30] These are not meant to be figures that we would meet. These are symbolic figures that represent the spiritual realm.

Dr. Harris: [5:36] Let’s look at one more image. This is an image of the Crucifixion. It’s so interesting, because this is a moment when, in the eastern part of the empire, images are being forbidden in the church.

Dr. Zucker: [5:47] This is a period which we call the Iconoclasm, a time when images were seen as suspect. They were objects that might be prayed to directly and that could mislead the faithful.

[5:59] This is not the east, this is Rome. We have this large-scale Crucifixion, as if this church is making a statement.

Dr. Harris: [6:05] The court in the east may be disallowing religious images, but here in Rome, we are making images to inspire the faithful. These are fresco paintings. These are made on wet plaster, but there’s an interesting ingredient here.

Dr. Zucker: [6:21] In the west, frescoes tended to be painted on simple plaster walls. But an eastern technique included straw and other organic materials. What’s interesting is that the frescoes in Santa Maria Antiqua use this eastern technique.

[6:38] It leads art historians and conservators to believe that they were made by artists from the eastern part of the empire. That makes these paintings even more significant. These are very rare examples of the painting tradition that was under attack in the eastern empire.

Dr. Harris: [6:54] It gives us a clue about what those paintings might have looked like that are now lost at time.

Dr. Zucker: [0:00] Except at Santa Maria Antiqua.

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Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

[flickr_tags user_id=”82032880@N00″ tags=”SMAntiqua,”]

More Smarthistory images…

Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Santa Maria Antiqua," in Smarthistory, January 25, 2017, accessed May 19, 2024,