Ancient Church in Rome.

Ancient Church in Rome.
06 August 2016 0 Comment

The recently completed restoration of the “Ancient Church of Saint Mary” was built in the 5th century in the Forum Romanum. The conversion into a church was made from the monumental entrance created by the Emperor Domitian (51-96 AD) to the imperial palace perched on the Palatine Hill above. Rome at the time was stamping its authority over the remaining remnants of its “pagan” Imperial past, making this small church the oldest Christian monument in the Roman Forum.

The artistic jewel inside is a cycle of frescoes that date back to the 6th through to 9th centuries. Among them are some particularly rare Byzantine frescoes, which miraculously survived the Iconoclastic Campaign of 726. The so-called “palimpsest wall” to the right of the apse is an artistic highlight in Rome, displaying multi-layered frescoes completed over at least four stages, all the way from the Byzantine era to the early 8th century.

The discovery of these paintings have provided many theories on the development of early medieval art while revealing more archeological information on early church design and construction. The church was abandoned in the 9th century after an earthquake buried it and surrounding buildings. It remained sealed for over 1000 years until its rediscovery in the early 20th century. What might be described as a remarkably preserved time-capsule, the church provides a wonderful insight into the study and understanding of the cultural and urban development of the Roman Forum from Antiquity into the first centuries of the Christian period. Each alcove, wall and altar can be attributed to different times and trends of style representative of its artists and patrons, including the Popes Martin I (649-653), John VII (705-707), Zachary (741-752) and Paul I (757-767).

The Palimpsest Wall, located in the Presbytery has at least six layers of decoration, representing different styles, dates and influences. The first two layers from the fourth to sixth century are of Ancient Roman mosaics, which were quickly replaced by the earliest frescoes of Santa Maria Antiqua, as part of Rome’s Christianising of their “pagan” past. About two percent of these mosaics survive because they were over-painted with later frescoes. The third layer, c. 500-550, contains remnants of the Queen of Heaven, the earliest association with the story of the Virgin Mary and the Pompeian Angel. It is on this layer that archaeologists remarked upon the turn toward Hellenistic or Byzantine styles which deviated from the traditional linear Roman style. The later layers on this wall c. 570-655 reveal the artistic domination of the Hellenistic style, announcing Byzantine influence in Rome. The last painted areas of this wall belong to the period of Pope John VII (705-707) who is responsible for the extensive repairs and decorations that we still see today.

A visit to Rome is to visit history that you can touch with your fingertips. To be transported in time to moments in western history that has shaped the lives we live today.

Santa Maria Antiqua (Ancient Church of Saint Mary) in the Roman Forum is open Monday – Sunday from 08.30 to 19.30

Peter Kilby
About the Author

Peter Kilby is an artist, writer, story-teller, journalist and avid traveller who has lived and worked in Italy since 1987. He created Perfect Traveller to bring the world of art and history closer to you. Download the “free” Perfect Traveller app and enjoy the best audio tours available; about Italy today and yesterday. Sign Up to this website and submit your travel stories and become part of the Perfect Traveller community.

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