Another gorgeous church and one more St Mary's. This gem is one of the oldest Christian churches in Rome, and possibly the first in which mass was celebrated. Technically it dates to the 4th century but most of what you see is from a 12th-century Medieval overhaul.
It has a few relics (the head of St. Apollonia and a bit of Holy Sponge - whatever that is), the tombs of two Popes (Callixtus I and Innocent II) and a few Cardinals but this Santa Maria's most famous treasures are her magnificent mosaics. The apse of the basilica literally glows with radiant, gilded 12th and 13th-century depictions of the life of St. Mary and her coronation: beautiful and well worth crossing the river for. On the exterior facade, and from the same period, are a series of faded mosaics which also honor the Virgin.
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The real treasure in the church of Santa Maria in Trastevere are the mosaics which date back to the 1100s, although the church itself is much older (going back to the 4th century with the current basilica built in the 12th century, although parts of the older church remain).
The mosaics in the apse and on the triumphal arch contain many details, including smaller objects such as fruits and flowers, although other objects relate to the overall theme of the work – look for the caged bird (representing Christ imprisoned for the sins of man), candlesticks and other evangelical symbols, and the Alpha and Omega symbols by the cross.
In the central part of the apse you can see Christ with the Virgin Mary on thrones. If you have already been to the church of Santa Maria Maggiore, this design will look familiar. The mosaics in Santa Maria in Trastevere predate the ones in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore – so the ones you are looking at in this church are older and possibly influenced the design of the other church. Both churches are named after the Virgin Mary so it makes sense that she would be a dominant theme of both sets of mosaics.
Also in this scene are portraits of current church leaders and major funding donors for the church – donor Bertoldo Stefaneschi is being presented to Mary to St. Peter and St. Paul and on the right one can see Pope Innocent II (with a model of the church) alongside St. Calixtus and St. Lawrence.
As with the church of Santa Maria Maggiore, this church has mosaics on the exterior façade of the church, located in the loggia. The mosaic panel depicts Mary and Baby Jesus surrounded by ten female figures. These date to the 12th and 13th centuries.
Thought to be the first Christian worship site in Rome (not necessarily a church at that point since the emperors were not Christians yet), Santa Maria in Trastevere was built on the site where legend says a fountain of oil sprung up on the day Christ was born (memorialized by the fountain in the piazza in front of the church). The real treasure of the church is the mosaics in this 12th century building. Originally built in the 300s, the current church was rebuilt in the 12th century by Innocent II.
The exterior Romanesque façade has mosaics that depict the Madonna and Child surrounded by a row of ten female figures in various robes and royal garments. There are three doorways with Roman friezes and pieces of Christian symbols from Roman and medieval gems in the walls of the portico.
Once inside the church is large with a flat ceiling in gold and reliefs of the Assumption. The ceiling is supported by 21 massive columns incorporated from other Roman buildings so they are not matching in style.
The mosaics surround the nave but the ones at the triumphal arch at the altar and the apse are the most spectacular, showing many Biblical scenes as well as scenes from the lives of saints. In the center of the apse are Mary and Jesus on thrones. Above Jesus’ head is the ‘hand of God’ reaching down. Mosaics are everywhere you look in this church and many date back to the 1200s, although in the hallway to the sacristy there are two very small Roman mosaics from the 1st century (sadly this hallway is typically closed off).
An interesting note is the English influence in the church. Henry Stuart, duke of York, was cardinal of the church in the 1700s and his coat of arms is above the gate of the choir. Stuart was a son of James III, the Old Pretender, and was named a cardinal while his father was living in Rome.
Pope Innocent II (who died in 1143 and had this church built) is buried in the north aisle, although his tomb wasn’t made until the 1800s when Pius IX commissioned it.
The church is open daily from 0700 to 1930. The mosaics are best seen when the morning light is coming through the windows.
On the facade, on the top, are four huge statues and behind them, on the tympanum, a beautiful mosaic of the Virgin Mary and Child. On either side are 5 female figures, each holding a pot with a red flame leaping out from some of them, like a sort of lantern. This is a representation of the well-know parable of Christ regarding the 10 bridesmaids awaiting the arrival of the bridegroom, mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew 25:1-13. The allegory is to the state of preparedness for the Final Reckoning, the Day of Judgement.
First Written: Oct. 10, 2012
The interior of this church, more than that of any other church in the city represents the splendour of ancient Rome. On the right side of the altar there is a Cosmati ("elaborate inlays of small triangles and rectangles of coloured stones and glass mosaics set into stone matrices or encrusted upon stone surfaces") column bearing the inscription, 'FONS OLEI'. This marks the spot of the oil flow miracle. A rich mosaic of Jesus, Mary and the disciples, with a herd of sheep at the bottom, fills the apse. This dates from around 1140 AD. The six mosaic panels between the windows were done by Pietro Cavallini in 1291 AD. Domenichino’s ‘Assumption of the Virgin' fresco, as well as his gilded ceiling (1617), are equally ornate and marvellous. Also, the church keeps the head of Saint Apollonia as a relic and a portion of the Holy Sponge. Pope Callixtus I and Lorenzo Cardinal Campeggio also lie buried inside the church.
First Written: Oct. 10, 2012
Of particular interest are the intricate mosaics that make up the floor of this church. Some of these are fragments for the earlier churches on the same site and date from the 4th to the 9th centuries. They were excavated from beneath the 12th century floor of the church. The designs are riveting, the workmanship exquisite, the colours elegant.
First Written: Oct. 10, 2012
The easiest way to reach one of the oldest churches in Rome, the Santa Maria in Trastevere, is to take Tram # 8 and get off at the Trastevere Mastai (Piazza Mastai, viale di Trastevere) stop. If you are coming from Largo Argentina side, this unique church will be to your right. A few minutes' walk and you will be in Piazza Santa Maria, looking at a large fountain built by Carlo Fontana (c. 1634-1714) and a little beyond, the beautiful 16th. century-style building.
It is reputed to be the first church to celebrate a public mass in Rome and is dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Legend has it that an oil-like liquid spurted at this site, either 38 years before the birth of Christ or on the day of His birth. This prompted Pope Callisto I (c. 217 AD to c. 222 AD) to build a church here. Near the altar, a step leading to the area reserved for the clergy now marks that spot. Pope Julius I (337 AD-352 AD) developed the church further. During the time of Pope Gregory IV (827 AD-844 AD), the church was used as a sanctuary owing to the incursions of the Arabs, Turks and others who professed the faith of Islam. It was left to Pope Innocent II (1130 AD-1143 AD), who was from the Trastevere locality, to rebuild the church using, amongst other material, 22 well-preserved columns cannibalised from the Roman Baths of Caracalla. The architect, Carlo Fontana, effected major modifications to the portico and to the general appearance of the church. Fortunately, he left the Romanic bell tower and the mosaic of the Madonna and Child, on top of the church, intact.
This church also substituted for St Paul's Outside the Walls - one of the four ancient papal basilicas - when devotees could not pray in the basilica owing to an outbreak of epidemics in ancient Rome and a devastating fire in the basilica in 1825 AD. On the north side of the piazza, there is a street called, Via delle Fonte dell ‘Olio, in memory of the oil miracle.
The central square is now a hub of eating joints, shops and a convenient meeting place for locals as well as for tourists. Handicrafts and clothing boutiques make it another reason to hang out in this area during the day or late in the evening, especially after the facade of the church is lit up.
First Written: Oct. 08, 2012
The Scala Sancta (Holy Staircase) is thought to be the same flight of steps which Jesus ascended in the house of Pontius Pilate. It was brought to Rome from Jerusalem by Empress Helena. The staircase has 28 marble steps, recovered with wood for protection, while small glass sheets cover some spots that are considred to be a trail of Christ's blood. Pilgrims climb on their knees up the stairs to reach the Sanca Sanctorum at the top of the staircase.
Santa maria in Trastevere is Rome's oldest basilica. Founded in AD 221, it was rebuilt in the 12th century by Pope Innocent II. Beside the facade is the lovely 12th century Romanesque campinile at the top of which is a niche with a mosaic representing a Madonna and Child.
The church of Santa Maria in Trastevere was my favorite sight -- and it's free! The church dates back to the 4th century. It is lovely inside. And it's small and quiet... a much more moving experience than the Sistine Chapel in my opinion. You can sit and check out the intricate frescos/artwork of the Altemps Chapel (from the 16th century .... to the left of the alter), light a candle for the dearly departed... and check out their small but rather classy gift shop. Our daughters appreciated it as well. They didn't have to slog through endless corridors. It was a digestible moment.
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