On the Thursday of the second week of Lent, pilgrims visit one of the first Roman churches dedicated to Our Lady.
Santa Maria in Trastevere is one of the oldest churches in Rome with records indicating worship on the site as early as the 3rd century in a sanctuary founded by Pope Callixtus I who lived in the area. Other sources show building work during the time of Julius I around about 350 AD, however the Marian dedication came about after the sacking of Rome by the Visigoths in 410 when Pope Celestine restored the previous building and dedicated it to the Virgin Mary.
More work followed before the entire complex was completely rebuilt by Pope Innocent II in the 12th century. This work involved materials from the Baths of Caracalla near the Aventine hill and include the 22 granite columns that line the nave. One, sited to the right of the altar is inscribed with the words fons olei, and marks the spot of a miraculous flow of oil. This flow is said to have started on the day Christ was born and was held to be a sign of the coming of the grace of God. The final major piece of work on the basilica was the addition in the 19th century of the portico.
Before entering the church it is worth taking a moment admire the façade. There are some 19th century frescos, but the real feature of the basilica front is the mosaic. Mary is at the centre with Jesus and they are flanked by 10 wise and foolish maidens. Two do not wear crowns and have let their candles burn out, however inspections have since revealed that this is an alteration to the original – the changes probably occurred at the same time as the two smaller kneeling figures immediately next to Our Lady were added. These are thought to be wealthy donors to the church.
In the porch, there is a vast collection of inscriptions from as far back as the 3rd century, 9th century sculptures can also be seen along with medieval frescoes. The Trastevere symbol of a lion can also be seen amongst the artefacts. One enters the church through a lobby which is actually the ground floor of the bell tower.
The columns salvaged from the Baths of Caracalla line the nave which is constructed to make the church seem older than it is. These columns play a key role in the style of the church as the building was designed around them. The walls of the nave are lined with frescoes of saints which were completed during the reign of Pius IX which is around the same time as the stain glass windows of popes Julius, Callixtus and Cornelius were installed above the entrance. These 19th century works also included the restoration of the floor following the original cosmatesque (i.e. detailed geometric patterns in small coloured marble tiles) design and the frescoes adorning the triumphal arch, showing the Virgin Mary and Child Jesus with angels and Old Testament figures.
The ceiling is also noteworthy. Domenichino, a famed Italian painter of the Carracci School, completed the gilded nave ceiling in the early 17th century; a separate ceiling work fills the transept and shows Our Lady’s assumption into heaven.
The apse of the church is filled with a 12th century mosaic in a more classical style than the Byzantine type that churches of a similar era were decorated with. It depicts Christ and Our Lady seated, with Peter on their right and other saints around. Pope Innocent II is also included holding a model of the church – identifying him as the builder of the church. Around this centre piece are symbols of the evangelists, prophets, seven candlesticks of the Book of Revelation and, at the top of the arch, the Greek letters Alpha and Omega. The space is completed by the Lamb of God and the twelve Apostles represented as a herd of sheep – behind the last on either side appears the cities of Bethlehem and Jerusalem.
This church at the heart of Trastevere really is a jewel in Rome’s crown and it is impossible to say everything about its wealth of artistic, archaeological and religious significance. One final point of note however, is that for Scots there is a special link to the basilica. Amongst the long list of Cardinal patrons is Henry Benedict Stuart, a figure closely linked to the history of the Scots College.