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Santa Maria Antiqua. A Byzantine church in the Roman Forum

The church of Santa Maria Antiqua was buried for over a thousand years. His discovery is unique, not only for the exceptional nature of the event. The mural paintings that decorate the interior allow us to better understand the evolution of medieval painting, in a place that has not changed after the year 847.

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Questo post è disponibile anche in italiano.

  • Where: the church Santa Maria Antiqua is inside the archeological area of the Roman Forum, via della Salara Vecchia, 9. A flight (Domitian’s eges) links the church with the imperial rooms of the Palatine palace.
  • When: while visiting the Roman Forum, but only until October 30th, 2016
  • Why: it’s an unique example of Byzantine church in Rome, unchanged during the past thousand years. The histories about its finding make it incredible.

The history.

The church of Santa Maria Antiqua was built in the sixth century; the building dating back to Emperor Domitian (first century) were adapted to the new function as a church. We actually do not know the exact original function of these environments (maybe it was a library).

After the consecration in the sixth century, Santa Maria Antiqua was decorated in over three hundred years. The church works were promoted by five popes: Martin I, John VII, Zechariah, Paul I, Hadrian I. Much of the paintings has been preserved, and is an outstanding paper on the development of painting in the Middle Ages.

The last paintings were executed at the end of the eighth century by Pope Hadrian I. Then, in the year 847, an earthquake caused the collapse of part of the Palatine Hill. Following the disappear of the church, it was abandoned. Only the precious icon was saved from abandonment, and was transported to the church of Santa Maria Nova.

Why is Santa Maria Antiqua a Byzantine church?


When the capital of the Empire moved to Constantinople, in the fifth century in Italy settled the Ostrogoths. Under the command of Theodoric, the Ostrogoths created a stable kingdom; the capital of the italian kingdom moved to Ravenna, and Rome became a marginal city.

When Justinian I ascended the throne of Constantinople, the political situation changed suddenly. Italy came back as interesting for the emperor who, looking for an Empire again large as in the past, undertook the conquest of the western provinces, that became barbarian kingdoms.

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For almost twenty years (535-553) the Greek-Gothic wars devastated  the Italy; in 536 Rome was conquered by Belisario, then definitely by Narses in 553. Even after the Byzantine conquest, the capital of the Exarchate settled in Ravenna. Rome, as a provincial town, was administered by imperial officials who settled on the Palatine Hill.

The Byzantine power on Rome lasted for about two centuries; during this time the pope strengthened its influence and the Church assumed the civil and administrative powers. Rome became a magnet for high-profile Byzantine people, both civil and ecclesiastical. No wonder, in this view, the extraordinary influx of Greek monks in Rome, first fleeing away from iconoclastic persecution, then from the Islamic invasions. There arose ecclesiastical community of greek kind, and the churches were decorated in the style of Constantinople. With the monks, came in Rome from capital of the Empire also the works of art, manuscripts, ecclesiastical furnishings and labor.

Santa Maria Antiqua and pope John VII.

mosaicosantamariaantiquaJohn VII, Pope between 705 and 707, came from the Greek area. Son of an official of the imperial palaces on the Palatine Hill, he was very attached to this area. He moved the papal palace to the Palatine Hill (until that time it had been the Lateran). It is a real political act, because it installs the center of the Christian religion in the most important place for the pagan world, which has now been completely replaced: the Forum. The pope reaffirmed the power he conquered after the capital moved to Constantinople. The strong bond of John VII with Santa Maria Antiqua is reaffirmed in the new decoration of the church, executed in the style common in Constantinople.

Santa Maria Antiqua is now a Palace Church.

Frescoes and wall paintings.

santim_miniThe wall painting of Santa Maria Antiqua are the real heritage of this place.

The iconography reflects the Greek thought, prevailing at the time. The carachters of Christ, the Virgin, the saints are not integrated within a story, but they are processed as portraits. In this way, the relationship created with the faithful is completely different from the one based on Western religious thought.

The observer is not involved in the scene, and devotional relationship established with the images is more direct and profound.

The church was completely painted (fragments of paintings are still visible on the shafts of the columns and the walls of the choir).

The Palimpsest Wall.


Since it was rediscovered in 1900 by the archaeologist Giacomo Boni, Santa Maria Antiqua was the subject of several studies. The analysis of the painted decoration has identified seven layers of paintings, each corresponding to a decorative phases.

The most exemplary area of this decorative system is that corresponding to the right wall of the apse.

This wall has been defined by scholars “palimpsest“, a term borrowed to the study of manuscripts on parchment. With palimpsest is intended the practice of reuse of a parchment already written, treated scraping off the top layer.

In the palimpsest wall, seven layers of the Santa Maria Antiqua decoration overlap itselves. Through the gaps in the upper layers it is possible to reconstruct the figuration of the covered layers.

Some highly technological installations of video mapping allow to “re-draw” the covered images and decorative system.

The Icon.

santa-maria-antiquaIn the middle of the church, the icon of the Madonna with Child immediately catches our attention.

According to some studies, it would be contemporary to the building of the church; that way it would be the oldest icon of the Virgin Mary currently known.

This icon was kept in Santa Maria Antiqua, but in 847 it was translated to the Basilica of Santa Francesca Romana. Santa Francesca Romana was also known as Santa Maria Nova, and was built to replace Santa Maria Antiqua after its collapse, still within the Roman Forum, next door to the Temple of Venus and Rome.

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You can get Santa Maria Antiqua when the archeological area of the Roman Forum is open. You can check here for the opening times.

The entrance ticket allows to visit the Roman Forum, the Palatine Hill and Colosseum for two consecutive days.

For more informations about Santa Maria Antiqua and its restoration, please, visit the official website.



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