Minor Roman Basilicas: Santa Maria in Cosmedin

One of the more imposing facades of the minor basilicas in Rome surely must be that of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, located in the old Greek quarter of the city. In great part this is due to its impressively tall Romanesque belltower -- the tallest medieval example in all of Rome. Of course, the facade of the church itself has undergone various changes over the course of its history, something that we documented in another article, and what we see today is the result of a late nineteenth century renovation that stripped the church of its baroque facade and attempted to restore something more akin to a medieval, Romanesque appearance. 

This basilica was built in the eighth century during the period of Byzantine influence in Rome overtop the remains of an earlier Roman temple to Hercules. At the same period the church was decorated by Byzantine monks who had fled the iconoclastic persecutions of the East and due to its beauty and ornateness, it was given the informal title of "Cosmedin" which comes from the Greek word (kosmidion) which refers to a beautiful thing -- in other words, "Santa Maria in Cosmedin" basically is thought to mean St. Mary the beautiful.  Of course, by counter-reformation and baroque standards, the church is relatively austere, but it certainly is one of the most impressive minor basilicas in Rome for reason of its striking architectural characteristics. Of course, it must also be noted that many of the wall frescoes that once adorned the interior are now no longer with us, or visible only in part.

Remnants of the medieval fresco cycle that were once hidden by the baroque additions.

The basilica, as so many of them did, underwent various periods of restoration and renovation, most notably in the twelfth century.  

The interior is fairly typical to basilica form with a central nave lined by columns on either side and an open-trussed roof with two outer aisles going down either side. 

As in the instance of the basilica of San Clemente, we are greeted by a beautiful schola cantorum which is dated to the thireenth century -- here it was that those who chanted the liturgy would find their respective liturgical place. This joins to a balustrade that sits before the presbyterium and main altar of the basilica.  

Within the confines of the schola cantorum are found two ambones as is typical in these medieval arrangements -- one for the epistle and the other for the gospel, as well as the stationary Paschal candlestick in the ever popular form of a Solomonic column -- a later addition.

We'd be remiss to not also make note of the beautiful cosmatesque pavement found throughout the church, one of the most notable in all of Rome, made by the Cosmati family themselves and inclusive of genuine imperial porphyry. 

Within the presbyterium (i.e. sanctuary) we find the altar with its gothic ciborium. The ciborium itself is dated to the end of the thirteenth century and incorporates columns of red Egyptian granite.  Also found on the ciborium are various bits of cosmatesque decoration and one will also take note of a mosaic scene on the front, facing toward the nave, depicting the Annunciation.

The altar itself (like the columns going down the nave of the basilica) is a piece of spolia; an ancient granite basin repurposed as an altar beneath which are enshrined the relics of the martyrs Ss. Cyrilla, Hilarius and Coronatus. 

I would also draw your attention to the beautiful, in laid decorative work on the balustrade that separates the presbyterium from the schola cantorum

Located behind the altar is the twelfth century cathedra set upon three steps which includes a disc of red porphyry with two lions forming the arms.  Located around this is a kind of abbreviated synthronon (i.e. one without the tiers) upon which other clerics might sit.

Above in the apse is a depiction of the Virgin and Child, surrounded by palms, Ss. Augustine, Felix, Dionysius and Nicholas, while beneath are scenes from the life of the Virgin. While these might look antique, they are actually from the nineteenth century renovations, purposefully done in a rustic, medieval style.

The apsidal chapels found to either side of the nave contain similarly styled nineteenth century frescoes.

Beneath the presbyterium is an eighth century crypt which includes a small altar, columns and niches along the walls which would have likely held funerary urns. It is thought that perhaps this crypt was originally purposed for the use of the display and veneration of relics.  This notion is supported by the fact of the discovery of a lead plate discovered buried during the nineteenth century excavations upon which was inscribed "here are kept the remains of the Apostles, of the vestments and bodies of the other saints: St. Tiburtius the subdeacon, St. Avreus and his associates, St. Cyracus the bishop and St. Calixtus the Pope [etc.] ... and the bones of other saints."

Of course, if you want to see this basilica when it was liturgically arranged for the Roman rite (today it is used for the Byzantine liturgy), here is a historical photo showing Santa Maria in Cosmedin taken in the early twentieth century. 

A view of the interior of the basilica during the nineteenth century process of the stripping of its baroque features.

There are some other odds and ends to S. Maria in Cosmedin that our readers will surely find of interest. 

The basilica is home to an ancient relic of Roman times, the so-called "Mouth of Truth" located within the portico of the basilica.

The basilica also hosts the famous and popular relic of the head of the martyr, St. Valentine. 

Also of broader historical interest is a fragment of an early eighth century mosaic found within the sacristy of the basilica depicting the Adoration of the Magi. This mosaic fragment actually comes from Old St. Peter's Basilica, taken from the Marian Chapel of the same -- one of the few surviving bits of Old St. Peter's we still have in our possession. 

On a broader historical note, some of our English readers might be interested to know that S. Maria in Cosmedin was the titular church of the last Catholic archbishop of Canterbury, Reginald Cardinal Pole.

Join in the conversation on our Facebook page.