Minor Roman Basilicas: Santa Maria in Trastevere

Trastevere is one of those 'must see' districts of Rome for it contains some of the most interesting sights and sounds of the city, one of which is the basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere.  The basilica is considered one of the most ancient in Rome -- though by this what we must understand is that we are speaking foundationally, for much of the present structure dates from the twelfth century. However, the initial presence of a place of Christian worship at this location goes all the way back to A.D. 221-227, if not earlier, as one of the ancient tituli of Rome, and the basic foundational structure of the present church building dates from around the time of Constantine. 

The church itself claims to be the first Roman church dedicated to the Mother of God -- though some would give that honour to Santa Maria Maggiore. As mentioned, the present church building dates substantially from the twelfth century, raised n the foundations of the fourth century church.

The facade of the basilica presents us with a combination of a twelfth century belltower and mosaic decoration, while the neo-classical portico comes from 1702 -- replacing the original medieval one. The portico has a beautiful collection of classical era monuments -- mainly inscriptions -- which have been embedded into the walls. 

The facade's decoration includes a scene of the Virgin Mary nursing the Christ child, with ten female saints flanking her, holding lamps. Beneath these, found adjacent to the windows, are depicted palm trees.  The portico itself is decorated with four statues depicting four saints: Ss. Callixtus (+222), Cornelius (+253), Julius (+352) and Calepodius (+232). 

But if the exterior with its fountain and piazza and facade are beautiful to behold, the interior is all the more spectacular, lined as it is by twenty two granite columns taken as spoila from the Roman baths of Caracalla. 

As is the case in most of these basilicas, it likewise boasts a beautiful cosmatesque pavement and ornament, not to mention transennae

"Fons olei" can be seen on the transenna shown here, which refers to an early Roman Christian legend about a spring of oil that purportedly appeared here proximate to the birth of Christ 

The main altar includes a beautiful ciborium magnum which actually dates from the nineteenth century but integrates so harmoniously into the building one would never know it. The present incumbents of S. Maria in Trastevere have adopted the rather unfortunate modern Italian practice of placing two (rather disproportionate) candlesticks to one side and the altar cross on the other, not to mention a Russian style icon of the Holy Face (beautiful insofar as it goes, but not particularly in harmony with either the altar nor the rest of the building). For some comparison, I have dug up some antique images showing how the altar was found before the later part of the twentieth century.    

Beneath the high altar is the confessio, where are found the relics of the same four saints who we mentioned decorate the portico of the church. 

One of the key attractions -- if you might call them that -- of this particular church are the splendid medieval mosaics. Those in and around the apse date to the mid twelfth century. Visible on the triumphal arch surrounding the apse are the Old Testament prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah. The former holds a scroll containing the prophetic text, "Behold, a virgin will conceive and give birth to a son."  The main apsidal mosaic itself, which has a very paleochristian Roman stylistic quality to the way in which the figures are portrayed, includes Christ and the Virgin enthroned. To their left is visible Pope Innocent II, St. Lawrence and St. Callixtus. To the right, St. Peter followed by Ss. Cornelius, Julius and Calepodius.  Beneath these figures around found the Lamb of God surrounded by twelve sheep representing the apostles.  Beneath is a dedicatory text: "This, in your honour, outstanding Mother of honour, it shines with the king's splendour of beauty in which the throne of Christ remains, the seat for eternity. It is fitting to accompany you, since gold has touched it as clothing. When the old edifice was about to fall into ruin, this one was about to rise from it. Pope Innocent, the second, renovated this."

Beneath these mosaics are another set, dated to a century later, which depict various scenes from the life of the Virgin.

The other paintings and the woodwork forming the choir in the apse date from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. 

The episcopal throne and Solomnic Paschal candlestick are both medieval -- the latter being made by the Cosmati family.

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