The Remains of the Basilica of Santa Maria Antiqua in the Roman Forum

Since we spent some time showing you the old basilica of "Snnta Maria Nova" (now known as Santa Francesca Romana), we may as well show you the other side of that coin (so to speak): Santa Maria Antiqua -- or "Old St. Mary's" as we would tend to say in English parlance. 

The fifth century Santa Maria Antiqua (like Santa Maria Nova / Santa Francesca Romana) is located within the Roman Forum. However, with the exception of its adjoining oratory of the Forty Martyrs (Oratorio dei Quaranta Martiri), you're likely to pass it by unnoticed as it is largely in ruins like much of the rest of the Forum and has been so since it was decimated by an earthquake in the ninth century.  Still, those interested in paleochristian art and architecture will find it of interest to explore as it provides insights into earlier Christian liturgical art and architecture -- though it is worth noting that this structure did not, of course have its origins as a church. 

Architecturally we see a classic Roman basilica with three naves, divided by columns to either side terminating at the end of the structure with the classic semi-circular apse. We also see the separation of the presbytery from the nave by the low wall or 'balustrade' which would eventually lead in later centuries and other locales to the rood screen and iconostasis.  The remnants of the walls that would have enclosed the medieval schola cantorum (as for example in San Clemente) are also visible. 

The basilica, amongst other things, contains one of the oldest depictions of the Virgin Mary as Queen of Heaven and also contains a large number of extant frescoes dated to a period ranging from the sixth through ninth centuries. Many of the extant depictions (which come from the ninth century) are Byzantine in style but one will also see other more 'Western Roman' depictions as well, coming from earlier centuries -- all of which is merely symptomatic of the various cultural and historical influences present in Rome throughout this period.  While this is something of an oversimplification, the quickest way to explain the stylistic differences between the Roman vs. Byzantine style is that the Roman is more austere and linear, containing less in the way of shading and highlighting, and frequently little or no details in the background. 

The apsidal fresco was commissioned by the eighth century pope, Paul I, and depicts Christ in Majesty.  Paul I himself is visible in the fresco, depicted with a square halo as was the custom when the image depicted a living subject. 

A view from the presbytery looking back over the balustrade toward the nave

A view toward one of the outer naves

Frescoes depicting Christ along with various popes, fathers of the church and saints

Fresco of Theodotus and his family from the mid eighth century. One will note the greater naturalism of the faces.

Frescoes of the mid-eighth century showing the crucifixion and, beneath, the patrons of the church building

Scenes from the Old Testament feature throughout the basilica

In a feature we generally tend to associate more with Byzantine churches, we see that the columns of the church are similarly decorated with frescoes, in this particular instance of Christ healing a blind man. 

St. Cyril of Alexandria

As one moves past the schola cantorum and into the presebytery and sanctuary, we find an opus sectile pavement that is likely dated to the seventh century. 

Some other interesting artifacts from the basilica:

Fragments from the church, including imagery of peacocks, popular in paleochristian art as symbols of the resurrection and eternal life.  

The "Johah sarcophagus" is a Christian work depicting scenes from the Old and New Testaments including Jonah and the Whale, the Good Shepherd and possibly St. Peter. 

As a point of interest, in our article on Santa Maria Nova / Santa Francesca Romana we showed the following icon (see below). Originally this icon, one of the earliest extant icons of the Vigin, was actually found here in the basilica of Santa Maria Antiqua before being moved to Santa Maria Nova.

The thing the particularly strikes me about a basilica such as this is just how familiar it all really is, from the art to the architectural layout itself.

Do you like Liturgical Arts Journal's original content? You can help support LAJ in its mission and vision to promote beauty in Catholic worship either by: 

You choose the amount! Your support makes all the difference.

Join in the conversation on our Facebook page.