There is a new/old stop on your next Forum visit. How new? About two weeks since it has opened to the public after being closed for renovation since 1980!
And how old? Well, it’s in the name… Santa Maria Antiqua. Antiqua is Latin for “old,” so if the Ancient Romans were calling it old it’s certifiably old.
Another old church in Rome? Dime a dozen right? Sure, yet like all of them, this one too is unusual and unique for a few of reasons.
First, it’s the oldest, possibly first Christian church in the Roman Forum. It was originally the atrium of a Roman building where Pretorian guards watched over the access to the ramp up to the Palatine hill and palaces. However, it appears that in the mid-6th century the Byzantines hung an image of the Madonna and Child in the atrium, thus guaranteeing its consecration soon thereafter.
(By Bocachete, CC0)
Second, it remained completely covered, for over 1,000 years as we’ll see, by the ruins of the imperial buildings which collapsed around and onto it in 847 due to an earthquake.
Third, another church (S. Maria Liberatrice) was built on top of it (and the pile of ruins) in the 17th century.
Which brings us to our days, so to speak. In the late 19th century, excavations revealed some of Santa Maria Antiqua’s frescoes. And so in 1900 they decided to demolish Santa Maria Liberatrice that had been built on top of it. (It was determined that S.M.Liberatrice held no noteworthy artwork or features.)
And a good intuition it was! Upon removing the newer, upper church and the ruins of the imperial buildings, Santa Maria Antiqua revealed it’s numerous treasures in the form of early Christian and Byzantine frescoes and assorted sarcophagi. The frescoes depict the Virgin Mary and Infant Jesus, popes, saints, and martyrs, thus forming one of the largest and most important collections of Roman and Byzantine art in the world. (Each piece is worth a note, too much info to include here!) What’s more, the frescoes both pre-date and are from the iconoclastic period, when so many similar paintings and images were destroyed in the Eastern Empire, making these images of certain popes and saints some of the only ones in existence.
To top it all off, the original icon of the Madonna and Child that had been placed in the atrium of the Roman building by the Byzantines (which had been moved to another church in the Forum after the 9th century earthquake), has now been returned to Santa Maria Antiqua where is is now visible in its original location as it was to the faithful over 1200 years ago.
Antiqua indeed. Not to be missed!