Art and reform in tenth-century Rome – the paintings of S. Maria in Pallara

10th century fresco in the church of San Sebastiano al Palatino. (Wikipedia)

10th century fresco in the church of San Sebastiano al Palatino. (Wikipedia)

Maria L. Marchiori

Queen’s University: PhD Dissertation, (2007)


The medieval wall paintings of the church of S. Maria in Pallara, situated on the Palatine Hill, Rome, provide insight into the intellectual use of images in the Middle Ages. The fragmentary apse programme survives, supplemented by antiquarian drawings that include copies of lost nave cycles and a lost donor portrait of their patron, Petrus Medicus. The patron, along with his monastic foundation, is documented in tenth-century charters, on which documents the paintings’ dating currently depends. Questions about this dating have surfaced in the art-historical literature, as have concerns about gender and historical veracity, matters of historiography which are introduced in Chapter 1. Thus, the goals of this study were to verify the paintings’ dating, to examine their use of text and image and to illuminate the context in which they were created. Chapter 2 describes and analyses the S. Maria in Pallara paintings within Roman artistic traditions of the Romanesque period. Since no contemporary parallel can be found for the iconography of the Apostles on the shoulders of Prophets decorating the church’s apse arch, a composition more common to Gothic art, Chapter 3 examines the iconography’s diffusion and sources.

Textual evidence suggests that a church dedicated to Saint Sebastian preceded the tenth-century foundation of S. Maria in Pallara, which was then rededicated to the Virgin Mary, Saints Sebastian and Zoticus. Thus, Chapter 4 examines the visual profile of the cult of Saint Sebastian and its dependence on the Acta Sebastiani to provide a context for the church’s depictions of that saint, including portraits and a lost narrative cycle. Messages about chastity encoded in these images are also examined. Chapter 5 examines the lost narrative cycle depicting the life of the little-known Saint Zoticus, to whom the church was also dedicated and who was envisioned in the guise of another saint, Getulius, who was martyred with his wife, Saint Symphorosa, and their seven sons. Messages about chastity were also communicated through that cycle’s manipulation of S. Maria in Pallara’s topographic history. Thus, far from being simple reflections of text, the S. Maria in Pallara paintings engage Roman history, reforming that history to project a moral image of the future.

Click here to read this dissertation from Queen’s University

Sign up to get a Weekly Email from

* indicates required

medievalverse magazine
Show Buttons
Hide Buttons