By Jessica Brewer
At first glance it would appear that the Eternal City lacks the medieval treasures of other Italian and European cities. While it is certainly true that the art and architecture of the Renaissance and later Baroque period dominates Rome, there are many hidden medieval treasures if one knows where to look.
For the purposes of this list I am only considering works dating from the mid to late 5th century (the end of the Western Roman Empire) until the mid-15th century (the beginning of the Renaissance in Italy). Late Roman, Renaissance and Baroque art and architecture within a medieval building, for example Michelangelo’s Redeemer within the gothic church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva will not be discussed. The following sites are in no particular order, however they all qualify as must-see medieval sites.
1. Chiesa di Santa Maria Sopra Minerva
This is the only true gothic church in Rome. Home to Rome’s Dominicans and the seat of Rome’s Inquisition. The rather plain facade hides a highly decorative interior. The ceiling is frescoed with bright yellow stars set within an azure sky – a common artistic motif in Italian medieval churches and a symbol of Saint Mary to whom the church is dedicated. At the high altar lays the headless body of St. Catherine of Siena (1347- 1380) whose spiritual writings remain highly regarded within the Church. In a chapel left of the apse is the tomb of Fra Angelico, one of Italy’s best late medieval/early Renaissance painters whose most famous works reside in the monastery of San Marco in Florence.
2. Basilica di Santissimi Quattro Cornonati
A still-functioning Augustinian convent, this sequestered building contains Rome’s oldest medieval bell tower, dating back to the 9th century. The church itself has undergone several facelifts over the centuries, most notably after it was all but destroyed in 1084 when the Normans sacked Rome. Some of its medieval frescoes still peek out behind baroque monuments. The true medieval gems of this church are the monastery’s chapel of St. Sylvester and 13th century cloister. At the time of writing the chapel of St. Sylvester is available for viewing by appointment only, however the cloister is open to the public. The cloister contains many fine examples of Comastesque art – a style of mosaic-like inlay common in Rome’s medieval churches and fragments of sculpture. In the center of the cloister is a lovely fountain decorated with lions.
3. Chiesa di Santa Prassede
This small and unassuming church boasts one of the greatest collections of Byzantine mosaics in Rome. A small chapel dedicated to Saint Zeno has remained virtually untouched since the 9th century. Built by Pope Paschal (817-824) for his mother Theodora, she is depicted with a square nimbus (halo) around her head indicating that she was alive at the time of construction. The mosaics depict other saints, including St. Prassede herself, Christ and Apostles as well as many natural motifs. The work in the chapel and in the main apse of the church was most likely completed by artists fleeing the Iconoclasm in Constantinople. The mosaics in the apse of the church also date from this period and depict Christ in Majesty surrounded by the Evangelists, various Saints and of course, Pope Paschal himself.
4. Basilica di Santa Sabina
Santa Sabina is the only church in Rome to maintain its 5th century basilica exterior and is part of a Dominican friary. The exterior of the west door contains one of the earliest known crucifixion scenes, carved in wood dating to the 5th century as well. The interior of the church at first glance seems rather plain in comparison to other churches in the city. The frescos flanking the walls of the nave above the arches are depict Roman military standards meant to represent the Church’s dominion over the world. St. Thomas Aquinas once resided here.
5. Basilica di San Clemente
Two Churches in One! The upper Basilica dating to circa 1100 contains fine examples of Byzantine mosaics that depict the Triumph of the Cross flanked by Saints and representations of the Evangelists. The church also contains the tomb and shrine of Saint Cyril (826-869) who converted the Slavs to Christianity and devised the Glagolitic alphabet. The lower basilica is accessible for an extra fee and is more akin to a restored ruin than part of a functioning basilica. Originally dating to the 4th century and earlier, it contains many fine examples of early medieval wall paintings many of which detail the life and miracles of Saints Clement and Cyril.
6. Chiesa di Santa Maria Antiqua
Nestled in a corner of the Roman forum and included as part of the forum’s entrance fee, this church contains many intact and unique examples of early medieval frescos dating from the 6th to 8th centuries. The wealth of frescoes from this period show the gradual change of artistic styles from the linear western Rome style to the rigid and ornamental Byzantine style mirroring the fall of the western empire and the rise of the eastern empire. Among the most notable of the frescos is that depicting the Virgin Mary as a Queen, dating to the 6th century and the earliest example in Rome. The church itself was built during the mid 5th century and was abandoned in the 9th century after an earthquake made it unusable.
7. Chiesa di Santa Maria in Cosmedin
Tourists flock to this lovely Romanesque church in droves to shove their hands in the Bocca della Verità situated in the church’s porch take a selfie then promptly leave, completely ignoring the church itself. The campanile (belltower) is the tallest medieval campanile in Rome. The church was constructed in the 8th century, and includes later modifications by Greeks fleeing the iconoclasm ravishing the Byzantine Empire. This structure served as an enclave for the Greek community in Rome. Like many medieval churches in Rome, the floor is decorated with stunning Comastesque works and the choir, or schola cantorum dates to the 13th century. Housed in what is now the church’s gift shop is a rare and precious 8th century mosaic fragment of the Adoration of the Magi taken from Old St. Peter’s.
8. Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore
This is the largest Marian church in Rome. It was constructed shortly after the third Ecumenical council at Ephesus (modern Turkey) during which Mary was declared as the Mother of God in 431. When viewed from the square below, the church’s lovely medieval facade is obscured by an 18th century loggia. However, the facade’s stunning 12th and 13th century mosaics are accessible for viewing up close via guided tours. The interior the church is decorated with early frescoes, some dating to the mid 5th century when the church was originally erected and are among he oldest depictions of the Virgin Mary in Late Antiquity/Early Medieval art. Within the small Borghese chapel is the Salus Populi Romani, a Byzantine icon of the Virgin and Child. This image was first brought to Santa Maria Maggiore in 590, however it has been repainted over the centuries, much of what is seen today is a 13th century touch up of the original picture.
9. Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere
The exterior of this church has retained quite a bit of its Romanesque features, with the post-medieval addition of an enlarged porch. The upper portions of the facade are decorated with mosaics of the Virgin Mary with Child and ten women which provide a hint of the stunning mosaics inside. The glorious golden apse mosaics are the highlight of this church and their grandeur is reminiscent of the Byzantine style churches of Venice and Ravenna. The bulk of the mosaics date to the 13th century and were created by Pietro Cavallini whose work later influenced Giotto among other Florentine and Sienese artists. As the name of the church would suggest, the mosaics center around the Life of the Virgin.
10. Basilica di Santa Cecilia in Trastevere
Cared for by a community of Benedictine nuns who live next door, this church was mainly redesigned and decorated in the 18th century. There are however, quite a few medieval gems that are worth the visit. Stretched across the western wall of the church is a fragmentary Last Judgment, painted by Pietro Cavellini. Slight traces of his work can also be found on the North and South walls. His frescoes most likely covered the entire nave. The elaborately carved canopy, or ciborium, covering the high altar was sculpted by Arnolfo di Cambio, one of the most well-known Italian gothic architects and sculptors. This particular work dates to 1293. The mosaics in the apse date to the early 9th century, during the papacy of Pope Paschal, whose patronage beautified the churches of Santa Prassede and Santa Maria Maggiore mentioned above.
Jessica Brewer received a B.A. in Medieval Studies and Classical Studies from Tulane University in 2006 and a M.A. in Medieval Archaeology from the University of York (UK) in 2010. Her main interests of study are gender and religion. In her spare time she practices ashtanga yoga and is an unapologetic cat lover.
Top Image: Rome Skyline – photo by Bert Kaufmann / Flickr
This article was first published in The Medieval Magazine – a monthly digital magazine that tells the story of the Middle Ages. Learn how to subscribe by visiting their website.