Sunday, March 04, 2007

Stational Church: Santa Maria in Domnica


On this second Sunday in Lent, the stational church in Rome is Santa Maria in Domnica dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The church is believed to have originated in the 3rd or 4th century as a meeting-place for the first Christians of Rome and an institution for aiding the poor, in the home of the lady Cyriaca. The name is thought to reflect its origins, as 'domnica' is probably a corruption of 'dominicum', a common Latin word for 'church', and especially for house-churches. It was built on the site of a Roman barracks. Her family's cemetery was where the basilica San Lorenzo fuori le Mura stands, and it was Cyriaca who arranged the burial of St Lawrence, deacon and martyr. St Lawrence used to hand out alms to the poor here.

The present church is from the time of Pope Paschal I, who had it rebuilt 818-822. Many of the older elements were preserved, but side apses were added in the Eastern style.

Alterations were made by the titular priest of the church, Giovanni Cardinal de'Medici, who later became Pope Leo X (1513-1521), with Andrea Sansovino as architect.

It is also known as Santa Maria della Navicella after the small marble boat (navicella) in the piazza. The boat is a 16th century copy of an ancient one. The copy was placed here by Cardinal de'Medici.

At the present time, the titular priest of the church is H.E. Luigi Cardinal Poggi.


The church has a triple apse in the Eastern style. The apse mosaics are from the 9th century, commissioned by Pope Paschal I (817-824). In the vault of the central apse, the Pope is kneeling at the feet of the Blessed Virgin, and this is one of the earliest examples of a mosaic where the Madonna is in the centre. The choice of motif should be seen as a protest against iconoclasm, which was still rampant in the East at the time, and both the Byzantine style of the mosaics and the Eastern elements in the architecture indicates the Greek exilees were involved when the church was built and decorated. Notice that the Holy Father has a square halo, which tells us that he was still alive when the mosaic was made. Above this is a mosaic frieze with Christ sitting on a rainbow with the 12 Apostles approaching from the sides.

The crypt is interesting, with many fragments of sculpture.

On the triumphal arch is an image of Christ between two angels and the Apostles, and below them two figures thought to be Moses and Elijah. The identification of the latter two is difficult, and on a notice outside the church they are said to be Sts Peter and Paul. This is very unlikely, as they do not resemble the Apostles above. One alternative is that they are meant to be Sts John the Baptist and John the Evangelist, who are depicted in the fresco below.

The 18 granite columns with Corinthian marble capitals and the two Ionic porphyry columns supporting the triumphal arch are probably from the first church, and were reused in the 9th century rebuilding.

The coffered ceiling is from the 16th century. The symbols are taken from the Litany of Our Lady.

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