Thursday, March 08, 2007

Stational Church: Santa Maria in Trastevere

This is the queen of the trasteverine churches. The inscription on the episcopal chair says that it is the first church dedicated to the Mother of God, although actually that privilege belongs to Santa Maria Maggiore. It is certainly one of the oldest churches in the City. A Christian house-church was founded here about 220 by Pope St. Callistus I (217-222) on the site of the Taberna meritoria, an asylum for retired soldiers. The area was given over to Christian use by the Emperor Severus when he settled a dispute between the Christians and tavern-keepers, saying, “I prefer that it should belong to those who honor God, whatever be their form of worship.” In 340 Pope Julius I (337-352) rebuilt the titulus Calixti on a larger scale, and it became the titulus Iulii, one of the original twenty-five parishes in Rome, and indeed may be the first church in which Mass was celebrated openly. It underwent two restorations in the fifth and eighth centuries, and in 1140 it was re-erected under Innocent II as a thanksgiving offering for the submission of the anti-pope, Celestine II (1124).

The Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere is one of the most charming in Rome. Its antique fountain, as well as the church’s portico, were rebuilt by Carlo Fontana (1634-1714) during the turn of the 18th century, but most everything else is much older. The mosaic on the church’s fa├žade, depicting the parable of the wise and unwise virgins, dates from the 14th century, and much of the interior of the basilica retains its 12th century character. One is immediately impressed by the massive columns decorated with Ionic capitals brought from the Temple of Isis. The Cosmati paving is rich and unobstructed. The beautiful apse mosaic dates from the time of Innocent II (1130-1143), who came from a famous Trastevere family, the Papareschi. Here, Christ and Our Lady are seated in majestic splendor, their figures rendered with graceful delicacy. Christ is offering his Mother the jeweled crown while she is giving a benediction. On the left are Pope Innocent II, holding a model of the church which identifies him as its builder, St. Lawrence and Pope St. Callistus. On the right are Peter, Pope St. Cornelius, Pope St. Julius, and St. Calepodius. Callistus, Cornelius, Julius, and Calepodius are all interred beneath the high altar. There is also a frieze with the Lamb of God and the Twelve Apostles, and in the corners are the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah with symbols of the Evangelists. Also note the chapel at the end of the right aisle which contains the Madonna of Mercy, a 6th or 7th century icon on encaustic wood, an icon originally venerated in these streets, depicting the Madonna and Child between two angels. It has been covered in silver leaf and draped with a purple veil, papal gifts both, since the 8th century. The chapel was built to house the precious relic, and to commemorate the Council of Trent.

There is a legend which claims that a natural oil spring appeared here some years before the birth of Christ. The Jewish community in Trastevere apparently interpreted it as a sign that God’s grace would soon flow into the world. Because of the spring, this became a meeting spot for the first Roman converts to Christianity. The fons olei may be seen in front of the altar through the fenestrella. One may also like to ponder Gherardi’s “Sacred Theater.” One of the most beautiful 17th century chapels in Rome, this jewel is found leading off the left nave. Also note the two Roman mosaics of elegant birds which are preserved in the sacristy.

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