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Bill Thayer

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S. Maria in Domnica


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The name of the church is usually said to derive from dominicum, belonging to the Lord, and by extension 'church'.

While this appears plausible on the surface, dominicum was never a common word for 'church', and it is unattested in this particular case. There is also disagreement, some authorities believing that the name comes from that of a family in Byzantine times. Finally, it should be noted that one of the most stable attributes of a word is its gender, and the commoner etymology does not explain how the neuter dominicum turned into the feminine Domnica.

My own solution, which I haven't seen anywhere else, is that the church owes its name to the woman who, according to a tradition reported (without source) by Armellini, used to live there. Now her name was Cyriaca: but in Greek, that means "belonging to the Lord"; or, translated into Latin, Dominica. Variants of this name and the masculine counterpart Cyriacus appear to have been commonly given by Christian parents to their children; see for example this Roman tombstone, one of many.

S. Maria in Domnica dates to at least the 7c. Founded on the remains of the fire station of the 5th cohort of Vigiles, it was rebuilt and decorated by Paschal I. Andrea Sansovino completely reworked the church in 1513‑1514 for Pope Leo X, and it is to him that we owe the elegant 5‑arched portico façade that gives the church its Renaissance appearance.

The church is sometimes unofficially called S. Maria della Navicella after the striking Roman stone boat in front of it, moved there and turned into a fountain by Leo X, whose arms are carved on its base. It is said to be either the original or a copy of a votive offering from the Castra Peregrina, a military camp (across the street next to S. Stefano Rotondo) for non-Roman citizens.

Once inside, you're in a completely different world, in a high mediaeval church along the basilican plan, its nave and two aisles separated by 18 antique columns of grey granite with Corinthian capitals. As you enter, though, the perspective effect sweeps them aside and leads your eye to the very beautiful mosaics in the apse and on the triumphal arch, the work of Greek artists brought in by Pope Paschal. The decoration of the church, sober, balanced and peaceful, is characteristic of the mini-Renaissance that flowered briefly around the year 800. The mosaic of the apse depicts the Virgin and Child (and Pope Paschal at their feet, with the square halo of the living, according to the Byzantine convention); it is unusual for its green fields abloom with wildflowers and the pale blue of the angelic hosts in the background.

The arch is supported by particularly attractive antique porphyry columns with Ionic capitals; the Confessio under the main altar opens down onto a building of the 6c (excavated in 1958).

The coffered wooden ceiling is also of some interest. It was added in 1566 by Ferdinando de' Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, an amateur alchemist who had the Rose-Cross, the Tower of David, and the Navicella itself woven into the symbolic decoration. (The boat, the mosaic, and the ceiling can be seen in three beautiful shots by John and Mary Lou Winder, starting here.)


May 2008: A fuller website is on its way; the first step toward it is to provide you with some collected source material.


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My Web transcriptions of Christian Hülsen's Le Chiese di Roma nel Medio Evo and Mariano Armellini's Le Chiese di Roma are each for the moment only partly online: but they do both include cross-linked sections on this church.


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Site updated: 8 Jul 08