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Bill Thayer

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S. Maria in Trastevere


[image ALT: Part of a large mosaic depicting a woman on a throne, breastfeeding a baby, both haloed; on either side of them, haloed robed women presenting them with pots, those on the viewer's left with flames issuing from them, those on the right without. At the foot of the throne, much smaller, a kneeling man on either side. It is a partial view of the mosaic on the façade of the church of S. Maria in Trastevere in Rome.]
Façade: 13c mosaic of the Virgin and Child.

While Octavian Augustus was consolidating his hold over Rome, not too many years before the birth of Christ, a strange thing happened where this church now stands: oil started to gush from the earth. Some believe this is pure myth, but if so it's old myth, since it is recorded — very much in passing, in just six words — by the early 3c Greek historian Dio (48.43.4) who by placing the event in the consulate of Appius Claudius and Gaius Norbanus dates it to 38 B.C. The story is given by Orosius (VI.20.7), and is said to be recorded in Eutropius, a 4c abridger of historical works, but this doesn't seem to be true. To an early Latin writer at any rate is surely due the added detail that this occurred in a taberna meritoria, which, etymologically at least, was a soup kitchen for old people; and very probably (Isidore, Origins, x.182) old soldiers.

From this little start the tale was told and retold thruout the Middle Ages, with embellishments, until it grew to look very much like a legend. Matters aren't helped much that no one knows what kind of oil it was — people suggest petroleum, of course, but there's not a shred of evidence — nor why or when the flow stopped, although it is said in medieval sources to have lasted only a day. Still, it wouldn't be the first time oil seeped out of the ground somewhere, and the raw fact of it here is recorded by a trustworthy writer who seems to have faithfully reproduced material from contemporaneous official lists of prodigies maintained by the authorities.

What does this have to do with the Basilica of S. Maria in Trastevere? Although one of the church's beautiful mosaics shows the oil flow from the taberna, probably not very much at all.

While we're clearing the air here, something else that doesn't have anything to do with the church: it is often stated that it was founded on the site of an oratory built by Pope St. Calixtus I, and that furthermore this is the same place of worship mentioned in the Historia Augusta (Sev. Al. 49.6) as being preferable, in the judgment of the emperor Alexander Severus, to a bar: rescripsit melius esse ut quemadmodumcumque illic deus colatur, quam popinariis dedatur. There is no evidence for either identification in this cascade, and I agree with the Catholic Encyclopedia: the nearby and very ancient church of S. Callisto is a much more plausible candidate for the first.

Whatever its actual origin, Pope St. Julius I (337‑352) built a church here on the basilical plan — a rectangular central nave separated from a side aisle on either side by a row of columns — which was modified in the eighth and ninth centuries; and the whole business was undone in a few years, starting in 1138, at the wishes of Innocent II, much of the building material being quarried from the Baths of Caracalla. In its broad outlines at least, it is his church that we see today.

Pope Innocent died in 1143, but the basic framework of the basilica continued to be embellished over several centuries. The main additions were the gold-background mosaics of the triumphal arch and the apse, very shortly after his death; the mosaics of the Life of the Virgin, by one of medieval Rome's greatest artists, Pietro Cavallini, in 1291; the left apsidal chapel, the cappella Altemps, built by Martino Longhi the Elder in 1584‑1585 to house the Madonna della Clemenza, a Roman encaustic panel of the sixth or seventh century; and the arcaded porch in the pontificate of Clement XI in 1702, with modifications to the façade, by Carlo Fontana. In 1866‑1877 the building underwent a major restoration.


There are many beautiful works of art in the church; a fuller website will be forthcoming, by and by. Right now:


[image ALT: A bit of a stone inscription showing a few awkward Latin characters and a standign bird. It is a detail of an early Christian epitaph in the narthex of the church of S. Maria in Trastevere, Rome.]

[ 6/2/01: 3 pages, 3 photos ]

The covered entrance porch of the church (which I think of as a narthex although I suspect that isn't quite right) houses a large collection of ancient inscriptions, both pagan and Christian. I've started with one of each.


[image ALT: A snippet of a map of Rome as the city was in the Middle Ages.]

For the more studious, some basic topographical and art history information: Christian Hülsen's notice on this church in Le Chiese di Roma nel Medio Evo, linked to 2 further important texts — Armellini's Le Chiese di Roma and the church's entry in the 1763 edition of Filippo Titi's guidebook.


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Site updated: 26 Oct 06