|Ceiling of the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore|
Although Rome has to be home to countless hundreds of gorgeous churches, I’d like to share with y’all a few of them that really stood out to me. Starting in the northern Piazza del Popolo, I’ll move in a clockwise spiral, ending in the Pantheon neighborhood.
1) Santa Maria del Popolo
|(Source: Kræn Bech-Petersen)|
The church also sits just inside the old city walls at a commanding position on the north side of the busy Piazza del Popolo. According to tradition, the ashes of infamous Emperor Nero were said to be buried near the location of the present-day church, and during the Middle Ages his ghost and/or demons in the form of crows apparently perturbed the people of Rome so much that the pope had Nero’s urn emptied into the Tiber River and a tree—the crows’ favorite haunt—cut down to make way for today’s church.
But what Santa Maria del Popolo is made of fascinated me the most: white travertine marble that, according to Rick Steves, was plundered from the Colosseum when it was used as a quarry in Baroque times. Buildings like this are why merely a third of the original ancient stadium remains!
2) Sant’Agnese (Mausoleum of Santa Costanza)
|(Source: Lawrence Lew)|
The original red porphyry sarcophagus that was once here can now be found in the Vatican Museums. Regardless of who exactly is being commemorated in this place, the barrel-vaulted ceilings that cover the circular ambulatory have somehow managed to preserve early Christian mosaics. I wasn’t able to see this church because of awkward opening hours on Christmas Day, but I would love to should I ever return.
3) Santa Maria della Vittoria
The rest of the tiny Baroque church (by Roman standards, *ahem*) is similarly decorated in warm, polychrome marble, lots of gold, and angelic statues that cling to the ceiling.
4) San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane
5) Santa Maria Maggiore
Back in the year 431, the Council of Ephesus was convened to bring together Christian leaders from across the Roman world to deal with the teachings of potential heretic Nestorius, who said the Messiah was two persons—Christ, the Son of God, and Jesus, the man. In this council he was definitively declared a heretic, and as a result, Mary was declared “Mother of God,” not merely the mother of a human child. To celebrate this decision, the pope had this church re-built in the 400s.
The church that you can see today dates back to medieval times: the simple basilica plan culminates in stunning, golden mosaics that cover the entire apse in the back. As the story goes, the gold on the dazzling coffered ceiling was some of the first to come from the Spanish conquest of the Americas. And the while the Romanesque bell tower still stands outside, it’s been subsumed into a grand, wavy Baroque façade that makes the cross-shaped church look more like a palace.
6) San Giovanni in Laterano
Like Santa Maria Maggiore, this church follows the traditional Latin cross basilica floor plan: a large central nave with shorter aisles on either side and a transept or perpendicular crossing. As you proceed from the entrance to the altar, larger-than-life statues of the Twelve Apostles fill niches in the structural pillars, and in the apse to the back you can see gleaming religious mosaics that have come down from the Middle Ages.
Outside, the largest Egyptian obelisk in the world dominates the piazza, and in a building nearby are housed the Holy Stairs—what is purported to be the steps to Pilate’s palace that Jesus went up to stand trial before he was crucified. According to legend, Constantine’s mother Helen went to Jerusalem, where she fetched them and brought them back to Rome. Today they’re covered in creaky walnut wood with little looking holes that point out possible drops of blood. Faithful Catholics ascend the stairs on their knees in prayerful piety.
7) Santa Maria in Cosmedin
|La bocca della verità|
But the attached church is worth at least a few minutes of your time after snapping your shot. Located to the northwest of the Roman Forum and Circus Maximus, this church began as a diakonia where early Christians would help the poor, and later housed a community of Greek Christians. In the Middle Ages it was ornately decorated, from which its present Greek-based name, Cosmedin, derives. Today’s Romanesque church still holds remnants of its medieval frescoes, but don’t forget to look down at the dizzying Cosmatesque-style mosaic floors.
8) Santa Maria in Trastevere
9) San Pietro in Montorio
|The tempietto (Source: Steven Zucker)|
I had wanted to check out the courtyard in this church because it houses the tempietto (“little temple”) designed by Renaissance architect Bramante. I learned about this chapel in my iTunes U course: it’s one of the most perfect examples of Renaissance architecture in that it incorporates classical elements like ordered columns, pilasters, and a dome, all in an idealized circular space. To Catholics, it’s especially significant because, as a martyrium, it commemorates the traditional mountaintop location where St. Peter (San Pietro in Itaian) was crucified in the first century CE. It’s just too bad the church was closed for the day when I showed up!
10) Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza
|(Source: Jøran Pecher)|
Have you been to (or even heard of) any of these churches before? Or do you get “church fatigue” when traveling after seeing one too many cathedrals? Comment in the discussion below!
For more pictures, check out my set on Flickr here.