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Santa Maria Antiqua: An Early Medieval Treasure in the Roman Forum

Only a handful of hardy tourists were poking around the Forum on the rainy and cold January morning that I visited Santa Maria Antiqua. Werner Schmid, a conservator on the project and my guide, took me inside the semi-ruinous ancient church that was the focus of a WMF project, including a conditions assessment followed by conservation work, from 2001 to 2010.

The church is located at the very foot of the Palatine Hill in the Roman Forum and is inside a building likely recycled from the time of Emperor Domitian (r. A.D. 81-96). Several successive painting schemes, the earliest dating to circa 550, another from around 650, and more from various periods throughout the eighth century, decorate the church, and are often layered over each other.

The surviving wall paintings are extraordinary and of immense value to art historians for being rare survivors of the two Byzantine Iconoclasms that obliterated most Christian imagery in areas controlled by the Eastern Roman Empire in the eighth and ninth centuries. (Saint Catherine's Monastery in Sinai, Egypt, is the only other known location of a substantial amount of pre-Iconoclasm Byzantine art.) The art was saved from destruction by vandals or later over-painting by a landslide probably caused by an earthquake that buried the structure in 847, sealing it as an early medieval time capsule. Rediscovered by chance in 1701 but resealed three months after discovery, the church was fully excavated in the early 1900s. The WMF-sponsored survey of the church in the early 2000s found that more than 60 percent of the surfaces examined were deteriorating. The work that has been going on since 2001 has so far been successful in conserving the remaining paintings and plaster surfaces. WMF has helped conserve about half of the surviving frescoes in the church.

Three tiers of scaffolding obscured the apse from ground level, but this allowed us to get up close to some of the most important paintings in the church, something that will no longer be possible once the scaffolding is removed in the coming months. I followed Werner up the narrow ladders to examine perhaps the most famous painting in the church, a fragmentary image of an enthroned Madonna and Child from the first phase of decoration. Even in its fragmentary state, the painting is of immense art historical value for its age and rarity, as well as for the depiction of Mary in the garb of a bejeweled Byzantine empress. After climbing up two more levels to view more fresco remnants, including some marvelous Hellenistic work from the eighth century (pictured) that is more abstract than the earlier paintings, we descended and visited the two chapels on either side of the apse. One is dedicated to Eastern medical saints, likely decorated during the papacy of John VII (r. 705-707) and the only known surviving chapel anywhere with such a dedication, and the other to Theodotus, a wealthy official at the court of Pope Zachary (r. 741-752), the last Byzantine pope in Rome.

The current plan is to open the church to the public in 2012. Until then, it is periodically open to visitors for short periods.