Finding Sanctuary

The breathless headline of the January 9, 1901 London Times heralded the discovery of the “Sistine Chapel of the Eighth Century.” The article was written by Gordon Rushfort, the first Director of the British School in Rome, who had been an eye-witness to a sensational event, the re-discovery of Santa Maria Antiqua, an early medieval Christian church in the heart of the Roman Forum. The more than 250 square meters of painting still existing on the walls of Santa Maria Antiqua constitute an absolutely unique collection that is critical to understanding the development of early medieval and Byzantine art. Most paintings of that period were destroyed in the eighth century, during iconoclasm, the movement against holy images. A year before the article appeared in the Times, a team working under the direction of the famed architect and archaeologist Giacomo Boni started an excavation campaign aimed at recovering the Santa Maria Antiqua by demolishing a thirteenth-century baroque church, Santa Maria Liberatrice, which had been built atop the ancient sanctuary.

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