Postcard from Rome, Italy: Hailing two more graceful Marias

In addition to being dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the other bond this pair of featured Roman basilicas has is their façades were undergoing restoration and hidden from view.

In 38 B.C., some claim mineral oil spewed out of the ground, a miraculous sign of the coming of Christ, on the site in Trastevere Pope Callixtus I (?-222) chose for a sanctuary dedicated to Mary. Aside from the foundation, little remains of that early church.

As Pope Honorius II (1060-1130) lay dying, a group of cardinals gathered as a committee and named his successor, Pope Innocent II (?-1143). Chaos within the church, not uncommon when determining papal succession, erupted when a majority of cardinals objected to the process and elected Anacletus II (?-1138) as their leader. Pope Innocent II was forced to flee Rome for a number of years, while the competing “Antipope,” depending on which side is relating the story, ruled.

A tomb for Anacletus II had been completed inside Santa Maria in Trastevere, but the presence of his former rival’s tomb was salt in the wound for Pope Innocent II. He had the church, and the offending memorial razed. During the reconstruction of the church, Pope Innocent II commissioned his own resting place to be built upon the spot once occupied by that of the “Antipope.”

The capitals of the columns, if not the entire granite columns, lining the nave were retrieved from the ruins of the Baths of Caracalla, which dated from around the year 200. Centuries later, when Pope Pius IX (1792-1878) was informed the faces adorning the capitals were of ancient Roman gods, he had them chiseled off the columns.

The mosaic over the apse, “The Coronation of the Virgin,” with the row of sheep underneath was completed the year of Pope Innocent II’s death. Saints are clustered on the right of Jesus, with pope-approved popes on the left, including, of course, Innocent II himself. Below the herd of sheep are a series of mosaics portraying the life of the Virgin, including “The Annunciation” featured above. The mosaics of Pietro Cavallini (1259-1330) represent an artistic evolution from Byzantine stiffness to more natural figurative work. Numerous glamorous features were added to the basilica by cardinals and popes in subsequent centuries.

A giant walnut tree grew atop the spot at the foot of Pincian Hill in Rome where the ashes of Emperor Nero (37-68) were relocated by a landslide from above. Foreboding ravens, and perhaps more wicked winged demons, haunted the tree, frightening the superstitious populace entering or leaving through the nearby gate to the city. Fortunately, the Virgin Mary appeared to Pope Paschal II (1099-1118) in a dream with the solution. Upon her instructions, he performed an exorcism on the tree and then took an axe to it, a blow releasing the screaming evil spirits residing within. Nero’s remains underneath were thrown in the Tiber, and a chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary was erected in their place.

Pope Sixtus IV (1414-1484) ushered Rome into the Early Renaissance with the construction of an immense church on the site, Santa Maria del Popolo, and, among other enduring landmarks, the Sistine Chapel. He restored more than 30 churches and had a half-dozen more erected in Rome during his tenure at the helm of the church.

The photographs above capture only a fraction of the art stuffing Santa Maria del Popolo, its walls lined with chapels commissioned by families enriched through papal relationships. Sculptures by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) fill niches and flutter above arches; two enormous paintings by Caravaggio (1571-1610) hang in a chapel flanking the apse.

Yet, my favorite memorials are a pair of slabs in the floor marking the graves of two nuns.

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