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Giving in to a strong urge to revisit the ancient wonders of the Basilica of Santa Maria of Trastevere, Rome

Image of Mary and infant Jesus

Some places just draw you in. The church of Santa Maria in Trastevere, Rome is one such place. I initially sought out this ancient place five years ago for two reasons. First, its reputation as the original location for Christian worship in Rome and second, the incredible decorative mosaics adorning the church both inside and out.

While not so unusual to see elaborate decoration, especially in Catholic churches in Italy, the portico of Santa Maria in Trastevere features an unusual 12th Century mosaic in the Byzantine style. Showing Mary breastfeeding her infant, 10 other women carrying lamps surround her. This mosaic, said to represent the parable of the wise and foolish maidens, survived later updates. These updates added Baroque statues of some old guys trying to grab all the glory by jumping in front of the wonderful mosaic.

a religious statue in front of a detailed mosaic
Mary breastfeeds in this ancient mosaic

Entering what’s called the narthex or porch, a collection of inscriptions greets you. Taken from tombs along the Appian Way, these inscriptions arrived here in the mid-18th century renovations. Rome leads the way in re-using existing building materials and repurposing spaces.

Inside the church, apparently built in the mid-4th century, much more of interest appeals to the visitor. Sometimes overwhelming, churches and cathedrals can be ostentatiously decorated. Santa Maria in Trastevere approaches this state. However, its smaller size creates a welcome intimacy, and the atmosphere quickly entrances.

An elaborately decorated ceiling

Starting from the top, the incredible wooden ceiling, seemingly designed in the mid-1600s beckons. Straining your neck into unnatural positions, one looks long and hard. Apparently, before this addition, the roof opened to the heavens. In the centre, a painting of the Assumption shows the way toward that heavenly place. Various chapels summon, each containing priceless artworks. These chapels represent and acknowledge contributions by the pious.

Dominating the interior, the apse contains more fabulous decoration. Here the Lamb of God and the twelve apostles shown as a herd of sheep delight us. With so much to see, how much attention do worshippers pay to the sermon? Or are these visual delights designed to keep wandering eyes and thoughts focused on the key religious messages?

Decorated interior of a church
Image of Mary and infant Jesus

The chapel of the Madonna della Clemenza or our Lady of Mercy draws us to the right of the apse. This place really pulls you in. Unbeknown to me before visiting, this chapel contains the most precious art treasure of the church. This treasure dates from the 9th century, although some argue it is as early as the 6th century. Here sits one of the oldest icons of Our Lady in existence and possibly the reason for the Church’s dedication to her.

The stunning floor also deserves mention. Rebuilt in 1860, the floor uses the 13th century typical mosaic style called cosmati. Whatever their name, the intriguing patterns and wonderful colours long held my attention.

As we wandered through the church on our return visit, a beam of midday light shone through the windows Visitors sitting in the pews were illuminated in the remarkable golden glow. How wonderful to be able to experience these architectural and artistic wonders from long ago. How magical to see nature piercing the interior and reminding us of earthly delights. How lucky am I to be able to revisit this place filled with wonders?

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