The dedication is to the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste.
The "oratory" (actually a small church) completely lacks documentation. However it is situated just north of the church of Santa Maria Antiqua, on the other side of the entrance to an ancient ramp leading to the palaces of the Palatine. This ramp (rampa imperiale) was the main access between the Forum and the Palatine in ancient times, and the location seems significant.
The founder is thought to have been Pope John VII (705-7), who commissioned the frescoes that it contains. He was one of the popes of the so-called Byzantine Papacy, a thoroughly tendentious and deliberately misleading historical term for a period when the papacy was a client of the Roman Emperor at Constantinople. For political reasons later mediaeval popes wished to conceal the fact that citizens of Rome, including the pope, considered themselves imperial subjects of the Emperor at Constantinople from 330 until 752. The modern historiographical distinction between "Roman" and "Byzantine" Empires derives ultimately from this later papal re-writing of history, and had no validity at the start of the 8th century.
Pope John was the son of Plato, a Greek who was the Cura Palatii Urbis Romae, or the custodian of the Palatine palaces on behalf of the Emperor who owned them. John is known to have built a palace for himself somewhere on the Palatine (exactly where is unknown), and hence the significance of the ramp from the Forum.
His oratory was the result of a conversion of a 1st century building of unknown original function, just possibly a guard-house for the bottom end of the access ramp constructed by the emperor Domitian. When it was converted an apse was added. The fresco work, exterior and interior, is assigned to the patronage of Pope John although doubts have been expressed about the dating of some of it.
The oratory certainly shared the later history of the church of Santa Maria Antiqua, and from its foundation was probably part of that church's organisation.
The fresco work includes depictions of monk saints so this was a monastic oratory, and the portraits of SS Sabas and Euthymius hints that the monastery here was staffed by expatriate Byzantine-rite monks from the Holy Land. Unlike the familiar layout of a western monastery with one large church having side chapels, in the East an important Byzantine-rite monastery can be expected to have several separate churches instead. Hence, the oratory was probably founded as a subsidiary church of the monastery at Santa Maria Antiqua.
The date of abandonment, even the century, is wholly unknown. However, the atrium of Santa Maria Antiqua next door was part of a functioning monastery into the 11th century and this is a possible terminus ad quem.
The existence of the oratory was completely unsuspected when the church of Santa Maria Liberatrice al Foro Romano, built over Santa Maria Antiqua, was demolished in 1900 as part of an ideological campaign to purge the Forum of post-imperial accretions. The oratory was discovered in the following year, and excavated in 1902.
Very unfortunately, it and its frescoes were then left at the mercy of the weather for almost a century. Finally, the present building with its gabled roof was provided in 1999 in an attempt to avoid the total loss of the frescoes after major deterioration. This is now a prominent (and perhaps rather ugly) feature in many famous views of the Forum. It is often mistaken for Santa Maria Antiqua, which has its own more discreet protective roof to the south.
The rampa imperiale was restored and made safe at the start of the 21st century, and opened to the public for the first time in 2015. This should also include access to the oratory.
The present building is a vague guess at what the oratory looked like before it became a ruin -except that the original must have had windows. It is a simple pink brick edifice on a transverse rectangular plan, almost square, with a little external apse hiding between two buttress walls round the back. The apse has a semi-dome in metal, but the main roof is pitched and tiled in four gables. The entrance to the rampa is to the right of the façade.
The single entrance has a molded marble doorcase, the lintel being ancient (or, at least, old). There is a brick relieving arch in the fabric above it.
The original fabric is also in brick, and reaches about a third of the height of the reconstruction at its corners.
The important part about the façade is easily overlooked, which comprises the original lower courses either side of the entrance. There is a pair of engaged brick piers clasping the doorcase and another pair at the outer corner, and these piers flank a rectangular niche on each side. The right hand ensemble had surviving frescoes when it was excavated, but these have almost entirely perished.
The right hand side of the façade used to show four fresco works:
- Entrance pier: A pope holding an open scroll. The excavators suggested St Leo the Great.
- Back of the niche: Our Lady in majesty, with a suppliant (Pope John?).
- Sides of the niche: Tondi with portraits of saints. Left, St Sabas; right, SS Basil and Euthymius.
- Corner pier: The Harrowing of Hell. Christ trampling Satan and resurrecting Adam.
The interior is almost square, with the modern brickwork very well meshing with the old. There is a back apse with a conch.
Two apsidal niches face each other at the far ends of the side walls, but these are not a matching pair. The one on the left is round-headed, and is located over a wall loculus or tomb-niche. This looks like a shrine-tomb of a venerated individual. The right hand one is lower and shorter, and has a very shallow curved archivolt. To its left, tucked into the far right hand corner, is a high brick platform of unknown original function.
The floor is what the English call "crazy paving", and is approached by two marble steps from the outside. It is made up of randomly laid pieces of broken stone slabs, mostly marble but including bits of purple porphyry and green serpentine which originally came from high-status ancient buildings. Under the floor to the right of the entrance was found a buried strigillate marble sarcophagus containing the remains of several individuals. The sarcophagus was originally Jewish, and is thought to have been scavenged from one of the Jewish catacombs in the suburbs. It is now on display against the right hand wall.
Sad remnants survive of a once spectacular set of frescoes which probably once covered the entire interior (the uppermost registers are lost). The main surviving registers are over a frescoed dado running round the interior, which mostly depicts a set of hanging curtains. This is called a velum (plural vela), and is a repeated theme in palaeochristian fresco art at Rome. As well as prestige and insulation in winter, such wall hangings would also have substantially altered the acoustics in churches at the time.
The velum is interrupted in the apse by a depiction of polychrome marble wall revetting, showing a row of five rectangular slabs in alternate yellow and red.
It is thought on stylistic grounds that the interior frescoes were slightly later than the ones outside.
The description is anti-clockwise, beginning to the right of the entrance.
"Life of St Anthony"
The right hand wall features remnants of four scenes which the excavators described as being from the biography of St Anthony of Egypt. The writer seriously doubts this, being familiar with the work. Webb 2001 describes the depictions thus (left to right):
- Two male figures approached by two animals coming down the side of a mountain.
- (In the wall niche), an angel and a person moving quickly to the right, with a background of mountains.
- A house on the left, in front of which stand three figures behind a table. A fourth figure approaches from the right, carrying an object.
- Two mules or horses, both carrying two large bottles, moving towards a draped figure in the centre.
The third in the list is fairly obviously a depiction of the appearance of three angels to Abraham at the Terebinth of Mamre (Genesis 18).
Round the far right hand corner, before the apse, are very scanty traces of a row of saints depicting standing full-length.
Martyrdom of the Forty
The fresco in the apse depict the torture and martyrdom of forty soldiers who were killed for their faith at Sebaste (Turkish Sivas) in Roman Armenia during the persecution of Diocletian in the early 4th century. The story is that they were driven naked onto a frozen lake in winter as the sun was setting, and left there all night with a heated bath-house standing on the shore. Only one of the forty denied his faith and was let into the bath, and those who had not died of exposure by sunrise were then killed. An additional detail was that a soldier on guard was so impressed by their fortitude that he declared himself a Christian and was immediately killed as well, thus preserving the round number of forty.
The fresco in the apse, fortunately fairly intact, depicts the martyrs standing on the ice with modesty aprons of either yellow or red (which they did not have in the legend). The apostate is shown entering the bath house to the right, and the replacement soldier is next to the door.
The conch above used to have a geometric design of rosettes in circles, but this has perished.
The wall to the left of the apse has a very unusual depiction of what seemed to have been three hanging metal sculptures. These must have been contemporary late 8th century church decorations. One of the three has almost perished. The shared design of the other two involves a Greek cross in gold with a central circular medallion, within an enamelled gold ring having a snakeskin pattern. Golden chains connect the top and side arms and from these and the bottoms of the side arms hang other chains terminated by golden finials. The base of the cross is flanked by a pair of palm branches.
The surviving crosses differ in that the left hand medallion has a depiction of Christ, and that on the right is of Our Lady. The left hand ring is coloured as a rainbow, and the right hand one is in red. A reasonable surmise is that the lost far left hand cross had a medallion of St John the Baptist, and that the original set of three hanging items embellished a Deesis.
The crosses are on a white background. Below them are fragmentary representations of two lambs and a peacock, also in golden yellow.
Apotheosis of the Forty
The left hand wall has a large, badly perished fresco of the Forty Martyrs in glory. They are depicted as imperial court officials, in white robes edged with purple and holding hand-crosses. At the back centre is a bust of Christ. Interestingly, the faces are of individuals and it is possible that the models were members of the imperial governing establishment on the Palatine or the pope's courtiers or both.
There are scanty traces of a higher fresco register, originally six separate scenes which the excavators thought had depicted the legend of the Forty.
The wall to the left of the entrance has a depiction of the Mother and Child accompanied by a saint, a pope and a layman (possibly the donor). The saint was probably the donor's namesake.
The oratory is part of the Foro Romano e Palatino archaeological site, and requires the purchase of a ticket for access.
It should be viewable when the rampa imperiale is open to the public (2016), but concern over the fragility of the frescoes might restrict access.
The most accessible modern description in English, including a plan, is:
Matilda Webb: The Churches and Catacombs of Early Christian Rome, 2001 -reprinted 2010 by Sussex. pp 123-5.
(The oratory's online profile is surprisingly poor.)