Santa Maria Egiziaca was the dedication of the ancient rectangular temple on the Piazza della Bocca della Verità when it was in use as an oriental-rite church. This is in the rione Ripa. A Piranesi engraving on Wikimedia Commons is here.
The temple was built in the first century BC and was dedicated to Portunus, the god of harbours (not to Fortuna Virilis, as formerly asserted). This was because the main city port of ancient Rome was just to the north, where transhipment boats from the seagoing ports at Ostia and Porto tied up. There is an English Wikipedia article on it here.
It was built to a cheap design. Instead of having a cella (the room containing the divine image) surrounded by detached columns on all sides, it has four fully round Ionic columns at the entrance, a pair behind these flanking the entrance portico and then four half-round columns attached to the cella on each side. Finally, another four half-round columns decorate the back. There are candelabra and festoons carved on the frieze, also lion protomes.
The building materials are travertine limestone and tufo, which gives the edifice a rough appearance but there would have been an original coating of stucco possibly painted in colours.
The whole edifice is on a high plinth, and the entrance is approached by a flight of stairs.
History of church
Conversion of temple to church
To convert the building to a church, the entrance wall of the cella was demolished and the gaps between the columns of the portico filled in so as to create one large room. This was done in 872 by a benefactor named Stephen Stefaneschi, and fragments of frescoes commissioned by him survive.
The dedication was probably originally to Our Lady under the title of Santa Maria in Gradellis.
At the beginning of the 12th century a church called Santa Maria in Secundicerio existed in the locality. Stefaneschi was a judge, and also the so-called secundicerius which means the number-two functionary at the Papal court. In other words, he was the deputy in secular affairs to Pope John VIII. However, to be fair the etymology depends on the two churches being the same and also identifiable with this one, and both suppositions have been queried by scholars.
A fragmentary epigraph recording the foundation was dug up here in 1571, during the building of the convent. Hülsen transcribed the surviving part of it, as follows:
Hoc dudum fuerat fanum per tempora prisca, Constructum Phoebo mortifero Iovi, Quod Stephanus veteri purgavit stercore iudex atque decora....
("This once used to be an ancient temple, constructed [to the honour of] Phoebus and the death-dealing Jupiter, which the judge Stephen purified from the old shit and beautiful things...[put in?]")
Mary of Egypt
The dedication to St Mary of Egypt is first recorded only in 1492. She was a 5th century prostitute of Alexandria, who was converted at the Holy Sepulchre during a visit to Jerusalem and who then fled into the Judaean desert to be a hermit and to do penance until she died there.
Her major interest in art history is that she was confused with St Mary Magdalen in western Europe in the Middle Ages, and many of the famous paintings of the Penitent Magdalen in a cave or hut actually refer to her.
By this time, the church was parochial and had the Bocca della Verità area as its parish.
In 1560 one of the rulers of Armenia, under attack by both Turks and Persians, sent an ambassador called Saphar Abgaro to Pope Pius IV. The Armenians have had an independent church since the beginning of the 4th century, using the Armenian rite, but an Armenian Catholic Church in communion with the Holy See has existed since the 13th century (this began in the Kingdom of Cilicia or Sis).
The pope granted the Catholic Armenians the church of San Lorenzo dei Cavallucci. This little church, a dependency of San Nicola in Carcere, was very near the north end of the Ponte Fabrizio. However, when Pope Pius V enlarged the Jewish Ghetto this area was included, and the church was deconsecrated as were all the others in the Ghetto zone.
In compensation, the pope granted the Armenians the church of Santa Maria Egiziaca after suppressing the parish (which was taken over by Santa Maria in Cosmedin). A hospice for Armenian pilgrims run by Armenian monks was built next door. The work was undertaken in 1571, and overseen by Giulio Antonio Santori who was cardinal of San Bartolomeo all'Isola. Part of the project was a complete restoration of the interior of the church.
Pope Clement XI (1700-21) ordered another restoration, and the provision of a new hospice and convent. A façade was added which hid the old temple frontage. Also, a terrace was created in front of the church and convent entrance which was surrounded by a low stone wall.
The 18th century façade was pulled off during the French occupation, in order to reveal the front columns of the temple again
In 1921 the entire complex was sequestered by the government, as a result of lobbying by the archaeological establishment, and the monks moved out.
The church was deconsecrated and converted back into a temple by removing the blocking between the front columns, re-building the entrance wall to the cella and also the back wall. This work was supervised by the notorious "restorer" Antonio Muñoz, who at least had the sense to preserve the 9th century fresco fragments found when the interior was gutted. He completed the work in 1925.
The convent and hospice were completely demolished in 1930, and the little enclosed terrace in front was destroyed by excavating the old staircase.
The Armenians were left with their seminary church of San Nicola da Tolentino agli Orti Sallustiani, to which they removed any artwork that could be transported in 1924. The Armenian College is adjacent to this church, which is now the centre of Catholic Armenian life in Rome.
Layout of complex
The building of the Ponte Palatino and massive demolitions have completely changed the character of this neighbourhood.
The former church now sits in a small public park, but formerly faced north into the Piazza di Ponte Rotto which was next to the riverbank where the Ponte Rotto used to be when it was intact. This layout was identical to that in ancient times, when the Ponte Rotto was the Pons Aemilius.
The façades of the church and the Casa di Pilato were opposite each other. A wide street ran south of this piazza, along the right hand side of the church to the Piazza della Bocca della Verità. The convent was next to the left hand, eastern side of the church and on the other side of that was the Via delle Carrozze which was replaced by the present Foro Boario.
A comparison between old photos of the mid 19th century (see links below) and the Piranesi engraving of the mid 18th century is instructive. The latter does not show the entrance columns, but simply has a row of three large rectangular windows over the entrance doorway. The latter had a doorcase with several orders of molding, and a triangular pediment. The entire façade was also crowned by a triangular pediment, the left hand corner of which was subsumed into the convent building (Piranesi was being tidy in not showing this oddity). The pediment tympanum contained a fresco or relief in an elliptical tondo.
After the façade was scraped off by the French, the church's frontage merely had the four ancient columns supporting the pediment and rough brick walling in between.
The convent incorporated the east wall of the church, and was built around a small rectangular courtyard which had an exit into the Via delle Carrozze in its south-east corner. There were two parts to the complex separated by this exit, a larger L-shaped one to the north and east, and a smaller one to the south which extended behind the far end of the church. These parts were the hospice and convent.
The only evidence left of the existence of the convent is in the left hand angle of the present edifice's pediment. This has obviously been restored, and this work was done to replace the original angle which had been chopped off when the convent was built.
Layout of church proper
According to the Nolli map 1748, the back wall of the temple had been knocked through to extend the church at some stage, presumably when the convent was built. This gave a long, narrow rectangular space which is shown on the map. However, in reality what was done here was that only a round-headed aperture was knocked through between the two inner back columns and a sanctuary created in a two-storey block (now gone) attached to the back of the church. The far corners of this sanctuary beyond the ancient temple were chamfered.
There was a large external side chapel on a square plan, which was part of the convent building. This was accessed immediately to the left inside the church's main entrance via a portal that was double, separated by one of the ancient portico columns.
The right hand wall of the church had four large windows, fitted in between the columns.
The interior was as left by the 1571 restoration, and included wall pilasters.
The main altar had an altarpiece of the patron saint by Federico Zuccari. There were two tombs of prelates named Oregio in the church; Giuseppe Oregio (1669) was on the right, and Nicola Oregio (1672) on the left. Angeli in 1903 described these two as cardinals, but they do not seem to be in the lists.
The side chapel contained a model of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, an interesting change from the usual Christmas cribs.
A 9th century inscription had been discovered in the 1571 restoration, which Cardinal Santorio ordered to be attached to the main altar. It read:
Virginis in variis radiat domus alta figuris, quae Dominum castis visceribus tenuit, cuius amore pius Stephanus cum conjuge fretus, cum gentisque pium quod nitet auxit opus. Nobilis, ingenuus, doctissimus, integer, almus aetherium est, et erit culmen is Ausoniae. Praesulis octavi nunc tempore iure Ioannis, templa dicenda dei plena favore pio, ut simul angelicum teneat super aethera thronum, sitque sui pulchrum seminis inde genus.
The interior is now a large, bleak room with an open roof and the walls in exposed tufo blocks showing many signs of various attachments in the past. The right hand wall shows the four blocked up windows, and above and below these ran cornices which still have remains of their carved marble decoration.
The left hand wall has a blocked up convent door, and a pair of little square marble-framed windows which looked into the second storey of the convent. The cornices also exist here, although the lower one is not much in evidence
The narrow arched entrance to the sacristy is still visible in the back wall, now also blocked up.
There are some interesting fragments from the old church furnishings still on show. Some carved marble screen slabs or plutei are here, and fragments of others -some look as if they are about a thousand years old. There is a mediaeval marble tomb slab, with an incised effigy and an inscription in Gothic lettering. Most interesting are two items: A Cosmatesque wall tabernacle still in situ, and a foliated marble finial-cross with an Armenian inscription on its base.
10th century frescoes
Perhaps the most important aspect of the interior is the rather sad set of fresco remnants dating back to the original conversion into a church under Pope John VIII (872-82). It is clear that the interior was originally entirely frescoed, and it must have been spectacular. However, in the 1571 the Armenians had most of the paintwork scraped off. Fortunately, wall pilasters had been attached before this was done and so when Muñoz removed them in 1925 he found strips of fresco work preserved underneath. Some fragments on the far wall were also found.
The surviving fragments seem to give witness to four narrative cycles:
B. The death (Dormition) of Our Lady, from the so-called Liber de Dormitione Mariae which was falsely attributed to St John the Evangelist.
C. The career of St Basil (very little survives of this, and it is unclear how much was originally depicted).
D. The story of St Mary of Egypt.
E. The nave walls were also embellished with portraits of saints. Some of the surviving fragments are detached, and mounted on backing boards.
Proceeding anticlockwise to the right of the entrance, we have four vertical strips of fragments, two on each wall, and some fragments on the far wall. The descriptions are from top to bottom:
- St Joachim, the father of Our Lady, relates a dream of her impending birth to three shepherds. (A)
- St John welcomes five Apostles to the house of the Blessed Virgin Mary as she is dying. (B)
- SS Pantaleon and "Tutuaele" (sic -no such saint). Two portraits. (E)
- The next fragment down is indecipherable, and the last one is detached and shows saints.
- St Anne, the mother of Our Lady. (A)
- Five apostles, including St Bartholomew, in a boat being guided by an angel to visit the Blessed Virgin Mary before her death. (B)
- A miracle performed by St Basil (C)
- A saint. (E)
- Top: Christ in glory, with angels and the symbols of the Evangelists.
- Two saints, one seated with a book (a Doctor of the Church).
- Two fragments of the border, comprising linked medallions and floral decoration.
- On the keystone of the blocked arch, the face of Our Lady. This demonstrates that the little triumphal arch was an original part of the conversion of the church in the 9th century.
- Five virgins accompany Our Lady to the house of St Joseph as she is betrothed -to the right. (A)
- The Annunciation -to the left. (A)
- Two soldiers, a pair of outstretched arms and the name Anna -this scene is not understood. To the right. (A)
- Our Lady and St Joseph are interrogated by a priest about their possible adultery -to the left. (A)
- Our Lady and Christ talking on her deathbed. (B)
- SS Rufina and Prisca (E)
Access after the recent restoration was to be by guided tour on the first and the third Sunday of the month. A link via the city's archeology website is found on the page here.
Unfortunately, it seems that there are problems with access as at the end of 2016. These might be the result of concerns about the fragility of the frescoes, but no information online seems to be available.
Coarelli, P: Rome and Environs, An Archeological Guide, English trans. UCP 2007. p 315ff.
Trimarchi, M: Per un revisione iconographica del ciclo di affreschi nel Tempio della "Fortuna Virile" [sic]. Studie mediaevali 19 1978 (an English summary is given in the following work).
Webb, M: The Churches and Catacombs of Early Christian Rome. Sussex Academic Press 2001. p 178ff.