Santa Maria della Pace dell'Opus Dei is a mid 20th century convent church at Viale Buozzi 75 in the Pinciano quarter. It belongs to the Prelature of the Holy Cross and Opus Dei (to give it its full title).
Beware of confusion with the old church of Santa Maria della Pace.
The Personal Prelature of Opus Dei has its headquarters (Curia Prelazia) here -hence it is not, strictly speaking, a convent because members of Opus Dei are not consecrated religious. Its status means that it is not subject to the Diocese of Rome, even though present in the diocesan territory. This appears to be why the church is not listed on the website of the Diocese.
A Personal Prelature (so far, Opus Dei is the only one of these) is equivalent to a non-geographical diocese, headed by a prelate who has received episcopal consecration. The setup is similar, but not entirely identical, to that of a military ordinariate. However, unlike ordinariates, prelatures cannot erect parishes. Opus Dei administers three parishes in the Diocese of Rome, but these remain with the Diocese.
The question may arise -is the church here a cathedral? In practice -yes, because it is the seat of a bishop. However, the term is not used (neither is it for Santa Caterina a Magnanapoli, the seat of the Italian military ordinariate), because the prelate in charge of Opus Dei is a titular bishop. This provides the neat fiction that his actual cathedral is a long-vanished edifice in a ruined ancient city somewhere. The present prelate is Javier Echevarría Rodríguez, who is the titular bishop of Cilibia. This place is identified with a wetland called Sebkha Kelbia in Tunisia, not to be confused with Kelibia (ancient Clypea, also a titular see).
So, when you see the bishop's throne or cathedra in the church, you have to imagine it metaphysically located here.
The massive five-storey neo-Baroque Villa Tevere was part of the early 20th century development of the area, and was commissioned by one Prince Attilio Gori Mazzoleni. After the First World War, it served as the Hungarian Embassy.
Meanwhile, St Josemaría Escrivá founded Opus Dei at Madrid, Spain in 1928. After the Spanish Civil War he established the headquarters at Rome in 1946, but the fitting out of the church took some time. Its first Mass was celebrated in 1959.
After St Josemaría's death in 1975, he was buried in a tomb in the crypt of the church. However, after his beatification in 1992 his remains were exhumed and enshrined under the high altar. He was canonised in 2002, and so the church is now one of the notable saints' shrines in Rome.
Opus Dei now has a very strong presence in Rome, especially in contrast to the more traditional religious orders which are struggling to maintain a profile in the face of declining numbers. At the start of 2017, the prelature had 81 priests resident in the diocese. It administers three parish churches: Sant'Eugenio, San Giovanni Battista in Collatino and San Josemaria Escrivà. Also, it is responsible for the old church of San Girolamo della Carità.
The church has no civic identity. The entrance is a rather anonymous doorway in a boring six-storey block, which looks like a mid-20th century addition to the original villa complex.
The impressive neo-Baroque architecture of the latter is mostly invisible from the street, facing onto an enclosed courtyard laid out as a little formal garden. However, there is an attractive little pedimented wall aedicule with a statue of the Madonna and Child around the corner in the Via di Villa Sacchetti -Cor Mariae dulcissimum, iter para tutum ("Sweetest heart of Mary, prepare a safe way").
There is a fairly interesting series of frontages along this street, too. Note the Marian epigraphs on two door lintels, in a very unusual style.
The church is below ground level, and has a crypt. Below the latter is a sub-crypt.
The layout involves a vestibule at the bottom of the entrance stairs, and then a little antechamber on a trapezoidal plan. This exists because the church is not on the same alignment as the vestibule.
The (almost) rectangular single nave follows, entered at the bottom left hand side. The near wall of the distinct entrance bay is slightly coved (concave).
The structural nave includes most of the sanctuary space, although there is a semi-circular apse with conch behind the altar which is narrower. The access to the main crypt is down a staircase flanking the altar to the right -down here is also the location of the Blessed Sacrament Chapel.
The vestibule demonstrates the free use of polychrome stonework which is a feature of the church. Coming down the stairs, you meet a white polished marble statue of the Madonna and Child, Mater Pulchrae Dilectionis -literally "Mother of Beautiful Delight". (The Italian has this as Madonna del Bell'Amore, although amor in Latin means something else.) The statue is in a grey-veined Carrara marble Baroque frame, and has a cloissoné backing in what looks like jasper and gilded bronze.
The door-case of the entrance into the antechamber is in black marble, and on the lintel is the gilded epigraph XXVIII Nov[embris] MCMLXXXII, laus Deo ("28 November 1982, thanks be to God") which commemorates the raising of Opus Dei to a personal prelature.
The baptismal font in which St Josemaría was baptised in 1902 is kept in the antechamber. It was smashed and thrown into the river when the Cathedral of Barbastro was sacked during the Spanish Civil War, but was recovered, restored and donated to Opus Dei in honour of the saint.
Apart from its value as a second-class relic, the font deserves attention in its own right. It is mediaeval, and hence probably the oldest thing in the church. The form is that of a ribbed goblet, carved in an attractive yellow stone.
Entrance bay Edit
St Josemaría had no time for mendacious arguments about "the nobility of simplicity" in church furnishings, rightly suspecting that it was often a cover for a lack of artistic and architectural talent and a reluctance to spend money on sacred things. The church interior here demonstrates his contrary intention. The fittings are amazingly rich, and you would never guess from viewing them that the church is mid-20th century.
The door through which you just came when you entered the church is topped with a heraldic marble panel in high relief with angel bearers, and for the sake of symmetry is mirrored by a blank recess opposite in the same style. This is in a greyish-green marble, and contains a simple cross.
This same stone is used for a high dado plinth running round the church's interior walls. On this, and flanking both true and false doors, there stands a pair of Ionic pilasters in a pinkish marble with white marble capitals. The wall to your right as you enter (actually the near end wall of the church) has eight more of these pilasters, with two close pairs flanking a central round-headed recess. As mentioned, this wall has a slight cove (concave curve). In front of it is a set of wooden stalls facing up the nave, each of which has an alabaster (or onyx?) panel inset into its front.
In between the pilasters in this wall are what look like four round-headed "windows". They are actually light fittings -the church is underground, so the light is artificial. Above each window is one of the church's set of twenty-two majolica tile panels which depicts scenes from the Stations of the Cross and the life of Our Lady.
The pilasters support a simple architrave, which in turn supports a flat ceiling, decoratively coffered in squares and rectangles, in reddish brown with gilded decoration. Above this ceiling is the choir gallery.
The recess has on its back an epigraph giving the text of the Consecration of Opus Dei to the Sweet Heart of Mary, and also contains votive objects. Included among these is the Rose of Rialp, which St Josemaría had found in a vandalised church at a village called Pallerols in 1937, when he was escaping from Republican Spain. He regarded it as a sign from Our Lady.
The floor is very impressively laid in polychrome opus sectile stone tiling in ancient style.
Here is kept a gold-painted iron votive candle holder, which was used in the ceremony of canonisation of the saint.
The seating of the main is not congregational (facing the altar), but collegiate in two ranks (facing the major axis of the nave.) The style of the stalls is identical to those already described, and in between them the opus sectile flooring continues.
Each side wall of the nave has nine of the round-headed "windows" or light panels. These are separated, not by pilasters but by Ionic columns in the round, of the same type of marble. Each row of columns starts and terminates with a close pair of these, but at the far end of each row in the sanctuary is a gap after the final pair followed by a single terminating column next to the far wall.
The columns support an architrave like that of the entrance bay ceiling, but this in turn supports a narrow gallery or walkway on each side the bottom of which has a single row of square coffers with gilded bosses. The walkways and choir gallery have gilded metal railings standing on molded and gilded cornices.
The high main nave ceiling is divided into bays by transverse beams, which are decoratively painted mainly in red and blue with gilded vine-leaf motifs. The ceiling panels in between these are coffered in octagons and little squares, the octagons containing a grid pattern and the squares little gilded rosettes.
The choir gallery and walkways are backed by rows of the round-headed light panels, in groups of three. However, the choir apse is lit by a curved row of rectangular panels.
Altar and shrine Edit
The sanctuary is raised above the level of the nave, so that the shrine of St Josemaría under the altar can be venerated at head height by visitors arriving at the end of the nave. His relics are in a large chased silver box, protected by a diapered bronze grille and also by glass. Spirally twisted Solomonic columns in bronze flank the shrine frontal, echoing the altar above.
Below the shrine is a rectangular aperture (a fenestella confessionis) looking down into a tiny crypt below the altar. In here, St Josemaría enshrined the alleged relics of two early martyrs -SS Jucundianus and Felicity. Were these excavated from the catacombs? The two shrines are gabled caskets richly decorated in purple and gold, and the same colours are used on the walls.
The altar above the shrine has a skeletal baldacchino or ciborio -there is no canopy. Here, four thin, spirally ribbed Corinthian columns support a rectangular frame in white marble with Cosmatesque style decoration. The omission of a canopy is an odd feature, obviously intended so as not to obstruct the view of the apse mosaic behind. The columns look as if they are porphyry -very impressive, if so. Note that the spiral ribbing twists in opposite directions for the columns to the left and to the right.
The arrangement recalls the baldacchino at Santa Maria Maggiore, but hopefully this was not the inspiration because the Baroque baldacchino there was mutilated in the earlier 20th century.
The far wall of the nave is well behind the altar. It contains the apse with conch, but there is no proper triumphal arch. Rather, a set of green marble ribbed Corinthian pilasters carry an entablature which runs across the wall on both sides, below the walkways, and then around the apse under the conch. The architrave and cornice of this is in cream-coloured marble, and the frieze is in green. There is a pair of the pilasters folded into the outer corners of the wall, another pair midway between these and the apse, another at the apse corners and four more within the apse. These latter flank two sets of triplet round-headed light panels.
The wall of the sanctuary below the walkways bears a pair of gilded bronze relief plaques depicting angels, by Francesco Nagni. The angels hold open books; one of these reads Pax in aeternum ("Peace for ever"), and the other Gaudium cum pace ("Joy with peace").
Just to the left of the left hand apse corner is a bronze plaque depicting the saint, by Romano Cosci.
At the back of the apse is the white marble bishop's throne, in mediaeval Cosmatesque style with a pair of Solomonic columns supporting a segmental pediment and flanked by a pair of lions. The back of the throne has a round-headed aspidal niche containing a long epigraph describing the virtues appropriate to membership of Opus Dei.
Above the throne is a depiction of Our Lady of Peace, in a lush Renaissance style by Manuel Caballero. The frame is supported by gilded putti.
The apse conch is occupied by a gilded mosaic in a Byzantine idiom. The Madonna and Child is depicted in the centre, accompanied by the Apostles and by SS Martha, Mary and Lazarus. Above, two angels hold a rosy wreath containing the symbol of Opus Dei, which is a cross within a circle.
The far wall above the entablature is also covered by a mosaic. On a gilded background with pink and blue clouds are four angels with the symbols of the Evangelists. Below are two blue panels bearing important dates for the foundation of the church, with vine scrolls below these. The archivolt of the conch is richly decorated and has the epigraph Sancta Maria, filios tuos adiuva ("Holy Mary, help your sons").
Oratory of the Dormition Edit
At the bottom of the stairs down to the crypt from the main church is the Oratory of the Dormition, a little chapel dedicated to the death (or "falling asleep") of Our Lady. This should be distinguished from the Assumption, which was the removal of her dead body to heaven. The two events took place in two separate places in Jerusalem -the former at what is now Dormition Abbey, and the latter at the Tomb of Mary.
The altar stands on eight little white marble Corinthian columns with bronze capitals and bases embellished with bronze acanthus leaves.
The altarpiece, set on gilded strap wall corbels, is a lifelike polychrome wooden sculpture of Our Lady newly laid out after her death, which is within a Cosmetesque-style marble-framed glass case. This has the tag Assumpta est Maria in coelo ("Mary has been taken into heaven"), which is not quite correct in reference to the statue -as mentioned above. The work is by Luis Ortega Brú.
The chapel was inspired by a childhood memory of St Josemaría's, who as a little boy venerated a similar sculpture at Barbastro Cathedral.
The representation of Our Lady as a young woman, when she was in (at least) middle age when she died, is an expression of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. That she is a redhead seems to be an allusion to her descent from King David, who was one himself (1 Samuel 16:12).
The very shallow barrel vault has tondi depicting scenes from the life of Our Lady.
Main crypt chapel Edit
From the Oratory, a further set of stairs descends into a vestibule. In front is the entrance to the main crypt chapel, while to the right of the staircase (going down) is a third set of stairs to the subcrypt.
On the left hand wall of the vestibule is displayed a painted panel depicting a mediaeval version of the mystery of the Trinity. The original work of which this is a copy is in Amiens Cathedral.
The main chapel has a monumental entrance in a northern European Romanesque style. The doorway is topped by an arch with several orders of molding, enclosing a tympanum. The latter has a relief carving of The Coronation of Our Lady. The piers supporting the arch have two statues, of Our Lady and the archangel Gabriel in the Annunciation.
in the centre of the chapel floor is a black marble slab-tomb, originally of St Josemaría and briefly a cenotaph since his transfer to the shrine upstairs. It bears the epitaph El Padre, Spanish for "The Father". Now it contains the relics of Bl Álvaro del Portillo.
The fabric of the crypt is in limestone, with a ribbed cross-vault in white blocks with contrasting dark grey mortar. The side walls have four sets of three large marble panels in the style of early mediaeval carved choir screens or plutei, one above the other and topped by a semi-circular tympanum. The bottom left hand set is the tomb of Dora del Hoyo, one of the first members of Opus Dei.
The tympani have reliefs of a tree, a vine, peacocks and a fisherman's boat -all symbols of Christ.
The separate sanctuary is entered through another arched portal, very richly decorated and with its tympanum containing a relief carving of Christ in Majesty.
The side walls of the sanctuary have arched niches, again richly carved, containing reliefs depicting The Supper at Emmaus and Christ as a Guest of SS Martha, Mary and Lazarus.
The subcrypt is a little chamber panelled in red marble slabs, and is the tomb of Carmen Escrivá who was the sister of the saint and a great mover in the foundation of Opus Dei.
Blessed Sacrament Chapel Edit
The antechamber of the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, which also gives access to confessionals, has a polished marble statue of Christ the Good Shepherd in the same style as that of Our Lady which you met on entering the church's vestibule.
The little chapel's altar is embellished with inlay in semi-precious stones. The finely painted altarpiece, in late mediaeval style, has several panels. Depicted are The Crucifixion as the main panel, as well as The Annunciation, The Nativity, Noli Me Tangere and The Coronation of Our Lady.
The church is open daily from 8:30 to 20:45 (.pdf visitor's pamphlet June 2018, link found below).
From 14:00 to 17:00, use the side entrance at Via di Villa Sacchetti 36.
Mass is celebrated daily at 8:30 and 12:00 (visitor's pamphlet).
No distinction is made between weekdays and Sundays in this timetable.
Official diocesan web-page (of the Personal Prelature)
Visitor's pamphlet (pdf)