Santa Maria in Cosmedin is the Byzantine Rite church for Melkite Catholics in Rome, as well as a minor basilica of the 9th century. Dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, it is located at Piazza della Bocca della Verità 18. Pictures of the church on Wikimedia Commons here. There is an English Wikipedia page here.
It is no longer a parish church, and although officially titular it has not had a resident cardinal for some time.
Origins of Rome were here
It is possible that the church stands on the site of what is, for Rome, a truly ancient site of worship. It is located in the Forum Boarium, a flat piece of ground on the curve of one of the Tiber's meanders where the Capitoline, Palatine and Aventine hills meet. Archaeologists have struggled to discern anything from earlier than the Iron Age (after 1200 BC) in the city under the plenitude of more recent remains, but it is clear that several of the seven hills were occupied by little villages of huts in the Bronze Age (later 3rd millennium BC), and that the Forum Boarium was a very important trading location. This was because it was located by the lowest point where the river could be easily forded, and hence was on a trackway which would have dated from Stone Age times. It is now thought that this location was central to the earliest development of Rome as a proto-urban settlement, traditionally in the 8th century BC when the village on the Palatine took priority, the one on the Capitoline became a sacred enclosure and the formerly important one on the Quirinal faded away. The Forum Boarium was the new town's first forum or marketplace, and the name suggests that cattle were an important trade item in early days.
Ara Maxima of Hercules
The Aenid of Virgil has the legend that Hercules the Greek hero was mugged by a humanoid monster called Cacus which lived in a cave on the riverbank under the Aventine, and took his revenge by killing it. In gratitude a group of Greeks living on the Palatine under a leader called Evander raised an open-air altar to the hero, the so-called Ara Maxima. This legend has been thought to have been owing to ancient Romans wanting to give themselves a Greek pedigree, but mid 8th century Greek pottery has been found in the Forum Boarium which has led some archaeologists to suggest that it must have a grain of truth.
The further suggestion, influential although not conclusively proven, is that this altar is visible in the crypt of the church. This is supported by the discovery of inscriptions behind the church, which were erected by the praetors who were under the obligation of providing sacrifices. Hence the conclusion that the church is arguably the oldest continuously occupied place of worship in Rome. So, we would have here a very large open-air altar on the archaic Greek model, perhaps used by Greeks from the earliest times. It is on record that the pagan cult was made public (that is, city officials were responsible for it) from 312 BC. At the same time a temple dedicated to Hercules Invicta ("unconquered") was built just to the east, but the altar was apparently never roofed while it remained a pagan sanctuary.
When you go down into the crypt, you will see a large mass of Anio tufa at its far end, which indicates that the altar was rebuilt in the 2nd century BC when this stone was first used.
In pagan times, adjacent to the altar on the west was a sort of colonnaded gallery which was first built in the 1st century AD. This had a rectangular podium placed transversely, with three marble Corinthian columns on the shorter sides and seven on the façade. The latter supported a row of small arches on its architrave. It is not clear if this building was roofed, or was an atrium courtyard for the altar.
The back wall, in brick, is attached to the fabric of the altar and this casts into serious doubt the identification of the building with a Statio annonae or main provisions office for the supply of grain to the city's inhabitants. This is the traditional identification, widely accepted, but many archaeologists now reject it. However, the fabric was restored in the late 4th century and the structure must have had an alternative Christian or secular use by then.
The columns of the façade and the three on the left hand side survive, incorporated into the church's fabric.
Foundation of the church
The actual foundation of the church is undocumented. It may be very early, of the 3rd century, but the extant tradition mentions it as having been built by Pope Gregory the Great at the end of the 6th century. It was possibly built earlier in that century as part of a diaconia, an ecclesiastical institution for helping poor people which is how it emerges into history. It is unclear how this early church fitted into the structures already on site. Since the Statio annonae was restored in the 4th century, it or part of it may have survived to be used for the purpose. Nobody knows.
Eighth century rebuilding
The church was rebuilt by Pope Adrian I in 782, and granted to a community of Greek monks from Constantinople exiled by the iconoclast persecutions in the Byzantine Empire. The architecture showed Eastern influence in having three apses, and also a matroneum or separate gallery for women over each aisle. Back then, the church did not have arcades but instead the columns dividing the nave from the aisles supported horizontal architraves. A little crypt was also provided, despite there being no shrine of any saint established here.
The church was known as Santa Maria in Schola Graeca (Our Lady at the Greek Confraternity), and was used by Greek merchants in Rome as well as the expatriates. The number of the latter, both monks and laypeople, grew so large in this century that the Papal curia was dominated by Greek speakers and several other monasteries were of the Byzantine rite.
The name Kosmidion was also used in the 8th century, and the derivative Cosmedin has come to be the preferred name. This is an interesting historical puzzle. One tradition is that the Greek word, meaning "beautiful thing", was a reference to the rich decoration of this church. The immediate problem with this is that there were two other churches in Italy with the same name: the Arian Baptistry at Ravenna, and one at Naples. Both of these were named by exiled Byzantine monks.
Rather, the name Kosmidion belonged to a famous monastery at Constantinople, on a hill just outside the Blachernae walls. This was founded about the year 480, was dedicated to SS Cosmas and Damian and became a noted centre for healing (the patrons were by tradition doctors who refused payment for their services, hence the name anargyroi). The emperor Justinian was cured here and restored the complex in gratitude, and it was still functioning in the 11th century. So, it seems the name was used out of nostalgia.
The city suffered a major earthquake in 847, and this damaged the church. So, later in the 9th century, Pope Nicholas I ordered a restoration which included a sacristy, a papal palace and a new chapel dedicated to St Nicholas. These additions were destroyed when the complex was damaged during the Sack by the Normans in 1084 led by Robert Guiscard.
The subsequent restoration of 1123, ordered by Pope Callistus III and carried out by Cardinal Alfano who was his chamberlain, resulted in the building that we have today. Its slender campanile dating from this restoration is well known, giving the church an unusual but pleasing appearance. The restoration also entailed the removal of the galleries, the building of the schola cantorum and the provision of the Cosmatesque floor and arcades for the aisles. The walls were covered with frescoes, of which fragments survive.
The monastery had become a college of secular canons by 1236, and in about 1300 Francesco Caetani, the cardinal deacon, undertook another restoration which apparently involved rebuilding the façade. He also provided the adjacent building which now houses the sacristy and winter choir. In 1433 the complex was granted to San Paolo fuori le Mura and so became a Benedictine monastery, but this was suppressed in 1573 and it became a secular canonry again.
The church had become parochial in the Middle Ages, and the first description of the parish boundaries in 1656 describe how the entire Aventine and the present Marmorata and Testaccio districts were included within its boundaries. The Marmorata had several churches in the early Middle Ages, and the last of these (except San Lazzaro alla Marmorata) were probably destroyed in the Sack of Rome in 1527.
Appearance in the 16th century
A bird's-eye-view of the city published in 1593 by Antonio Tempesta shows the church in detail. The campanile and main body of the edifice are as now, but there are several interesting differences. The propyleum is similar to the one there now, but the supporting columns reach the roofline. The entrance narthex or loggia is again similar to now, but there are only two arches to the left of the entrance. To the right is a blank wall, and leaning against it is the Bocca della Verità. Most importantly, the façade above the narthex is a blank, flat-topped wall which is coved both on its main face and on its sides; in other words, it curves outwards. On this wall appears to be either mosaic or fresco (it is impossible to tell which), and the coving meant that this did not seem foreshortened to someone standing at the entrance. The same arrangement survives at Santa Maria in Trastevere.
Back then, the locality was not popular. The church and monastery were the last buildings of the built up area on the left bank of the Tiber, and the newly installed secular canons were not happy there. A curious petition has been preserved on their behalf, whereby four doctors of medicine sent a letter to Pope Alexander VII alleging that the atmosphere there was so bad "for different reasons" and so windy that it was dangerous to the health of the canons to be there for longer than an hour and a half, and could they be dispensed from longer liturgies in the church? The reaction of the pope is not preserved, but the church was allowed to fall into serious disrepair in the 17th century.
In 1718 a thorough restoration took place by Giuseppe Sardi, who added some Baroque decoration to the interior, vaulted the ceiling and also provided a new Baroque façade. This was an attractive and engaging piece of architecture, and its subsequent loss was a pity.
The propylaeum was heightened, so that a pair of Ionic columns supported a semi-circular arch topped by a triangular pediment. The frontage of the narthex was restored to show an arcade of three arches on each side of the propylaeum, the central ones of which had railing gates while the others were closed by screen walls bearing square panels in framed relief. The curves of the arches were open, and the arches were separated by Corinthian pilasters. Above each arch was a small horizontally rectangular window with a stone frame in relief. Above these windows was a deep entablature, the architrave of which was a continuation of the cornice of the propylaeum's pediment. Above this in turn was a wide blank frieze broken by little pilasters, and a final horizontal cornice bearing flaming torch finials above the pilasters. The capitals of the latter did not quite reach the architrave, a typically Baroque touch.
The nave frontage had a large arched central window flanked by two little Corinthian columns, and to each side was a pair of Corinthian pilasters. Above the window was a large coat-of-arms of Pope Clement XI . The pilasters were separated by a pair of large blank rectangular tablets in framed relief, supporting an entablature with projecting architrave and cornice. This swept over the coat-of-arms in a graceful curve. Above the cornice was a solid balustrade following the curve, with four flaming torch finials above the pilasters and a cross finial on top.
A Vasi engraving exists showing this Baroque frontage; see the "Romelover" external link below. Two rare old photos of it are on a "Youtube" slide show.
The most famous person associated with the church in modern times was St Giovanni Battista de Rossi, who was a canon here in the 18th century although he concentrated his charitable efforts at Santissima Trinità dei Pellegrini where he was buried. The set of rooms that he occupied in the convent used to be shown to visitors in the 19th century, but not in recent times it seems. He should not be confused with the more famous archaeologist of the same name.
The present façade is, quite simply, modern and is the result of a restoration by Giovanni Battista Giovanale who was a Roman-born architect. This was completed in 1899, and also involved the ruthless removal of Baroque details from the interior including the ceiling vault. The resulting frontage is often claimed to be a return to what the church looked like in mediaeval times, but it certainly did not look like that in the 16th century. It must be admitted that the work is no better than a fanciful and talentless reconstruction, based on what the architect thought a typical mediaeval Roman church would have looked like.
The parish was suppressed in 1936, and the church subsequently transferred into the use of the Melkite Catholic expatriate community. The Melkites had been in possession of the church of Santa Maria in Domnica since 1734, when a monastery of Basilian monks had been established there. However this had been suppressed by the Italian government in 1873, and the church fell into neglect. The Melkites finally lost it when it became parochial in 1932, and had to wait a few years before obtaining a new spiritual home here.
There was a restoration of the façade and campanile in 1964, and also a further recent restoration to the sacristy block.
Pope Stephen II established the church as a cardinal deaconry in the mid 8th century, but the first cardinal whose name is recorded is Giovanni Caetani in 1082, a Benedictine monk who was later Pope Gelasius II. Among the subsequent titular deacons is Cardinal Reginald Pole (died 1558), Archbishop of Canterbury during the English Reformation and the last of the old hierarchy of England to be in communion with the Holy See.
The last cardinal deacon was Francesco Roberti, who was transferred to be titular of Santi Apostoli in 1967. The title has been vacant since then, and it is not obvious why this should have been allowed to happen. One rumour is that Pope St John Paul appointed a cardinal in pectore (in secret) in 2003, whose identity has never been revealed.
Bocca della Verità
The most famous thing in the church is something which, paradoxically, has never had anything to do with its function as a Christian place of worship. It has given its name to the piazza and also to the neighbourhood, and horrifyingly some people refer to the church by this name as well. It has its own English Wikipedia page here.
What it is, is a large, cracked marble disc bearing the image of a bearded human face in shallow relief with the eyes, nostrils and slightly open mouth rendered by piercings. The marble is pavonazzetto from Phrygia in what is now Turkey, and the dimensions are 1.75 metres across and 19 centimetres thick. The weight is 1200 kg, well over a ton. It stands on a little Corinthian capital at the left hand end of the church's narthex.
The crack across it is serious; it passes through the left eye, nose and mouth. The upper lip is lost, and has been replaced with a patch in an obviously different sort of marble. Either this damage occurred when the stone was being moved into the narthex, or conceivably the move was because of some accident causing the fracture when the stone was propped up against the outside wall of the narthex.
What it was originally
Such an item is not easy to date, but the 1st century BC is a good guess. The only other example of such an object has been reported from the castle of Polignac near Puy in France. The generally expressed opinion is that it was originally a drain cover or manhole cover, perhaps for the Cloaca Maxima sewer which was nearby. The image evoked is of unfortunate slaves being sent down to shovel excreta in the darkness for twelve hours at a time ("The Worst Job in Ancient Rome"), but the problem with this is that the stone disc is both too heavy to manhandle and too fragile. Further, the precious nature of the stone used implies that the object had a high status function.
Alternative suggestions are: That it was a wall fountain in a garden, which idea is supported by signs that the disc was originally attached to a vertical surface. Or, that it was a cover for a sacred well. More specifically, that it was the lid of an oracle chamber in which a pagan priest would hide, pretending to be the deity talking. See the external website below for a more thorough discussion.
What the object is famous for is the legend, that anybody inserting his or her hand into the open mouth after telling a lie would have the fingers bitten off. This was allegedly originally a mediaeval idea, attached to the testing of possibly adulterous wives, but anybody knowing anything about mediaeval ordeal rituals (as well as about jealous husbands) would find this incredible. There is a suspicion that the story was originally a mediaeval Roman joke against visiting pilgrims, as if Romans were stupid enough to believe it themselves.
Emergence into history
Attempts to prove that the object was known before the 15th century by appealing to references in surviving texts are, at best, inconclusive. What is certain is that the Bocca della Verità was regularly referred to by this name firstly in 1485 and regularly since. Perhaps it was dug up just before then. The first depictions of it show it propped against the outside wall of the narthex of the church, and it was only taken inside to be placed in its present position in 1631. It is also rather surprising that none of the nobility of Rome keen on collecting antiquities set about adding this piece to their collections.
This object is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Rome, and that is only because tour buses can park easily outside the church. There are not too many places in the city where they can do that. The queue builds up well before the church opens, and most of the tourists simply have their photos taken with a hand in the mouth, and then go away again without even bothering to look inside the church. Native Romans consider this to be seriously bizarre.
A further joke that has gone around the city is the culo della verità or "backside of truth", and apparently such a sculpture exists. In the Nineties certain native tour guides teased their tourists in the queue by claiming that a young woman occasionally came along, exposed her buttocks and shouted "culo della verità!". This was completely false, as it was originally an old man on a Vespa.
The church has a simple basilical layout, having a nave with aisles and three apses. The proportions of the plan are harmonious, as it is 40 metres long, 20 metres wide overall and with the central nave 10 metres wide. However, the layout has several irregularities. The overall groundplan is actually slightly trapezoidal; the left external wall angles inwards overall slightly from front to back, and the right wall has a slight internal angle or bend about halfway along. The propylaeum does not align with the main entrance, but is slightly to the right. The frontage of the narthex looks symmetrical, but actually protrudes slightly to the left on the left hand side (where the Bocca della Verità is) and substantially to the right where the last archway is actually in front of the vestibule of the sacristy.
The three apses are internal, as the altar end of the church is rectangular externally. The right hand aisle apse is brought forward slightly as compared to the left hand one, and the wall behind it is much thicker in consequence.
Along the left hand aisle are attached three external chapels forming one range. The campanile is placed over the near end of the right hand aisle, and its lowest storey forms a passageway into the sacristy vestibule. The sacristy itself is to the right of this, on the street corner, and on the far side is the so-called "Winter Choir Chapel" (Cappella del Coro Invernale) which has its own vestibule entered from both the sacristy vestibule and the right aisle of the church.
The little convent is on the other side of the Winter Choir along the Via della Greca, and is arranged around a very small courtyard adjacent to the right hand aisle. It is claimed that some of the fabric is 9th century.
The anthropologiaartesacra website article (see "External links" below) has a useful plan showing how the church relates to the earlier remains of the Statio annonae.
This is one of the finest mediaeval Romanesque campaniles in Rome, and is a familiar landmark. It is unusually tall, 34.2 metres, in brick and having nine storeys. The first storey, within the church, incorporates the passageway from church to sacristy, as mentioned, and the second which reaches to the roofline of the nave is blank. The third and fourth have two separate arched openings on each face, but the ones of the third storey have been blocked. The fifth storey has three arches on each face. The last four storeys have these three arches made into an arcade on each face, with the arches seprated by white marble columns having imposts instead of proper capitals. Binoculars will show that the columns facing the street in the eighth storey are ribbed. However, the columns of the topmost storey have an assortment of capitals, of the Corinthian and Composite styles and rather eroded.
The storeys are separated by a double cornice with dentillation in between. There is also a dentillated string course running round each storey at the level of the arch springers.
The modern façade was rebuilt in 1899 in a presumed mediaeval style. It is in brick, with the narthex having six large open arches filled with railings. In between these are strip pilasters which reach the dentillated roofline without capitals. The roof of the narthex is pitched and tiled. Above each arch is a round-headed window, and these windows are fenestrated with stone grilles called transennae, in the form of rows of little arches. The entrance propylaeum has a gable roof over a large arch, and this is supported by four Ionic columns in a square.
The actual nave frontage, above the narthex roof, has a row of three arch windows the transennae of which are formed of rows of circles. Above these windows a cornice with stone dentillations runs across the gable, forming a false pediment which contains a small oculus in brick.
Other external details
Because of surrounding buildings, it is not possible to examine the external fabric of the original basilica (unless you can gain access to the convent and hence the right hand aisle, which is not easy to do).
To the left of the nave is a strange two-storey annexe with a roof of a single pitch, and this contains the external chapels leading off the left hand aisle.
The building adjacent to the narthex on the east contains the sacristy and winter choir. It used to look shabby, but has recently been restored and now is attractively rendered in lemon yellow with the stone window frames picked out in white.
The most famous thing in the church is to be found in the narthex or portico. The Bocca della Verità or "Mouth of Truth" can be located at the left end, next to a little door which leads into what used to be the doorkeeper's lodge. If you want to examine this without being harassed by tourists, visit on a wet day in winter or, better, make friends with a church custodian and he may let you look at it properly at locking-up time when everybody else has been thrown out.
Also in the portico, on the right of the door, is a monument to Cardinal Alphanus, who worked for Pope Callixtus II as chamberlain in the early 12th century and oversaw the restoration of the church. The tomb is in the form of a marble niche altar, having a triangular canopy supported by a pair of spindly columns. There is a fragment of fresco above the tomb, which originally represented the Madonna and Child flanked by Popes Callixtus II and Gelasius II. There is an epitaph along the lower edge of the canopy, which reads: Vir probus Alfanus cernens quia cuncta perirent, sibi hoc sarcofagum statuit ne totus obiret, fabrica delectat pollet quia penitus extra sed monet interius quia post haec tristitia restant.
The marble doorcase of the main door has 11th century carvings recalling Classical motifs, and is the work of Giovanni di Venetia. It has charming details, including little birds, foliage, a hand raised in blessing, the symbols of the Evangelists and the signature of the artist: Me fecit Iohannes de Venetia.
The door is flanked by a a pair of large tablets bearing long dedicatory inscriptions, and the interesting thing about these is that there are mostly no spaces between the words. This is how people often wrote Latin in ancient times in order to save expensive papyrus , although obviously not usually on monumental public inscriptions. One is 10th century, and describes how a certain Teubald donated land and sacred vessels to the Basilica of San Valentino on the Via Salaria. When this basilica fell into ruin in the 9th century, this tablet was brought here, later joined by the alleged skull of St Valentine. The other tablet is 8th century, and describes how two brothers, Eustathius and Gregory (or George) donated some local property. It has the first documented reference to the locality of Testaccio.
Just to the left of the entrance is a lunette-shaped niche which used to contain a fresco depicting the Annunciation and the Nativity, although this is now almost completely decayed.
As mentioned, ten ancient columns of the Statio annonae are incorporated into the fabric. On going into the church and looking at the counterfaçade, you will see two flanking the entrance door. A third is at the near end of the left hand aisle, two more are part of the first storey of the campanile, one is at the entrance of the sacristy and one is in the middle of it. These seven were the main entrance colonnade of the original building. The three other columns are by the baptistry and the Chapel of San Giovanni Battista de Rossi, and were a side entrance originally.
The original 8th century church had trabeated colonnades instead of arcades, with galleries above and with everything under the one roof. The 12th century restoration removed the galleries, lowered the aisle roofs and converted the colonnades into arcades. There seem to have been worries over the building's stability, however. There are nine ancient Corinthian columns on each side, which are spolia (the capitals differ, and are worth examining) but these are divided into three groups of three by a pair of massive pillars on each side which are part of the nave walls.
The nave is lighted by rows of small arched windows below the roofline, twenty seven in all (the odd number is because the campanile occupies the first aisle bay on the right). Below these can be seen faint traces of the original 12th century fresco cycle which originally completely covered the nave walls. More traces can be seen over the triumphal arch, which are thought to be perhaps 10th century and which depict prophets. These fragments only survived because the former Baroque vault hid them. The flat unpainted wooden ceiling is modern, and is decorated with rows of gilt stars.
One of the glories of the church is the Cosmatesque floor, provided by the original Cosmati family in the 11th century although restored since. This is dominated by an enormous porphyry roundel, which must have been sawn from a very large column. Since the only source of the stone was a quarry in the Eastern Desert of Egypt, this would have been an incredibly prestigious item in ancient times. Genuine imperial porphyry, as here, is purplish crimson with white spots. The dark green stone in the patterning is serpentine from Sparta, which the Romans hence called lapis Lacedaemoniaca, and the yellow bits are giallo antico marble from what is now Algeria.
On either side of the entrance door are black granite stones. They are standardised Roman weights. In pre-Christian times, such weights were kept in the temples were they could be used to check the weights used by merchants. When Rome became a Christian city, they were moved to the churches.
This is a precious mediaeval survival, being an enclosure for the singers of the liturgy; there is another at San Clemente. The floor level is one step higher than the nave, and the floor itself is also of Cosmatesque work of greater intricacy than that of the nave. The enclosure is formed of marble slabs set on edge, with the pair either side of the entrance to the altar also having what looks like Cosmatesque work. However, these are rare examples of 8th century opus sectile which used to be set in the floor.
The schola incorporates a pair of ambones or pulpits, and an open screen in front of the altar formed by a horizontal marble beam running across the width of the nave and supported by four spindly columns. There is an inscription here which reads: Alfanus fieri tibi fecit Virgo Maria et genetrix Regis summi Patris alma Sophya.
The far corners of the schola have entrances to the crypt, and next to the right hand one is the Paschal candle. The 13th century base incorporates a carving of a lion, but the twisted shaft with Cosmatesque decoration did not originally belong to the church but was donated in 1716. This was signed by the artist, Pasquale Caetani who was a Dominican friar.
The baldacchino over the high altar, in Florentine Gothic style with Cosmatesque decoration, is signed Deodatus me fecit ("Deodatus [son of Cosmas] made me"). It is dated to 1294, and incorporates four red granite columns from Aswan in Egypt. The altar itself is made from an ancient granite basin, shaped like an old-fashioned bathtub with a pair of rings on either long side carved in relief, representing carrying handles. Below are enshrined the relics of martyrs, Cyrilla who was a virgin together with Hilarius and Coronatus.
The dedicatory inscription of the altar reads: Anno D. MCXXIII Ind. I. dedicatum fuit hoc altare per manus Dni. Calixti Papae Secundi V sui pontif. Anno M Maio die VI, Alfano Camerarius plurima dona largiente.
Behind the high altar, the apse contains 19th century frescoes in a mediaeval style, together with a pair of windows with transennae. Here is the 12th century cathedra or bishop's chair below the windows, in marble with three steps and the armrests carved as lions. There is a Cosmatesque roundel above it, with a porphyry disc.
The walls of the apse depict the Annunciation, the Nativity and the Epiphany, and the conch shows the Madonna and Child flanked by SS Augustine, Felix, Dionysius and Nicholas.
These are taken clockwise, starting from the bottom of the left hand aisle.
The first chapel off the left hand aisle is the baptistery, which was fitted out by Cardinal Annibale Albani in 1727.
The second is the Chapel of St Giovanni Battista de Rossi, and the altarpiece shows him with poor people. The painting has suffered damage, but was recently restored. On the altar is kept the alleged skull of St Valentine in a little reliquary, from which it peers at you. On his feast day, February 14th, it is brought out and crowned with roses. It has to be admitted that this is a dubious relic. The original shrine of the saint was in his basilica near the Via Salaria (the remnants of his underground shrine could be seen until a recent landslide), but this skull was exhumed in the catacombs of St Hippolytus near San Lorenzo fuori le Mura in 1836. At best, it is of another Valentine.
The third side chapel off the left hand aisle is of the Crucifixion, and the fittings were provided by Giovanale. It, and the other two chapels as well, has been beautifully restored at the end of 2014.
The apse chapel at the end of the aisle is dedicated to Our Lady of Loreto, and has a pair of narrow arched windows with transennae. The 19th century frescoes, damaged by rising damp, show the birth of Our Lady on the left, and her death ("Dormition") on the right. In the conch she is shown in a mandorla holding the Christ Child, in front of the Holy House which tradition declared was taken by angels from Nazareth to Loreto. The modern altar is a slab on a short column, in the mediaeval style.
The apse chapel at the end of the right hand aisle has the same design of windows and altar, and is dedicated to St John the Baptist. The modern frescoes depict scenes from his life.
This is the chapel where the canons used to celebrate the liturgy in winter, when the main church was too cold to be bearable. It is entered from the right hand aisle, via a vestibule.
Over the altar is the venerated icon of Our Lady of Cosmedin, originally said to have been brought from Constantinople by the Greek monks fleeing iconoclasm in the 8th century. It is very obviously of the 13th century, a rather naïve work with Our Lady having enormous hands. Several miracles are ascribed to this icon, which used to be over the episcopal throne until Giovanale moved it here.
The chapel is not open to the public, and is presently (2012) used for the storage of junk and various odds-and-ends. It has not been restored, and the Baroque decoration is in a very bad state of shabbiness and dust. But in 2013 a detailed restoration plan was made up and approved. The church is currently collecting funds for its execution.
An 8th century mosaic fragment of the Adoration of the Magi is displayed over the altar in the sacristy. It was originally in Chapel of the Virgin in old St Peter's, and was executed under Pope John VII (706-707). A precious survival, it is artistically interesting in that it owes more to the original Classical style of painting than to the Byzantine one.
The sacristy is now the church's shop. Some guidebooks condemn this, but it helps with the upkeep of the building and has a good stock of publications. Many of Rome's churches do not even bother to sell postcards.
The little 8th century crypt has been restored, and is again open to visitors after a period of closure. The entry is on the left hand side of the schola, and there may be a small fee payable to the custodian on duty.
It is a puzzle as to why a crypt was originally provided, as it is not on record that a shrine of a particular saint or saints was ever established here. A clue may lie in a lead plate dug up next to the church in the 19th century, which had an inscription which read:
+ Hic habentur reliquie Apostolorum, de vestibus et corporibus ceterorum sanctorum: S. Tiburtii subdiaconi, S. Avree et Sociorum, S. Ciraci Episcopi et restitute S. Calixti Pape, S. Tiburtii et Valeriani, S. Iuliani m. Ceryni presbyteri, S. Lucine, lapis Stephani, St Felicis Pape, Emerentiane, SS Quadraginta, Maria, de lapide Sancti Sepulcri, Demetri ...et ossa aliorum sanctorum.
The plate was mediaeval, about 12th century, but seems to imply that the crypt was originally a reliquary with a collection of relics for veneration by pilgrims. That theory is supported by the niches on both side that seem perfect to hold funerary urns.
The crypt itself is a miniature basilica with six columns, three on each side. The columns have no bases (they are inserted into the floor) and derivative Composite capitals with simplified acanthus leaves. At the far end you can see the masonry which is claimed to belong to the original altar of Hercules. The present altar used to contain the relics of St Cyrilla, who has been transferred upstairs.
The Greek traditions connected to the church have been renewed, as the church is now used by the Melkite community in Rome. This consists mainly of Syrian and Iraqi Catholics under the Byzantine rite, deriving ultimately from the ancient Patriarchate of Antioch which accepted the use of the Byzantine rite in the later Middle Ages. Mass is celebrated in three languages: hymns are in Greek or Arabic, prayers also in Italian, and the sermon is invariably delivered in Italian.
The only liturgy celebrated in the church, except on special occasions, is Mass on Sunday at 10:30.
According to the tourist website 060608 (November 2016), the church is open:
9:30 to 17:00 (18:00 in summer), with final admission ten minutes before closure.
If, when you arrive, you find yourself confronted by a queue, do not mistake it for entry into the church. It is only the tourists visiting the Bocca della Verità. Ignore the queue, and go straight in.
- Official diocesan web-page
- Italian Wikipedia page
- Interactive Nolli Map Website (item1086)
- Centro Bocca della Verita website
- Info.roma web-page
- "De Alvariis" gallery on Flickr
- Roma SPQR web-page with gallery
- "Rome-Roma" page with gallery
- Thayer's Gazetteer
- Gallery by Stevan Kordic
- Flickr has a large gallery when searched
- "Art-history-images" gallery
- "Romeartlover" web-page
- "Antropologiaartesacra" illustrated article
- "Medioevo.roma" article (scroll down)
- "Iviaggidiraffaella" blog page
- Historical details by Armellini (p. 600)
- List of cardinals
- Melkite information page
- Website on the actual Bocca della Verita
- Youtube video focusing on St Valentine
- Youtube slide show (includes old photos of Baroque frontage)
- Short Youtube video
- Roman Despatches blog with gallery