Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, Rome

The only Gothic church in Rome, the Basilica Santa Maria sopra Minerva (Basilica of St. Mary over Minerva) is so named because it was built directly on the foundations of a temple to Minerva, the goddess of wisdom.

The basilica that stands today was begun in 1280. Architectural changes and redecorations in the 1500s and 1900s stripped it of some of its magnificence, but it still includes an awe-inspiring collection of medieval and Renaissance tombs.

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History of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva

Not much is known about the ruined temple to Minerva on this site, built by Pompey about 50 BCE and referred to as Delubrum Minervae. A temple to Isis and a Serapeum may also underlie the present basilica and its former convent buildings. Some Roman survivals can be seen in the crypt.

The ruined temple is likely to have lasted until the reign of Pope Zacharias (741-752), who finally Christianized the site, offering it to Eastern monks. The Christian structure he commissioned has disappeared.

The present building owes its existence to the Dominican Friars, who received the property from Pope Alexander IV (1254-1261) and made the church and adjoining monastery their influential headquarters. The Dominican Order administers the area today.

The old Romanesque basilica was not splendid enough to serve as the chief Dominican church in Rome, so two Dominican monks, Sisto Fiorentino and Ristoro da Campi began the present structure in 1280. This pair of monastic architects had worked on the Gothic church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, which served as the model for this church in Rome.

After funds contributed by Boniface VIII set an example, the church was completed in 1370. It was later renovated by Carlo Maderno among others, given a Baroque facade, and restored in the 19th century to its present neo-medieval state.

It was in the Dominican monastery adjoining the church that the astronomer Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) was tried by the Inquisition for teaching that the Earth revolved around the Sun. He was forced to recant and retire.

What to See at Santa Maria Sopra Minerva

Just behind the Pantheon is the Piazza della Minerva, whose focal point is an endearing sculpture of a cheery baby elephant carrying a small Egyptian obelisk on his back. It was sculpted by Bernini in 1667. It is said to represent Pope Alexander VII's reign and illustrate the moral that strength should support wisdom.

The Egyptian obelisk is much older - it was found in the ruins of a temple of Isis that once stood nearby. Nothing visible remains of the Temple of Minerva (or Isis) over which the present church was built, but some Roman remains are visible in the crypt.

Santa Maria sopra Minerva has a remarkably plain facade (17th-century), with three small portrals and three round windows. This belies the richness and size of the interior beyond. Inside, the viewer's eye is immediately drawn to the arched vaulting, painted blue with gilded stars and accented with brilliant red ribbing. The former is a 19th century restoration in the Gothic style.

To the left of the apse is a muscular Christ Bearing the Cross, carved by Michelangelo for the church in 1521. The bronze drapery covering Christ's nakedness was added later.

Saint Catherine of Siena (1347-1380), patroness of Europe, is buried under the altar (except her head, which is in Siena). The tomb includes an effigy of the virgin saint sculpted in 1430 by Isaia of Pisa.

Beyond the sacristy is the very room where St. Catherine died - sort of. She died in a house on a nearby street and the room was reconstructed here by Cardinal Antonio Barberini in 1637. This was the first transplanted interior and the progenitor of familiar 19th- and 20th-century museum "period rooms."

The great monastic painter Fra Angelico died in the adjoining Dominican monastery and is buried in the Frangipane Chapel to the left of the altar choir. His tomb features an inset effigy of the artist in repose but with eyes open, also by Isaia of Pisa. Fra Angelico's painting of the Virgin and Child hangs over the chapel altar.

Other notable tombs include the grand monuments of the Medici popes Leo X and Clement VII, which face each other across the apse.

The aisles and side chapels are crammed with monuments and works of art. Not to be missed is the Carafa chapel in the south transept, which contains Filippino Lippi's magnificent fresco of The Assumption and several other beautiful frescoes executed in 1488-1492.

The Lippi fresco below The Assumption shows Pope Paul IV being presented to the Virgin Mary by the great Dominican theologian Thomas Aquinas; another one shows Aquinas confounding heretics while two boys (the future popes Leo and Clement VII) look on.

The Carafa chapel also includes the tomb of Paul IV, a religious zealot of the Carafa family best known as the Great Inquisitor of the Counter-Reformation. This Dominican pope instituted the Index of Forbidden Books and confined Jews to ghettoes throughout Italy. His frightening portrait includines a sneering mouth and menacing upraised arm.

Closer to the entrance in the right aisle is the Chapel of the Annunciation, commissioned by the Spanish Cardinal Juan de Torquemada (1388-1468), whose family later administered the Inquisition. Torquemada's confraternity was responsible for a famed charitable work of the Dominicans in Rome, the provision of dowries for poverty-stricken young women. The chapel features a delicate Annunciation in which the Virgin presents purses to three tiny girls in white, while a gentle-faced Cardinal Torquemada looks on.

Quick Facts on Santa Maria Sopra Minerva

Site Information
Names:Basilica di Santa Maria sopra Minerva · Santa Maria sopra Minerva
Country:Italy
Categories:churches
Styles:Gothic
Dedication: Virgin Mary
Dates:1280-1370
Status: active
Visitor and Contact Information
Coordinates:41.897997° N, 12.478130° E
Address:Piazza della Minerva 42
Rome, Italy
Phone:06-6793926
Email:basilica.minerva@tiscali.it
Website:www.basilicaminerva.it
Hours:Mon-Sat 7am-7pm; Sun 8am-7pm
Lodging:View hotels near Santa Maria Sopra Minerva
Note: This information was accurate when first published and we do our best to keep it updated, but details such as opening hours and prices can change without notice. To avoid disappointment, please check with the site directly before making a special trip.

References

  1. Personal visits (July 15, 2006 and April 17, 2008).
  2. The Rough Guide to Italy 7, 747-78.
  3. Basilica Santa Maria sopra Minerva - official website
  4. Santa Maria Sopra Minerva - Frommers.com
  5. Santa Maria sopra Minerva - Paradoxplace.com
  6. The Basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minerva - In Italy Online

More Information

The unassuming facade of Santa Maria sopra Minerva. © Holly Hayes
View of the Pantheon from the Piazza della Minerva. © Holly Hayes
Interior as viewed from the entrance. © Holly Hayes
The starry blue vault of the nave. © Holly Hayes
Shrine to the Virgin Mary in one of many Rome basilicas dedicated to her. © Holly Hayes
Candles of the High Altar. © Holly Hayes
Tomb of St. Catherine of Siena. © Siena
Paintings of the Carafa Chapel. © Holly Hayes
Thomas Aquinas confounds the heretics in the Carafa Chapel. © Holly Hayes
Tomb of Pope Clement VII (1478-1534). © Holly Hayes
Tomb of the Dominican painter Fra Angelico (1395-1455). © Holly Hayes
One of many round stained glass windows, with Mary and other saints. © Holly Hayes

Map of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, Rome

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