In going through my trove of photos on the old computer I came across pictures I had taken during one of several visits to the Basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minerva. Unfortunately my labelling of photos was sporadic and I know that I took pictures of both the interior and exterior of the church over the years but had to borrow from other sites until I could locate them.
There are over 900 churches in Rome and many of them began as Gothic structures but reportedly only one has remained in that style: Santa Maria sopra Minerva. Certainly there are other churches built in the neo-Gothic style but they are 19th century – by the time they were being built SMSM was already a venerable six centuries old. The Italian word sopra means “over” and for ages guides and tour books spouted the falsity that the church was built over a temple dedicated to the goddess Minerva. Though indeed there had been a small shrine to the Roman goddess of wisdom in the area it was part of the Isaeum, a temple complex dedicated to the Egyptian deities Isis and Serapis. One very inventive, though unproven, story states that a statue of Minerva was ceremonially smashed up and contemptuously thrown into the foundations of the original church as a gesture of Christianity’s triumph over the pagan gods.
The church has a rich history tied to both the religious and political life of Rome over the centuries. St Catherine of Sienna died at the Convent attached to the church in 1380 and was buried in the graveyard. In 1451 her body was enshrined in a side chapel of the church and in 1855 her relics were transferred to the main altar. The room that she died in was dismantled and reconstructed next to the sacristy. In 1628 the Convent became the headquarters of the Holy Office and the setting for the trial and condemnation of Galileo in 1633. As well as the tombs and memorials of various popes and saints it is the burial place of Fra Angelico, who died at the Convent while working on a commission.
It also houses one of perhaps the least known of Michelangelo’s sculptures in Rome: Cristo della Minerva or the Risen Christ.
Commissioned in 1514 by the Roman Patrician Metello Vari, it was not delivered until 1521. Then it was a second version hurriedly created in 1519-20 when a black vein was discovered in the white marble of the first as Michelangelo was carving the face of Christ. The second version was sent to the, understandably, impatient Vari with some details left incomplete. The sculptor’s pupil Pietro Urbano was entrusted with delivering, installing and completing the work. While working on the feet, hands, nostrils and beard of the figure he damaged the piece and was quickly replaced by another apprentice.
Michelangelo had meant the figure to be without injury and naked to symbolize the “promise of physical resurrection in a perfected body” triumphing over sin and death. However at some later date nail holes were bored in the feet and hands and during the Baroque period a bronze loin cloth was decorously, some say prudishly, added. Because of Urbano’s errors and the later additions it is often classified as a lesser work and was even omitted from more than one catalogue of his works.
In the square in front of the stark Gothic facade stands the Pulcino della Minerva, combining a remnant of the Egyptian past of the Rioni and the work of Bernini, another giant of Italian art.
In 1667 Pope Alexander VII asked Bernini to incorporate one of the small obelisks that had stood in the Isaeum into a sculpture for the square in front of the church. Bernini’s design of the elephant was executed by his pupil Erocle Ferrata that same year. The obelisk was the symbol of Egyptian wisdom and the elephant that of strength. It was a visual reminder that a strong mind was needed to achieve wisdom.
The word for October 16th is:
Gothic /ˈɡäTHik/: [1. noun 2. adjective]
1.1 The language of the Goths.
1.2 A style of architecture.
2.1 Relating to the Goths or their extinct East Germanic language, which provides the earliest manuscript evidence of any Germanic language (4th–6th centuries AD).
2.2 Of or in the style of architecture prevalent in western Europe in the 12th–16th centuries, characterized by pointed arches, rib vaults, and flying buttresses, together with large windows and elaborate tracery.
2.3 Belonging to or redolent of the Dark Ages; portentously gloomy or horrifying.
2.4 Belonging to or redolent of the Dark Ages; portentously gloomy or horrifying.
2.5 Relating to the modern goth movement or rock music.
From French gothique or late Latin gothicus. It was used in the 17th and 18th centuries to mean ‘not classical’ (i.e. not Greek or Roman), and hence to refer to medieval architecture which did not follow classical models.