Rome’s Basilicas

There is a scene in the movie American Dreamer, in which JoBeth Williams and Tom Conti are on a boat floating along the Seine in Paris. A man beside them tells his wife “I know, dear, but when you’ve seen one church, you’ve seen them all.”

I’ve always loved that line, because in a way it’s true. Most older churches (the catholic ones, at any rate) were built in a similar way: there is at least one nave, a transept, and an apse, in the shape of a cross. But that’s pretty much where the comparison stops. The case is point is our tour of the Aventino, where we visited four very different churches, all with their own appeal.

When you go to Rome, you have to be prepared to visit churches. There is one at every corner, and most of them are open to visitors. Most of them contain at least one treasure: a famous painting, a sculpture, a spectacular altar such as the one in Santa Maria della Scala in Trastevere, one of the largest (and highest) altars in Rome, dedicated to Santa Teresa d’Avila. Or Santa Maria del Popolo, near the Pantheon, with its starry domed ceiling, its paintings by Caravaggio, and its Bernini elephant in front of its doors.  Many have mouldings and stucco decorations that make you wonder at the time and effort it took to create such incredible work of art.

However, I wasn’t really prepared for Rome’s basilicas, not only in their number but in their sumptuousness.

Rome has four “major” basilicas and sixty-four “minor” ones. We didn’t visit them all, but we made a fairly small dent in the list. One of my favourites of the minor basilicas is Santa Maria in Trastevere, the first church dedicated to the Mother of God and one of the oldest churches in Rome (its foundations date from 220AD). It was founded when a fountain of oil–the Olea Sancta (Holy Oil)– surged from the ground in the Taberna Meritoria (Meritoria Tavern) in 38BC and was interpreted as a foreshadow of the birth of Christ.

The best way to find the church is to amble in old Trastevere until you happen upon it. It sits inside a small piazza with a beautiful fountain and seems very unobtrusive–no huge dome or cupola, only a campanile (bell tower) to the side and five elegant arches inviting to step through the portico and into the church. When you get closer and look up, you begin to see that this is a special church. The façade has a wonderful mosaic in the byzantine style dating from the 12th century with the Virgin Mary and Jesus in the center and ten women holding lamps. It is guarded by four religious figures looking down onto the piazza.

When you step inside, there is a sense of holiness and reverence that surrounds you, enhanced by the Gregorian chants coming from the speakers. People immediately whisper and tiptoe on the stunning Comatesque red, white and green pavement. The nave, with its 21 ancient columns that came from various Roman buildings (not one is the same), leads, under a golden coffered ceiling with a painted medallion of the Assumption, to a splendid, astonishing 12th century triumphal arch and a half-dome apse made completely out of mosaic. The effect is dazzling and humbling.

Santa Maria in Trastevere is  also a parish church and the parishioners see the church as an integral part of life on the piazza. To roughly translate part of a brochure about the church:

This house is like the natural extension of the square, of this piazza which is the life of each day, which is Rome and the entire world. Love will conquer every border or limit. It is really a house for everyone, personal and universal, intimate and boundless.  Here we invite all to be brothers. To enter in this house, one does not need to climb stairs, but to come in with one’s heart and to become exalted. Only this way will we find ourselves: by being silent, and by using the spiritual senses to see, feel, touch, hear, and feed from the presence of the divine.

Nowhere else, even in the four great basilicas, have I felt this reverence from all who entered this beautiful church.

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