At the back of the Temple of Castor and Pollux (easily recognized by the 3 columns that still remained standing) is Santa Maria Antiqua (Ancient Church of Saint Mary), a 6th century Roman Catholic Marian church built at the foot of Palatine Hill inside the Roman Forum during the reign of Emperor Justin I I (565 – 578).
It’s an excellent example of an early Christian church built into the remains of a pre-existing pagan building. The pagan building dates to the 1st century A.C. The complex consisted of a central court with three doors that led into a square atrium.
After the massive earthquake in 847, the church was abandoned and left to crumble until its rediscovery in the 18th century and extensive excavation work brought it back to light.
After thirty years of being closed to the public, Santa Maria Antiqua re-opens thanks to the latest renovation and restoration that has lasted over the past three decades.
Jonah Christian sarcophagus detail
The interior’s frescoes of saints and martyrs, queens, popes and emperors (2690 square feet) have now been restored at a cost of about 2.7 million euros ($3 million), funded by the Italian state and the World Monuments Fund. Church interior
“This church is the Sistine Chapel of the early Middle Ages. It collected the very best of figurative culture of the Christian world between Rome and Byzantium.”
Virgin Mary fresco 8th century A.C.
The interior walls were magnificently decorated with mosaics, polychrome marble, and richly colored frescoes that spanned across 3 centuries and 7 superimposed layers as newer frescoes were painted on top of older frescos creating a palimpsest that gives us a unique glimpse into the development of early Medieval and Byzantine art .
Among the treasures is a depiction of the Virgin Mary with child, one of the oldest known Christian icons in the world, which was moved to another church in Rome after the earthquake but has now been returned to Santa Maria Antiqua.
The Chapel of Theodotus with a beautiful crucifixion and frescos representing the martyrdom of St. Giulitta and St. Quirico (8th century A.C.)
The Chapel of the Holy Phisicians with frescos representing some medical saints as St Cosmas and Damian. People came to this chapel to pray and be healed by the saint’s intervention.
Nearby the Church, a little space turned into the Oratory of the 40 martyrs. 40 Roman soldiers who were forced to die in a frozen lake.
The church lies close to the entrance to a large underground passageway that allowed the emperors and their retinues to pass unseen between their hilltop palaces and the Roman Forum.
The 2,000-year-old “imperial ramp” was opened to the public for the first time in October.
Originally more than 300 yards long, it consisted of seven zigzag ramps, four of which remain today.
The ceiling of the passageway is so high that emperors could easily have passed through it on horseback.
While walking through this ancient site, you feel as if you are traveling back in time to the early centuries of the Christian civilization of Rome.The exhibition is complemented by a series of video installations and 3D reconstructions that seek to give back.
If you happen to be in the area and want a real taste of ancient Roman history, make sure to put this on your list of things to see while in Rome.It will possible only until September 17th 2016.