In Rome there are 10 basilica and 58 churches dedicated to the worship of the Virgin Mary, more than in any other city in the world. Perhaps the most famous, because the oldest, is the basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere, which overlooks the homonymous square. It seems that Santa Maria in Trastevere is the first church where the Mass was celebrated and also the first church dedicated to Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus. This information is not certain as it dates back to the dawn of time, but the beauty of this church is so that we are very willing to believe this. Tradition has it that the place was an oratory founded by Callisto in the third century, so called titulus Calixti at the times when Christianity was still illegal. When the real church was built by Pope Julius I in 340 or so, it was dedicated to Our Lady. So we’ll visit this magnificent church and we will think about the figure of the Madonna in today’s society, if she is present and “on our side” in our everyday life, if she affects our thoughts and our actions, or if she remains a “divine” figure, distant from us, Queen of Heaven to which we pay at most a fast prayer with our children when they go to sleep at night or on the rare occasions that we go to church.
Judging from the Internet, it seems that the Queen of Heaven is not as popular as we expected. We did a search on www.google.com by typing in the search box “Madonna” and the first three pages of the search results only offer sites and pages about Madonna, the singer and showgirl. Nothing that relates to the Virgin Mary. Then we did the same search on the new search engine www.duckduckgo.com and the results were decidedly better: after the first two lines that refer to Madonna, the singer, there’s a line that tells us that Mary is also the Jesus’ mother and a “religious figure”. If I think about how important the Madonna is in our culture, even for those who are not believers, and then I see how difficult it is to find information on her with a simple search on the Internet I believe that there is something wrong in our society. Or perhaps simply in search engines like Google. This is hard to say without more information.
If in the early stages of Christianity, the Virgin Mary was represented without the child Jesus, from 400 A. C., when the church “officially” recognized her the title of Mother of God, she was depicted in religious art mostly with the baby in her arms. Then there is another theme of religious art that is called “Pietà” (Mercy) and is about the depiction of the Madonna with the dead body of Jesus in her arms, of which perhaps the most popular representation is the so-called statue of the “Pietà” by Michelangelo, now in the basilica of St. Peter. Thus the representations of Mary symbolically unites the moment of birth, the miracle and joy of life that has been given by God, until the moment of death, feared, inexorable, mysterious. And the depictions of the Virgin seem to suggest, as to reassure us, that in any case she will stay on our side, in birth as in death. But in our lifetimes? Perhaps that depends on us, it’s our choice. Because if birth and death are events beyond our control; in our lifetime, however, we have free will and we can then decide whether and how we want the Queen of Heaven to be close to us, and condition or influence our behavior.
Going back to the Church of Santa Maria in Trastevere, on the steps of the presbitery is indicated the place, a tavern, from which, according to an ancient legend, in 38 BC gushed from the ground a fountain of mineral oil, the divine olei fons. The faithful recognized in the event a sign of the imminent coming of the Lord’s Anointed. In the twelfth century, using marble and travertine from the Baths of Caracalla, under the impulse of Pope Innocent II, the church was completely rebuilt. The porch in front of the façade, in its present form, was commissioned long after, by Pope Clement XI (1702), to the architect Carlo Fontana (architect Fountain Charles in English). Five arches supported by pilasters and granite columns are topped by a balustrade which houses the statues of 4 saints: the Popes Calisto, Cornelius, Julius and Calepodius. During the nineteenth century, under the portico of the basilica were laid down the arms of those who, repenting of a life dedicated to violence, decided to change their way of living. Hence, is the figure of the Madonna still so “powerful” to induce us to change our life? Or at least to “behave in a better way?”.
The question is certainly rhetoric and the answer lays deep down in the heart of each of us, but we would like to say that the question can apply to both believers and nonbelievers. The French writer and philosopher Albert Camus, atheist, said that morality is an even more serious concern for a non-believer, as a non-believer is accountable for his actions only to himself and therefore, if he is intellectually honest, he will tend to be stricter in judging his behavior more than a believer that, ultimately, can always ask the forgiveness of God, which would be expressed through a priest, “” Ego te absolvo a peccatis tuis in nomine Patri et Filii et Spiritus Sancti, Amen. ” For practicing Catholics that phrase sounds familiar, and the bottom is that it’s not so difficult to obtain an acquittal expressed with this Latin sentence. However, God, who reads at the bottom of our hearts, knows whether this acquittal is deserved, because it comes as a result of a true repentance, or not, because there was no real repentance. In this case it’s easier to “lie” to ourselves, or at least not be completely honest with ourselves, relying on the absolution pronounced by the priest on duty in the confessional. This mental mechanism will be more difficult to pursue for non-believers. However, as I said before, nothing prevents even non-believers to use religious “figures”, as the Madonna, to guide and measure their actions. After all everyone needs a spiritual guide, even non-believers, because it is not always easy to decide what is right and what is wrong in our everyday life. And this is even more true for those that have a “power” on other people, those that can take decisions that, due to their position, will have an impact on other people’s lives. For example politicians or managers of big corporations.
The entire interior of the basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere is richly decorated in all its parts and is one of the most important examples of the local Romanesque style, permeated as it is with renewed classicism. Outside, the mosaics of the thirteenth century of the façade depict the Madonna and the Child Enthroned, with ten women who hold up the lamps. Eight of the lamps are lit as a tribute to the virginity of Mary, while the two women with the lamps off are covered by a veil as a sign of widowhood. The bell tower of square base dates back of the same period (13th century) and is developed in four orders, and still has four bells of different ages; on top there is a tabernacle with a mosaic depicting the Virgin and Jesus as a child. This whole iconography of the Virgin Mary is of an absolute beauty, and cannot help but get us closer to Our Lady, when we visit the church. Symbol of motherhood, but without the original “carnal” sin, the Madonna is indeed the mother of Jesus, and then, for the dogma of the Trinity, the Mother of God, but she is also the mother of us all, at least the ideal mother, the mother we would all like to have. But also a Mother we would like to feel closer, more present in our everyday lives. There are many miracles attributed to Our Lady, in Lourdes, in Fatima and in Medjugorje, but miracles are not what we should expect from the Madonna, at least for me. And the best way to keep Her on our side is to consider Her our consciousness, a Mother to whom we cannot lie because, as when we were kids, Mom could tell right away if we were saying lies.
The interior of the church of Santa Maria in Trastevere speaks to our heart: it is a gallery of beautiful architectural pieces including columns, capitals and fragments of architrave; it also has many works of art, like the ancient icon known as Our Lady of Mercy and there are preserved the remains of many illustrious personalities, including the cardinal Pietro Stefaneschi, and then Osio, Altemps, Armellini, and even the sacred relics of Pope Innocent II, that Pope Pius IX had brought here from the Lateran. The apse is decorated with the famous medieval mosaics in Marian theme. Interesting and curious the Chapel Avila in the left aisle, dedicated to St. Jerome, painted by Antonio Gherardi, drawing inspiration from the masters Bernini and Borromini, where he created a kind of sacred theater dome – really impressive. A special feature is a recess in the bottom right of the nave, where some of the tools used during the martyrs are retained: chains, iron weights and the stone tied around the neck of San Callisto when he was drowned in a well. This reminds us that freedom of worship was conquered with the lives of many martyrs. But the Queen of Heaven will lead us to aspire to perfection, unattainable for sure, but which can be intuitively “guessed” through the beauty of art. So, to put us in the right state of mind to aim at perfection let’s start by listening to Schubert’s Ave Maria: click here.
You might be interested to read also: I’m not an Alien, I’m an English Man in Trastevere.
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