Basilica of Santa Maria in Ara Coeli
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|Basilica of St. Mary of the Altar of Heaven
Basilica di Santa Maria in Ara coeli (Italian)
Basilica Sanctae Mariae de Ara coeli (Latin)
Façade of the Basilica with the monumental staircase.
|Ecclesiastical or organizational status||Minor basilica|
|Leadership||Salvatore De Giorgi|
|Architectural style||Romanesque, Gothic|
|Direction of façade||West by South|
|Length||80 metres (260 ft)|
|Width||45 metres (148 ft)|
|Width (nave)||20 metres (66 ft)|
The Basilica of St. Mary of the Altar of Heaven (Latin: Basilica Sanctae Mariae de Ara coeli in Capitolium, Italian: Basilica di Santa Maria in Ara coeli al Campidoglio) is a titular basilica in Rome, located on the highest summit of the Campidoglio. It is still the designated Church of the city council of Rome, which uses the ancient title of Senatus Populusque Romanus. The present Cardinal Priest of the Titulus Sancta Mariae de Aracoeli is Salvatore De Giorgi.
The shrine is known for housing relics belonging to Saint Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine, various minor relics from the Holy Sepulchre, the canonically crowned image of Santa Maria di Aracoeli on the high altar and the Santo Bambino of Aracoeli.
Originally the church was named Sancta Maria in Capitolio, since it was sited on the Capitoline Hill (Campidoglio, in Italian) of Ancient Rome; by the 14th century it had been renamed. A medieval legend included in the mid-12th-century guide to Rome, Mirabilia Urbis Romae, claimed that the church was built over an Augustan Ara primogeniti Dei, in the place where the Tiburtine Sibyl prophesied to Augustus the coming of the Christ. "For this reason the figures of Augustus and of the Tiburtine sibyl are painted on either side of the arch above the high altar" (Lanciani chapter 1). A later legend substituted an apparition of the Virgin Mary. In the Middle Ages, condemned criminals were executed at the foot of the steps; there the self-proclaimed Tribune and reviver of the Roman Republic Cola di Rienzo met his death, near the spot where his statue commemorates him.
According to Roman historians, in the fourth century B.C., the irritated honking of the sacred geese around Juno's temple on Capitoline Hill warned the people of an impending night attack by the Gauls, who were secretly scaling the walls of the citadel. From this event, the goddess acquired [the] surname-Juno Moneta, from Latin monere (to warn). . .As patroness of the state, Juno Moneta presided over various activities of the state, including the primary activity of issuing money.
. . . from Moneta came the modem English words mint and money and, ultimately, from the Latin word meaning warning.
Today, the site of the Temple of Juno Moneta, the source of the great stream of Roman currency, has given way to the ancient . . . brick church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli. Centuries ago, church architects incorporated the ruins of the ancient temple into the new building.
The foundation of the church was laid on the site of a Byzantine abbey mentioned in 574. Many buildings were built around the first church; in the upper part they gave rise to a cloister, while on the slopes of the hill a little quarter and a market grew up. Remains of these buildings - such as the little church of San Biagio de Mercato and the underlying "Insula Romana") - were discovered in the 1930s. At first the church followed the Greek rite, a sign of the power of the Byzantine exarch. Taken over by the papacy by the 9th century, the church was given first to the Benedictines, then, by papal bull to the Franciscans in 1249–1250; under the Franciscans it received its Romanesque-Gothic aspect. The arches that divide the nave from the aisles are supported on columns, no two precisely alike, scavenged from Roman ruins. During the Middle Ages, this church became the centre of the religious and civil life of the city. in particular during the republican experience of the 14th century, when Cola di Rienzo inaugurated the monumental stairway of 124 steps in front of the church, designed in 1348 by Simone Andreozzi, on the occasion of the Black Death.
In 1571, Santa Maria in Aracoeli hosted the celebrations honoring Marcantonio Colonna after the victorious Battle of Lepanto over the Turkish fleet. Marking this occasion, the compartmented ceiling was gilded and painted (finished 1575), to thank the Blessed Virgin for the victory. In 1797, with the Roman Republic, the basilica was deconsecrated and turned into a stable.
The original unfinished façade has lost the mosaics and subsequent frescoes that originally decorated it, save a mosaic in the tympanum of the main door, one of three doors that are later additions. The Gothic window is the main detail that tourists can see from the bottom of the stairs, but it is the sole truly Gothic detail of the church.
The church is built as a nave and two aisles that are divided by Roman columns, all different, taken from diverse antique monuments. Among its numerous treasures are Pinturicchio's 15th-century frescoes depicting the life of Saint Bernardino of Siena in the Bufalini Chapel, the first chapel on the right. Other features are the wooden ceiling, the inlaid cosmatesque floor, a Transfiguration painted on wood by Girolamo Siciolante da Sermoneta, the tombstone of Giovanni Crivelli by Donatello, the tomb of Cecchino dei Bracci, designed by his friend Michelangelo, and works by other artists like Pietro Cavallini (of his frescoes only one survives), Benozzo Gozzoli and Giulio Romano. It houses also a Madonna and a sepulchral monument by Arnolfo di Cambio in the transept.
The church was also famous in Rome for the wooden statue of the Santo Bambino of Aracoeli, carved in the 15th century of olive wood coming from the Gethsemane garden and covered with valuable ex-votos. Many people of Rome believed in the power of this statue. It had been taken by the French in 1797, was later recovered, yet stolen again in February 1994. A copy was made from Gethsemane wood, which is now displayed in its own chapel by the sacristy. At midnight Mass on Christmas Eve the image is brought out to a throne before the high altar and unveiled at the Gloria. Until Epiphany the jewel-encrusted image resides in the Nativity crib in the left nave.
The relics of Saint Helena, mother of Constantine the Great are housed at Santa Maria in Aracoeli, as are the remains of Saint Juniper, one of the original followers of Saint Francis of Assisi. Pope Honorius IV and Queen Catherine of Bosnia are also buried in the church. The tablet with the monogram of Jesus that Saint Bernardino of Siena used to promote devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus is kept in Aracoeli.
- Catherine of Bosnia, Bosnian Queen
- Pope Honorius IV
- Saint Juniper, one of the original followers of Saint Francis of Assisi
- Giulio Salvadori, the poet tomb is within the church.
- Weatherford, Jack. The History of Money, Crown Publishers, Inc. New York 1997. P. 48.
- Ingrid D. Rowland (2012) Anachronic Renaissance, Konsthistorisk tidskrift/ Journal of Art History, 81:3, 172-177, DOI: 10.1080/00233609.2012.706234
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