Altar of the Heavens

[Basilica of the Santi Quattro Coronati] [Churches of Rome]

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[Santa Maria in Aracoeli] The church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli; to the right, the Campidoglio, seat of Rome's municipal government.

Santa Maria in Aracoeli boasts Rome's best-loved Christmas ritual. Every Christmas Eve the Aracoeli 's 124-step ramp is lit up by candles and thronged by the Roman populace. Leather-sandalled bagpipers, in the tradition of mountaineer "pifferari" of days gone by, play Christmas music before the church door, and inside, chandeliers and tapers blaze in preparation for the ceremony.

At midnight, the Aracoeli's greatest treasure, a wooden statue is of the child Jesus (said to have been carved from an olive tree in the Garden of Gethsemene) is brought from his private chapel next to the sacristy to a ceremonial Baroque throne before the high altar, over the Vigil Mass. Upon intonation of the "Gloria," the veil is taken away and the statue is paraded to a Nativity Crib in the left side nave.

Here, from his perch on the wooden manger, the chubby-faced Santo Bambino, covered in jewels from his crown to his little slippers, surveys the Christmas scene and receives tributes from the children of Rome. Mothers encourage their children to enter a temporary wooden pulpit across from the presepio, where prayers, poems or requests are recited before the doll-like image. The Santo Bambino remains in his place of honor until Epiphany, when he is taken in procession to the top of the Aracoeli's steep staircase for a benediction of the city and its people, and then returned (after being exposed for an entire day for Romans to give the traditional Epiphany kiss) to his personal chapel at the back of the church.

[The <I>Santo Bambino</I>]The diminutive Santo Bambino has every reason to exult. Perhaps nowhere else in Rome but this most ancient and seemingly highest hill of the Aracoeli does one feel so surely the triumph of Christianity over pagan Rome, and the victory of the spiritual over temporal power in Christianity's capital.

Santa Maria in Aracoeli, built on the site of the ancient Roman capital, rises precisely above the ruins of a temple to Juno Moneta (home of the early Roman mint, hence our word "money"). The transformation of this temple for a pagan goddess into a church dedicated to the Madonna was an early (and not infrequent) Christian coup, and was legitimized by an ancient legend.

According to this legend, the Emperor Augustus, disturbed by rumors that the Senate was about to honor him as a God, consulted the Tiburtine Sibyl, who prophesied the descent from the skies of "the King of the ages." As she spoke, the Emperor beheld a marvelous vision - the Virgin standing on an altar in a dazzling light and holding the baby Jesus in her arms - and heard a voice which said: "This is the altar of the Son of God." Of course, the Emperor immediately raised an altar on the site, the Ara Coeli, or altar of the heavens.

[The <I>Santo Bambino</I>] We have this legend from Rome's very first guide book, the Mirabilia Urbis Romae, written in the twelfth century. In case one tends to discredit the Mirabilia, known to be full of preposterous inventions, the official church brochure has a photo of John Malalas' eighth-century chronicle, which recites the story, citing an even earlier (fifth-sixth century) Byzantine historian. Furthermore, one of the classical columns in the central nave bears the inscription "a cubiculo Augustorum" (from the bedchamber of Augustus) and seems to have come from the Emperor's private palace. A thirteenth-century altar, long believed to be Augustus' original construction, recounts the myth on its stone slabs, and displays in a porphyry urn above, what are said to be the remains of St. Helena, mother of Constantine, who made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. In sixteenth-century frescoes in the main apse, the pagan emperor and his prophesying sibyl take their place among the angels and saints. (Or so we are told. Since the apse is now entirely shrouded in canvas and scaffolding, it is impossible to view the paintings.)

Before long a church grew up around the legendary Ara Coeli. We know for a fact that by 574 the site housed a monastery of Byzantine monks (in the sixth century Rome was governed by Byzantine exarchs). From the ninth to the thirteenth centuries the church and monastery belonged to the Benedictines, and in 1249 a papal bull ceded the complex to the Franciscan order.

By the time the clouds of the so-called Dark Ages begin to clear, we find the church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli, much restored and enlarged by the Franciscans, again (or still) playing the role of preeminent meeting place it inherited from its classical past. As in ancient times, senators had met in the Temple of Jupiter (immediately adjoining the Temple of Juno Moneta), so medieval historians tell us, thirteenth-century city elders came to discuss politics and decide municipal policies in the now-vanished Franciscan cloister.

[The <I>Santo Bambino</I>]Down through the ages, the Capitoline church has remained faithful to its illustrious classical past. Petrarch, the thirteenth-century poet who revived interest in the ancient world, received the laurel wreath nearby. And it was Cola di Rienzo, the self-proclaimed Tribune of the Roman People, aspiring to restore Rome to its imperial glory, who first ascended the Aracoeli staircase after it had been built in 1348 by the vote of the Roman people (in thanks for deliverance from the Black Death). Cola di Rienzo was later lynched as a demagogue in the place where his statue now stands at the bottom of the Aracoeli ramp.

Santa Maria in Aracoeli is still designated as the Church of the Senate and the Roman people. Directly across and to one side, the Capitol, or Campidoglio, is the seat of the Roman City Government. Two staircases, one climbing precipitously to the Aracoeli church, the other ascending gracefully to the Campidoglio, seem to represent the spiritual and temporal powers which have sought an equilibrium here throughout the ages. The austere, almost undecorated thirteenth-century façade of the Aracoeli soars like a mountain of rough brickwork at the top of its steep staircase. (The Campidoglio has a gradually-inclining ramp leading to a harmonious Renaissance square designed by Michelangelo.)

[The <I>Santo Bambino</I>] Once inside Santa Maria in Aracoeli, we find a typical early Christian basilica divided into three naves by columns, all of them taken from classical Roman ruins and each one different from the next. The floor is covered by tombstones of famous personages who made their mark on Roman history; the side aisles are lined with the chapels of historic Roman families. A gilded ceiling, built between 1572 and 1586, commemorates the victory of Lepanto, when the papal fleet helped put an end to Turkish naval expansion in the Mediterranean.

Like all Roman churches, Santa Maria in Aracoeli is a repository of art and architectural treasures from every period and style. A sad-faced Byzantine Madonna gazes out from the Baroque altar. Although most art historians date the Madonna to the twelfth century, an Aracoeli legend claims that the image, painted on a piece of beech wood, was carried by Pope Saint Gregory the Great in the year 594 through the streets of Rome, and brought about the city's deliverance from a terrible plague. The Aracoeli Madonna thus rivals Santa Maria Maggiore's for the title of Sales Populi Romani (Salvation of the Roman People).

[The <I>Santo Bambino</I>]The thirteenth-century sculptor Arnolfo da Cambio executed a Madonna and a sepulchral monument in the transverse nave, and further down on the same side we find a tomb designed by Michelangelo for a family friend, Cecchino Bracci. Towards the sacristy, a tall and slender - and very modern - bronze statue of St. Helena, created by a Franciscan artist in 1972, stands over the shrine containing the saint's relics. Across from St. Helena, a fifteenth-century portrait of Queen Catherine of Bosnia looks out mournfully from her upright tombstone. Although we have no knowledge of the queen's concerns of five centuries ago, her expression seems especially fitting today. We can find a tombstone signed by Donatello, an especially tender fifteenth-century Sienese Madonna, "Refugium Peccatorum" (Madonna Refuge of Sinners) on a column, and other works attributed to Pietro Cavallini, Benozzo Gozzoli, and Giulio Romano. Probably the church's greatest treasure, Pinturicchio's fifteenth-century series of frescoes on the life of Saint Bernardine of Siena, can be seen in the first chapel on the right. The glowing colors and serene perspective of these early Renaissance paintings make them some of the most beautiful in Rome.

"If you wish to be truly Roman, you must love the Santo Bambino." Aracoeli's Franciscan Superior, Padre Paolo, stated clearly that it is the statue of the Holy Child which draws the city residents to crowd the Aracoeli church. It is hard to imagine that the plump and rosy-cheeked Santo Bambino has had such an adventurous past. Carved by a Franciscan friar in fifteenth-century Jerusalem (at that time parts of the Holy Land were under Franciscan tutelage), the sacred image was transported to Rome upon the orders of the Franciscan Curia, headquartered in the Church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli. According to legend, the statue was miraculously painted by an angel as its Franciscan creator slept. Caught in a storm during the voyage to Europe, the wooden statue was thrown overboard; it bounced through the stormy seas, avoiding pirates and avaricious merchant ships, and finally landed at the feet of the Franciscan monk, who had been waiting anxiously on the shores of Livorno.

[The <I>Santo Bambino</I>]

In Rome, the Santo Bambino has worked miracles down through the ages. Upon request, the statue is transported to hospitals or to the beds of Rome's sick and dying, and has been known to bring about inexplicable cures. Until a few years ago the Holy Child made his charitable visits in a gilded carriage donated by the people of Rome. Padre Paolo told us that from time to time the Bambino's jewels are sold, to fund relief efforts after floods, earthquakes, or other natural disasters in Italy. This is a very sociable Bambino. When the church is closed, over the lunch hour or at night, the statue is wrapped up and carried inside the monastery, where it stays among the friars. The Bambino receives letters from all over the world; they pile up on both sides of his private altar, and after a certain time are burned, without being opened.

by June Hager


Reprinted by kind permission of June Hager and the magazine "Inside the Vatican," published in Rome.

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[Basilica of the Santi Quattro Coronati] [Churches of Rome]