Rome's only Gothic church is filled to bursting with art treasures, and with the ghosts of famous personages in Church history.
Who would guess that behind Santa Maria sopra Minerva's massive seventeenth-century façade lies Rome's one and only Gothic church? In fact, once past the basilica's severe classical portal, a visitor encounters a sight completely unique in Rome: soaring pointed vaults, delicate ogival arches, predominant blues and golds, flickering lights from stained-glass rose windows. Is this a Mediterranean mini-Chartres? But wait a moment. The Corinthian columns, marble floors and flattened vaults suggest that even here, the Gothic is not quite "at home."
The site of the present basilica originally hosted a temple to Minerva, built by Pompey the Great around 50 B.C. It was amidst the ruins of that temple that Pope Zacharias (741-752) built the first church, known as St. Mary on Minerva. That structure has disappeared, but the present building owes its existence to the Dominican Friars, who received the property from Pope Alexander IV (1254-1261) and made the church and adjoining monastery their influential headquarters throughout the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Counter-Reformation. (The Dominicans administer the area even today.)
A Gothic Enigma
Apparently, two talented Dominican monks, Sisto and Ristoro, who had worked on the beautiful Gothic cathedral of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, began the present structure in 1280, during the pontificate of Nicholas III (1277-1280). This first Gothic church in Rome was completed in 1370, transformed in the Renaissance and Baroque periods, and then restored (badly, most say) in the nineteenth century to its former medieval state.
Anyone who stands amid the medieval heights and lights of Santa Maria sopra Minerva invariably asks the question: why? Why is this the only example of Gothic architecture in Rome? Michael Brouse, an American who has been studying Roman churches for over twenty years, explains: "During the peak of Gothic architecture, the papacy was experiencing an all-time low. Internecine battles and empty coffers forced the popes' flight to Avignon in 1308, and in Rome, anti-popes, false popes, and rival Roman families fought fiercely among themselves. Roman artists, whose patrons had deserted them, ceased construction. The city became a slum."
The Vatican Library's medieval specialist, Paolo Vian, gave another reason: "Rome, a cradle of classical art and architecture, looked at Northern Gothicism with an unappreciative eye. Christian basilicas, on the model of their imperial antecedents, had filled the papal city throughout the early Middle Ages. With the advent of the Renaissance, Roman artists could hardly wait to get back to their pure classical roots."
Thanks to powerful Dominican patronage, Rome did get one Gothic church. But even Santa Maria sopra Minerva, built upon the the ruins of an imperial temple, in the shadow of Rome's most perfect classical structure, the Pantheon, is not a pure example of Gothic style. Its colonnade of marble Corinthian columns proudly parades its classical heritage beneath the slender ribbings of the Gothic vaults.
Ghosts from the Past
The superabundance of art treasures in Santa Maria sopra Minerva is so overwhelming that it is almost impossible to concentrate on individual works of art. Chapels and tombs of great Roman families, memorials and funerary monuments to popes and cardinals, overcome us with a dizzying procession of sarcophogi, statues, frescoes, paintings, portrait busts and mosaics. In order to recover from this profusion, it is necessary to find a quiet spot, close one's eyes, and let the ghosts of those who inspired the artistic spectacle begin to circulate among the columns and corners. And there are many ghosts who inhabit this church. The most important is that of St. Catherine of Siena (1347-1380), whose body lies beneath the main altar (her head is kept in Siena). The youngest of 20 children of a Sienese dyer, Catherine refused marriage to devote herself to prayer, and became a Dominican tertiary. In her later years she played an important role in both Church and State politics, and her influence was decisive in persuading the popes (first Gregory XI, then Urban VI, 1371-1378) to return from Avignon to Rome. Saint Catherine died in a house on a nearby street on April 29, 1380; in 1630 Cardinal Antonio Barberini had her rooms removed to Santa Maria sopra Minerva and installed as a memorial chapel behind the sacristy. From the time of the saint's canonization in 1461 until 1887, the popes honored her memory by making a commemorative procession to her tomb each year on the feast of the Annunciation. A lovely reposing statue of the saint, sculpted in 1430 by Isaia of Pisa, is visible inside a golden casket below the altar table.
An especially endearing presence is that of Fra Giovanni of Fiesole (1387-1455), known in art history as Beato Angelico, who died in the adjoining monastery. His tomb is located in the Frangipane Chapel to the left of the altar choir. This pious Dominican monk was also one of the most renowned painters of the late Middle Ages-early Renaissance. Florence's Renaissance ruler, Cosimo de Medici, so admired Fra Angelico's work that he commissioned him to paint the entire convent of San Marco. Nicholas V, one of the first popes to actually reside in the Vatican and a great patron of the arts, invited Fra Angelico to Rome to decorate his private Vatican chapels. A wide-eyed reposing figure, also by Isaia of Pisa, gazes from the the top of the saint's tomb, and his painting of the Virgin and Child hangs over the chapel altar.
These mystical and artistic spirits keep company with those of some of a very different type. Two of the Renaissance's most powerful popes, Leo X (Giovanni de Medici, 1513-1521) and Clement VII (Giulio de Medici,1523-1534), are buried in the choir area behind the altar. These great humanists, munificent patrons of artists, political strategists, and vigorous hedonists, have imposing sepuchral monuments, worthy of their many achievements and huge egos.
Other ghosts begin to swirl about the basilica. From the left wall of the Carafa Chapel, to the right of the altar, scowls the funerary statue of Paul IV (1555-1559), the Great Inquisitor of Rome's Counter-Reformation. This severe and dreaded Dominican pontiff was responsible for instituting the Index of Forbidden Books, and for confining Jews to ghettoes in Rome and other Italian cities. His portrait, with sneering mouth and menacing upraised arm, is truly frightening.
|The same chapel, however, hosts a memorial to a different period in Dominican and Church history, as well as the basilica's most beautiful work of art. The magnificent Filippino Lippi frescoes, executed between 1488-1492, depict the "triumph" of Saint Thomas Aquinas, a Dominican and probably the greatest medieval theologian, over paganism and heresy. Above, the rich compositions of the Assumption and Saints in Glory fill the wall. It is impossible to describe the beauty of these paintings. They must be seen.||
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Michelangelo is represented by a statue of Christ the Redeemer, started in 1519, and completed by one of his students. The spirit of the Baroque sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini is evoked by several funerary monuments and portrait busts on columns and walls.
by June Hager
Reprinted by kind permission of June Hager and the magazine "Inside the Vatican," published in Rome.