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Santa Maria Antiqua

The church of S. Maria Antiqua is situated in the Roman Forum at the foot of the Palatine Hill. It was discovered in 1900 and its surviving wall paintings represent a unique heritage in the Christian world between the 6th and the 11th centuries. The church was inserted into an existing imperial complex, dating back to Domitian (81-96 CE), in the course of the 6th century. Over the following five centuries, it was decorated with an extraordinary series of murals bearing witness to imperial, papal and monastic patronage.

The church was abandoned after an earthquake in 847, but the Atrium and the Oratory of the Forty Martyrs continued to be used throughout the 11th century. S. Maria Antiqua’s pictorial decoration testifies to the development in the early Middle Ages both of painting in Rome and of the Byzantine world as a whole.

The ‘palimpsest wall’, in the sanctuary, is considered by many a milestone in the history of medieval painting and attests to the development of the decorative phases of the church through the overlapping of eight layers of painted frescoes. Through its palimpsests wall and and its more than twenty pictorial phases, S. Maria Antiqua challenges scholars and visitors to read a complex multilayered pictorial decoration and to measure themselves dynamically with obliterations, reuses and cohabitations of murals from different periods.

monument timeline

81-96 CE

construction of the Domitianic complex

Second half of the 4th c.

addition of decoration in opus sectile and mosaic

First half of 6th c.

Christianization of site; addition of Maria Regina mural

Second half of 6th c.

insertion of apse; Angelo bello mural on palimpsest wall

End 6th/early 7th c.

addition of mural icons: Virgin and Child, the Maccabees, St Barbara, St Demetrius, Deësis, etc.

Post 649 CE

re-painting of palimpsest wall: Church Fathers with texts

Pope John VII (705-707)

murals in the sanctuary, Chapel of the Holy Physicians, high and low choir bench seats; addition of marble pulpit

Pope Zacharias (741-752)

decoration of the Theodotus Chapel

Pope Stephan II (752-757)

murals in right aisle: Old Testament cycle; left aisle: New Testament cycle and niche with the Three Mothers;

Pope Paul I (757-767)

mural in apse: Christ, tetramorphs, Mary and Paul I; atrium: St Abbacyrus

Pope Hadrian (772-795)

mural in atrium: Virgin and Child with saints and Pope Hadrian


earthquake in Rome: abandonment of the church and transfer of icon to S. Maria Novella

9th-11th c.

murals in the atrium: Virgin and Child with donors; scenes from the life of St Anthony; Christ between saints Abbacyrus and John; and various other images of saints

11th c.

final abandonment of structure

End 11th / early 12th c.

S. Maria de inferno built on the Oratory of the Forty Martyrs


S. Maria Liberatrice built on the existing structure of S. Maria de inferno


the ‘first’ discovery of S. Maria Antiqua


demolition of S. Maria Liberatrice and Boni’s excavation of S. Maria Antiqua complex


the first restoration campaign


the second restoration campaign


the ICR restoration works


restoration works on: the left aisle murals; the high choir bench seat; the Three saints panel on the south-east pillar.


restoration works on the Atrium’s murals


building maintenance works


the conservation campaign of the church murals and the floor


reopening of the church to the public with the Exhibition Santa Maria Antiqua tra Roma e Bisanzio (17 March 2016 to 19 March 2017)