Hi friends, welcome back to the blog. No one questions that Rome is full of interesting and unusual places. However, this church in Rome truly stands out. It’s full of unusual history and interesting works of art. It’s the Santa Maria sopra Minerva. This small church, located behind the Pantheon, is well worth a detour. It was practically empty when I visited. Let me tell you why it’s so unique.
In front of the church is a statue of an elephant supporting an Egyptian obelisk. You can see the Pantheon from the obelisk. Dominican monks found the artifact in the church’s garden. The first thing that comes to mind is, why? Why is an Egyptian artifact from the 5th century BCE displayed so prominently in front of a Christian church?
We know Emperor Diocletian (infamous for persecuting Christians) brought two obelisks to Rome in the 3rd century. No one knows why it was brought to Rome, or why it is in front of Santa Maria sopra Minerva. History had the last laugh. Christian-hating Diocletian’s obelisk forever stands out front of Christian church mocking him through eternity. This is one of eight Egyptian obelisks around Rome.
The Latin inscription on the elephant, carved by one of Bernini’s students reads: Sapientis Aegypti insculptas obelisco figuras ab elephanto, belluarum fortissima, gestari quisquis hic vides, documentum intellege robustae mentis esse solidam sapientiam sustinere.
“Whoever you are, who sees here the figures of the Egyptian wise man carved on the obelisk carried by the elephant, the strongest of wild animals, understand the symbolism to be that a strong mind supports firm wisdom.”
The Egyptian hieroglyphs on the obelisk are dediated to the Pharoah Apries. He is mentioned in the Bible (Jeremiah 44:30) as Hophrah. There’s an Egyptian obelisk, dedicated to an Egyptian Pharaoh, sitting on an elephant carved by the famous sculptor Bernini, in front of an ancient Christian church in Rome. This is why I love history!
Three Roman Temples
An older Roman history is just beneath the grounds of the church. Temples to Isis, Minerva, and Serapis once stood in this sacred spot. There’s a hidden Roman history beneath many famous sites in Europe, Trier is my favorite. Mainz, Germany is another. Santa Maria sopra Minerva is no exception. We know that Gnaeus Pompey (famous for the civil war against Julius Caesar), built the Minervium and dedicated it to the Roman goddess Minerva (Greek: Artemis). However, this temple may be built upon an even older site. Many sacred sites in Europe have a long history. Some date all the way back to the Iron Age.
Romans were excellent recyclers. Especially Christian Romans. It was common practice to convert a Roman temple into a Christian church. It was also easier to convert the population. No records exist as to when the Minervium was Christianized. We know that nuns from Constantinople took over the site in the eight century. Most of the early Christian history has been lost. All we have are archaeological remains and ancient writings.
Santa Maria Sopra Minerva is actually a Basilica. This title is mainly for sites of great historical significance. It is similar in status to the Vatican, Hagia Sophia, and many of the churches in Ravenna. The architectural style at Santa Maria sopra Minerva does not resemble a traditional basilica. The interior of the church is unique because it is the only medieval Gothic church in Rome. The church dates to 1280. Work continued until 1453. One of my favorite things about this church is the blue ceiling. It looks like a starry night. I often wonder what the artist was trying to tell us with this ceiling.
Famous Paintings and Monuments
Below is a list of important points of interest at Santa Maria sopra Minerva. I recommend purchasing a guide.
- Tomb of Saint Catherine of Siena (described in detail below).
- Chapel of Saint Thomas Aquinas.
- Antoniazzo Romano’s Annuncination, painted in 1500.
- Tomb of Dominican painter Fra Angelico.
- Chapel of Saint Dominic.
- Bernini’s black marble funerary monument of Maria Raggi of Gian.
- Don’t forget to look for the bees in the Sacristy. Bees are a symbol of the powerful Barberini family, as well as many other powerful families in Europe.
- The star of the basilica, Michelangelo’s Christ the Redeemer, or Risen Christ.
Shrine of Saint Catherine
I find Christian history and the history of Saint Catherine of Siena particularly compelling. Throughout the years I’ve run into her story in one form or another. I can’t figure out why. Maybe she is speaking to me? Italy has two patron saints. Saint Francis of Assisi and Saint Catherine of Siena. Born in 1347, she grew up surrounded by the devastation of the Black Plague. Christ appeared to her at the age of five. Saint Catherine refused her parents demands to marry a widower. Instead, she protested by fasting and cutting her hair.
Saint Catherine lived life on her own terms. She defied the wishes of her parents to marry. Gave away the away the family’s food and clothing without permission. Didn’t care what anyone thought of her. She was a traveler, preacher, and philosopher. While many women were planning marriages, she was writing letters to political leaders. Saint Catherine lived to the age of thirty-three. Towards the end of her life she lost the ability to eat or swallow. After that she lost the use of her legs. Finally, she was paralyzed by a stroke from the waist down. She is the patron Saint of illness.
Where else besides Santa Maria sopra Minerva can you touch a genuine Michelangelo. Yes, I’m talking about the Michelangelo who painted the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican. Michelangelo’s masterpiece, Risen Christ is prominently displayed at Santa Maria sopra Minerva. Thousands of pilgrims have touched his foot. At first I was hesitant to touch a real Michelangelo. There’s no barricade or signs prohibiting touching. It’s meant to be touched. This is clear from the polished marble left foot. So… I touched the foot. It is something special. I don’t know what it is, but it just is. So unless there’s a sign up, go ahead and touch the foot.
When you Visit
Finding Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome is easy. Walk to the back of the Pantheon. There it is. Bernini’s elephant and the Egyptian obelisk are beckoning you to come in and explore the fusion of Roman, Christian, and Medieval history.
Hours: M-F 8:00 AM – 7:00 PM Sat & Sun: 8:00 AM – 12:30 PM, 4:00 PM – 7:00 PM
Address: Piazza della Minerva 42, Rome, Italy Navona / Pantheon / Campo de’ Fiori