Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 27, 2023
Eileen Rubery, Giulia Bordi, and John Osborne, eds. Santa Maria Antiqua: The Sistine Chapel of the Early Middle Ages Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols Publishers and Harvey Miller Publishers, 2021. 125 color ills.; 50 b/w ills.; 175 ills. Cloth €200.00 (9781909400535)

In the format of a lavishly illustrated coffee-table book, the twenty-two articles of this weighty volume inform an expert public about the very complex site of Santa Maria Antiqua (henceforth SMA), a Roman imperial first-century construction inside the Forum that at some point, probably in the fourth century, became a church. The volume showcases the latest results from technical, iconographical, and historical research stemming from the recent restoration work on the monument (2001–13), presented at a conference at the British School at Rome in 2013. Authors include the recent restoration team and their director, Maria Andaloro, as well as art historians, historians, and theologians specialized in the period of the building’s main use, spanning from the sixth to the ninth centuries. Contributions are divided into five thematic sections: “Historiography,” “Topography,” “Conservation,” “Iconography,” and “Re-reading the Decorative Programme.”  

The striking volume title is a quotation from Gordon Rushforth (1862–1938), among the earliest students of SMA and first director of the British School at Rome. Comparison with the Sistine Chapel may however carry misleading resonance for the modern reader. What emerges from these studies is that the frescoes in this space were not some canonical work of art justifying the daily stampede of ceiling-gazers in today’s Vatican Museums. On the contrary, the layers of superimposed plaster reveal a constant revisiting of the iconographies on offer, such as in the three successive cycles of Christological images on the west wall of the sanctuary uncovered by Giulia Bordi. Legible traces remain only of the first and third, while the second, previously unknown layer affords no certain identification. The presence of medical saints encourages Eileen Rubery to envisage the space and its decoration in terms of a pilgrim’s deambulation and healing incubation practices, while Beat Brenk emphasizes the votive quality of smaller frescoed icon-like images. Already Richard Delbrück (1875–1957) described a ceremonial route in the first-century palace of Domitian, as David Knipp reminds us. Perhaps most evocative of the interaction between art and public is the afterword by Maria Andaloro with images of the recent procession accompanying the “return” of the Marian icon to SMA from Santa Maria Nova (now Santa Francesca Romana) against the unchanged classical background of the Forum. Andaloro points out how theatrical meetings staged dialogues between the icon of Christ acheiropita (not-made-by-human-hands) from the Lateran and the image of the Virgin opening possibilities of cultic practices beyond what is now familiar. She also highlights the value of the icon treated like a relic, preserved for the future in reuse at the cost of altering its appearance by repainting. The burial of the frescoed room and its abandonment after the ninth century might have happened both for practical reasons (on the 846/7 earthquake and its consequences see Hurst, 167) and on ideological grounds.

Rather than assume that images reflect orthodoxy at all times, art itself could embody a more critical voice and play a bottom-up role in displaying the oral-performative culture characteristic of courtly culture but also fit for mass participation. The presence of Gregory I (the Great: s. 590–604 CE) among the popes is noted for his missionary aspects (Costambeys) but could also be remarked for the openly pedagogical intention that he attributed to art. It is for their disruptive potential that images were contested, all the more the palimpsest cycles in question. In reading the scrolls of the church fathers bearing quotations from their works (unfortunately without Greek transcription), Richard Price cautions against mapping these statements directly onto the Lateran Synod of 649 and suggests a new dating to 663 to coincide with the shifting conciliatory politics of Pope Vitalian (s. 657–672), culminating in the Roman visit of Emperor Constans II (r. 641–668). However, this new date proposal is not reflected in the Timeline (12). Nor do all contributors benefit from Price’s subtler understanding of theological controversy. Essays waver between positing the site as an imperial or as a papal foundation, generating some confusing discussions over when to envisage a shift from one to the other. This is where a comprehensive overview would have been useful. More attention could have been paid to inscriptions, their languages, orthography (Virgo is sometimes Birgo), and position relative to paintings, as part of the discussion about workmanship for the frescoes. The hypothesis of artists from Coptic Egypt is brushed aside in favor of evidence from Jerusalem-Palestine, despite the massive presence of Alexandrian saints. Constantinopolitan “perennial Hellenism” is laid to rest. Recurring comparanda are Porec in Croatia, Kiti in Cyprus, Bawit in Egypt (for the stucco frieze, 291-92), and San Crisogono in Rome. Bordi writes about the painted curtains in comparison to material evidence and the catacombs of Naples (414–16). The third-century synagogue at Dura Europos is not mentioned, despite similar arrangement of panel scenes and extensive use of faux-marble paneling.

Coates-Stephens’s piece on the “Oratory of the Forty Martyrs” is oddly placed in the “Topography” section, apart from other interpretative essays. The oratory is also excluded from the coded map of the site in Plate 50, to which all the essays refer, as though not integral to SMA (Plate 50 would have been best placed as plate 1, near to the legend explaining the siglae used). The oratory only appears in Brenk’s plan as "chapel” (463, fig. 1). Henry Hurst confidently states that the Amantius epitaph is reused, while Coates-Stephens argues the opposite. This divergence is a failed opportunity to put contrasting views in dialogue. While likely overinterpreting the relationship of the two buried individuals as husband and wife, Coates-Stephens makes a strong case for the original dedication of this room to the apostle Andrew. He stops short of drawing the conclusion that the iconography of the apse is Andrew’s miracle of resurrection of forty drowned men rather than the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste. The overlapping stories and the polysemic nature of images could have lent themselves to a more daring analysis.

The volume is dedicated to Per Jonas Nordhagen for his ninetieth birthday in recognition of the ground-breaking nature of his work in discerning datable layers in the paintings. John Osborne writes about Nordhagen and several contributors praise him. The Norwegian Institute continued to collaborate with the SMA project until the present, as recalled by Andaloro in her mid-volume one-page introduction to the work of her team. A Norwegian colleague, Per Olav Folgerø, proposes a new identification for the central band of the triumphal arch as open graves rather than sheep on the basis of an overall dogmatic reading of the Adoration of the Cross scene. Folgerø pays due attention to the florilegium of scriptural texts attached to the image, sadly only half preserved. The analysis by Pogliani, Pelosi, and Agresti of the technical composition of stucco layers anchors and refines Nordhagen’s results by establishing firm connections between paintings from different architectural positions.

Like palimpsest walls, every layer of capturing and decoding this fascinating monument rediscovered in 1702 has a role to play in its reconstruction and understanding. While conservators work to minimize risks of further losses, Oscar Mei adds a new early source to the past record, the manuscript of Abbot Passionei’s dissertation with materials assembled between 1702 and 1706, including three new watercolor sketches (Fossombrone, Biblioteca Civica Passionei, MS 32). Barring inventive solutions such as Wladimir de Grüneisen’s “paper machine” book from 1911 (Gasbarri, 142), the limits of the printed page may be a serious constraint to the attempt at clarifying the history and materiality of SMA. The virtual projections at the site, as well as the experience of the space itself, form a necessary complement to this beautiful book.

Barbara Crostini
Newman Institute/Uppsala University