Some Byzantine Madonnas in Rome

by Jonathan Harris

Does Rome count as a Byzantine city? Probably not. Too much has happened since Belisarius reconquered it for the Empire in 536. The Renaissance papacy stamped its image on the place, and the determined efforts of Bernini and Borromini effectively kicked over any remaining traces. Unlike Ravenna, which was content not to build much else after the Byzantines were expelled in 751, Rome’s outward appearance offers little to evoke the lost empire of the Bosphorus.

Yet there is no need to be deceived by the façade of imperial Roman majesty and papal splendour on a visit to the city. Peel away the surface layer of predictable classicism and florid baroque, and some fascinating reminders of the Byzantine period come to light.

The church of San Clemente, not far from the Colosseum, is a case in point. It is Rome’s best preserved medieval basilica, and has the added attraction of being not one church but two: the upper church, dating from the early twelfth century, and a lower church which goes back to the fourth. A descent into the latter reveals numerous traces of the Byzantine past, which the fanatics of the baroque age missed. It contains the presumed site of the tomb of the Byzantine monk Constantine or Cyril, apostle of the Slavs, who died in Rome in 869. Nothing of the original tomb remains, but a modern mosaic of St. Cyril marks the place, and there are usually a few Bulgarians or Russians around, paying their respects to their spiritual forebear.

One feature of the lower church of San Clemente often goes unnoticed. Set in a niche is a wall painting of the Virgin and Child, dating from the eighth or ninth century. Both figures appear to wear enigmatic Mona Lisa smiles, but what is truly striking about the Virgin in particular is her headgear: she wears the crown of a Byzantine empress with its characteristic strings of jewels hanging down on either side. It is identical to that worn by the Empress Theodora in the famous mosaic next to the altar of the church of San Vitale in Ravenna.

She is one of a number of Byzantine Madonnas in Rome, although she is undoubtedly the most cheerful. In the church of Sant’Alfonso de’Liguori in Via Merulana is a much more solemn example. Our Lady of Perpetual Help is an icon in Byzantine style, placed above the high altar. A sorrowful Mary holds an infant Jesus to whom two angels are showing the instruments of the passion. According to legend it was brought to Rome from Crete in about 1499 by a merchant fearful of a Turkish invasion, and it has since been credited with numerous miracles and cures. Such was its fame that, in the mid-nineteenth century, the authorities saw fit to have two silver crowns hammered onto the heads of the figures, which along with an ornate frame and the dim light of the church, effectively make it impossible to see the icon at all.

This is not the only refugee icon of the Virgin. The church of Sant’Agostino in Campo Marzio possesses another, which is supposed to have originally graced Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. Snatched from imminent destruction at the hands of the victorious Turks in 1453, it was allegedly sold to a pious local by a group of Byzantine fugitives. The Virgin and Child in the church of the Holy Apostles, on the other hand, is indigenous, probably the work of Antoniazzo Romano. However, it is often associated with one of the most famous Byzantine exiles who found refuge in Rome, Cardinal Bessarion (1402-72), who may have commissioned it.

The church of San Bonifacio e Sant’Alessio on the Aventine Hill is home to another Byzantine Madonna. Originally dedicated solely to San Bonifacio, in the eleventh century the church became the centre for the cult of St. Alexis, a fifth century Roman who had taken himself off to Edessa to live for seventeen years in poverty and sanctity. Returning to Rome, Alexis was not recognised by his family, and was given a menial job and a place to live under the staircase. Only after his death was his identity finally discovered.

The Madonna della Intercessione, housed in the church, is held to be the one venerated by St. Alexis during his seventeen years in Edessa. Unlike her fellows, she carries no infant Jesus, and instead has both hands raised, presumably in prayer, and hence her epithet.

Emerging from the church, into the peace and quiet of the Aventine, you may be tempted to think it odd that St. Alexis was venerating in the fifth century an icon of the Virgin which would appear to have been painted many centuries later. Come to think of it, the claims of most of these Madonnas to Byzantine provenance is based on oral tradition, rather than any documentary evidence. If such thoughts assail you, take a walk in the nearby Orange Garden where an avenue of pine trees provides a frame to the distant dome of St. Peter’s, and the eternal city lies spread before you. It is the perfect antidote to all scepticism.

Samenvatting

Rome wordt in het algemeen niet als Byzantijnse stad gezien, maar er zijn enkele niet te missen kerken: de San Clemente, op de plaats van het graf van de H. Cyrillus. Hier is een schildering van Maria te zien met een hoofdtooi als die van keizerin Theodora in de San Vitale in Ravenna. Verder: de Sant’Alfonso de’Liguori en de Sant’Agostino, met Maria-ikonen die na de val van Constantinopel naar Rome gebracht zouden zijn; en de San Bonifacio e Sant’Alessio, met de Madonna della Intercessione. Van geen van deze schilderingen staat de Byzantijnse achtergrond vast, maar Rome is geen stad om hier sceptisch over te doen.