Many Masterpieces and Mary, Too

St. Mary Above Minerva is one of my first memories of Rome, and it's to that church's neighborhood that I return every time I'm in the city. In the mid-'60s, my mother and I took a mini “grand tour of Europe” and friends who had lived in Rome recommended the Hotel Minerva, on this same piazza. The hotel was then old-fashioned, creaky and charming, even though the carpeting had more than one threadbare patch.

That hotel now sparkles with Venetian chandeliers — and room prices have risen 10 times. Across the piazza, the Gothic-style church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva now revels in Jubilee splendor.

I did not know in those days that this church was the focus in Rome of devotions to St. Catherine of Siena, patroness of Italy. This deeply spiritual and remarkably intrepid woman lived nearby while both supporting and criticizing Pope Urban VI, attempting to end the schism after the “Babylonian exile” in Avignon. The walls of the room where she died on April 29, 1380, were transported to the church, where they are now on display, and this spot has long been the destination of pilgrimages.

Usually quiet, the altar here is a good place for a silent prayer or to leave her a flower. The saint's body (minus her head, which is in her church in Siena) was interred here and a lovely, reclining figure of Catherine has been placed under the main altar, illuminated, and graced with her lily of purity, as if for her wake. Near the altar (at right) lies the grave of the gentle genius of the Dominican order, Fra Angelico, simply marked with a stone. For the transcendent images this holy friar-artist has given us, this “angel” merits a prayer too.

To the left of the main altar, a magnificent statue of the risen Christ triumphs over the cross. Often attributed to Michelangelo, the statue was indeed begun by the great Florentine, but, as frequently happened, the master left it to apprentices and others to finish. According to art historian Howard Hibbard, it was sent from northern Italy to Rome in 1514, almost finished. Michelangelo's assistant, Pietro Urbano, saw it through customs but had difficulty because “They wanted Christ to pay duty to enter Rome.” (Italy, of course, became a united country only in the mid-19th century.)

Tourists and scholars seek out Santa Maria sopra Minerva mainly for its rare quality as a Gothic church in the Eternal City. Rome, a bastion of Classical form, especially that of the basilica, never ceded to the high pointed arches of the Northern Gothic style. Already well-supplied with churches in the 13th century when Santa Maria was built, the city did not have papal treasuries to permit much new construction anyway.

A Visual Feast

There is so much to enjoy visually in this church that only recently did I discover its amazing past. Perhaps no church in Rome saw so much of the history of the Catholic church. For example, in a hall of the Dominican order, which occupied the then adjoining monastery from 1266 onward, Galileo was tried (1630) by Inquisition courts for continuing to publish the Copernican theory of the universe. (The Church has formally said that it erred in its treatment of Galileo; all the documents in the case have been made public.)

The history of the actual foundation of “the Minerva,” as this church is sometimes called, began much earlier, at least as far back as 50 B.C., when Pompey the Great had a temple erected here to celebrate the Roman goddess Minerva. This section of Rome was then home to many temples to pagan gods and goddesses.

The plain facade of the Minerva in no way prepares us for the church that we enter. Rome's only Italian Gothic church, its tall arches rising gracefully, the structure was designed about 1280 by architects, under Pope Nicholas III, who used sketches for the Dominican church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence as a model. Restorations through the ages, especially in the 19th century — not all of them helpful — added marble veneer and painted ceilings, which might be fine in themselves but counteract that soaring Gothic reach for the infinite. However, if you saw the Christmas special on television with tenor Andrea Boccelli singing beneath a blue-painted ceiling with golden stars, you know how lovely the church is, anyway.

Along the side aisles, chapels filled with fascinating treasures culminate at one (near the right transept) where the frescoes are of astonishing beauty, the work of Filippino Lippi. The very unpopular Carafa family, for whom this chapel was built, included Pope Paul IV, formerly Gian Pietro Carafa of Naples, who created the Index of Forbidden Books and segregated Italy's Jews and Protestants into ghettoes that were locked at night. Paul IV (1555-59) came to the papacy when almost 80, during the turbulent years of the Counter-Reformation, when the demand for reform of the clergy was at its height.

When he died, Pius IV, a Medici and not from the reform wing of the Church, was elected.

Whatever its history, you might first appreciate this magnificent chapel and LippI's 15th-century Assumption of Mary over its altar while standing outside, in the aisle, where its overall effect can be felt. Then, standing in its midst and turning toward its three frescoed sides and ceiling, we are moved by a kaleidoscope of form and color. The Dominican Order, to which the artist's father belonged, had, about a century earlier, created masterful frescoes in Florence, using this medium to educate and to instill reverence. In this chapel St. Thomas Aquinas is seen, typically, triumphing over heretics.

Continuing south along the aisle toward the main entrance, one comes to a chapel containing a delightful Annunciation (1508) by Antoniazzo Romano. The Virgin is shown giving dowries to poor girls presented to her by the cardinal of the confraternity of the Annunciation, Juan de Torquemada, uncle of Tomas de Torquemada, the Inquisitor. Cardinal Juan is buried here.

Because churches like this have such treasures, many works are apt to be overlooked, although most of the altars here have exceptional artwork, for both the pilgrim and the art lover. As they say about Rome, “Non basta una vita” — a lifetime isn't long enough.

Don't Miss the Details

Circle back now to the left transept, where the chapel of St. Dominic stands, a minicathedral all its own. Built on directions of Pope Benedict XIII in 1725, the chapel is an elaborate tribute to the founder of this great order. The Dominican Benedict XIII is buried here.

One of my favorite paintings in the Minerva is an extraordinary face of Christ attributed to the artist Perugino, in the third chapel along the left aisle. He always seems to have just looked away as you look at him, his expression a mixture of amusement and bemusement, as if reflecting on the centuries he's seen pass by in this church. I always stop to pray here.

Because there is so very much to absorb, the pilgrim or tourist, I think, is better served by just looking carefully and not just taking in the “don't-miss” moments of the guidebooks — especially during the Jubilee. Children may especially enjoy the baby angels, putti in Italian, that appear in the most unexpected places, often with impish expressions or lolling about with a pudgy leg hanging over a ledge. Everyone may want to try to identify saints by their symbols, or to look closely at facial and body language in the art, or at the decorative elements, animals and birds, fruits and flowers. The art of the sacred, which leads the viewer into another dimension, can inspire some of the most rewarding contemplations.

Barbara Coeyman Hults, a former resident of Rome, is based in New York.

----- EXCERPT: St. Mary Above Minerva is a great spot for March 25's Annunciation feast