1,500-year-old church which was buried under debris from an earthquake for more than a millennium has reopened to the public after a painstaking restoration of some of the world’s earliest Christian art.
The sixth-century church of Santa Maria Antiqua is located in the ancient Roman Forum, at the bottom of the Palatine Hill, where Roman emperors lived for centuries in sumptuous palaces.
It was buried under rubble by an earthquake in AD 847 and was only rediscovered in 1900 during archaeological excavations. The chapel has taken more than 30 years to restore its exquisite interior, which is decorated with multi-coloured frescoes of saints, martyrs, angels and emperors.
The project, which was funded by the Italian government and the World Monuments Fund, cost 2 million pounds. Being buried by the earthquake saved the church from being altered in later centuries, particularly during the Counter-Reformation, said Prof Andaloro.
Among the most significant frescoes is a depiction of the Virgin Mary with child – one of the oldest known Christian icons in the world. After the ninth century earthquake it was moved to another church in Rome but it has now been returned to Santa Maria Antiqua.
Christian iconography was often superimposed on earlier Byzantine art – a depiction of the angel Gabriel telling Mary she had been chosen to be the mother of Christ was painted on top of a Byzantine queen, for instance. The church was built inside a vast complex of Roman buildings which were constructed in the first century AD under the rule of the Emperor Domitian.