Folks, the time has come to return to the Gothic.
Rome is an interesting place. It is filled to the overflowing with churches of all shapes and sizes. History professors will tell us that it is a textbook of historical styles, which is true. Within 5 minutes walking of each other are an old Roman temple turned church, a Medieval church with a Renaissance facade and a church with intense Baroque facade as well as interior painting. All these are well and good. We can study the history of church architecture etc. However, I am always drawn to the Medieval. It pleased me therefore that right around the corner from the Pantheon was a Gothic church disguised as a Renaissance edifice. The Roman church decided somehow that Gothic wasn’t appropriate to their city and so there are few surviving Gothic churches in the city. Plenty of early basilicas and millions of Baroque churches (they seemed to mass produce these wild Roman churches like no one’s business), but very few Gothic. Why? I’m still not sure.
However, let us look at one of the few surviving examples of Roman Gothic. Santa Maria Sopra Minerva was built in its current form sometime in the 12th or 13th century on the site of an earlier church which in turn had been built on a temple of Minerva. This happened a lot, by the way. It is currently is run by the Dominicans which makes a lot of sense considering. Might as well have a medieval religious order run the medieval church.
I would like to compare Santa Maria Sopra Minerva with a couple other churches that I have looked at already. One of them is the Neo-Gothic Basilica of the Sacred Heart on the campus of the University of Notre Dame. The other is Santa Maria in Monterone. Obviously Sacred Heart and Santa Maria Sopra Minerva are both Gothic in some sense, but they have a lot more connecting them. Both of them only have two levels, an arcade and a clerestory.
In Santa Maria, the clerestory has round windows somewhat like small rose windows. In fact, there are three larger round rose windows over the three front entrances. Speaking of the windows, the windows in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart are all stained glass and so when the light comes in, it becomes patterns of colors on the interior and does not become over bright. However, in Santa Maria, as in most Roman churches, the windows are made of clear glass.
Because only one side is open to a street, light only streams in from that one side. It also comes from side chapels whereas in The Basilica of the Sacred Heart, the windows are in the walls of the nave. The only exception is in the choir, the section behind the altar. In Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, the choir features some of the only stained glass I have seen in Rome.
One other similarity is the ceiling. Both churches feature a brilliantly painted blue ceiling with biblical figures.
The only comparison I’d like to make between the two Santa Marias is a specific element common to both. In the main altar painting, if you recall, Santa Maria in Monterone has a painting within a painting. In it, one of the figures is presenting a painting to the other figure(s). The same is true of the altar painting in the main side chapel of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva. In this case, the Blessed Mother is presenting a painting of St. Thomas Aquinas.
As I’ve said many times, the churches in Rome are an example of a progression of styles. The passage and development of traditions are highly legible in these buildings above anywhere else in Rome. Santa Maria Sopra Minerva is no different. Although I call it “Gothic” the Roman influence is heavily upon it. It is really only in Northern Europe that Gothic retains its purity. In Rome, every church has been “Baroquen” in one way or another.
In Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, the main ways this was accomplished was through the redecoration of the side chapels. Every side chapel has been refitted with a semicircular arch in the Roman style and a Baroque altar painting. The greatest of these is the aforementioned transept chapel with the painting within a painting. Black marble columns frame the painting and all around are white marble statues.
The main altar, however, is a Gothic altar. It has no painting but is open to the choir behind it. Also, beneath the altar is the tomb of St. Catherine of Siena. The altar is faced with glass so you can see the statue of the saint. Also of note is the tomb of Fra Angelico, the painter of the famous Annunciation. He has been beatified and is a Dominican. Obviously the Dominicans have some history here.
The Gothic in Rome does not boast the amazing structural expression of French High Gothic and is very different in many other ways. However, I have always maintained that Gothic manages to work with almost any scale and size. For this reason, Santa Maria Sopra Minerva is still a very inspiring church to enter. The long nave calls you forward to the high altar made of gold and the arches, although not as high and sweeping as in the Northern Gothic, call the viewer upwards toward the light streaming in from the high clerestory windows. It is safe then to say that Santa Maria Sopra Minerva is legitimately Gothic and I am glad to live not 5 minutes away.
(Once again, apologies for a late posting. Technical difficulties: Italian internet is terrible.)