Book Series Studies in Medieval and Early Renaissance Art History

Santa Maria Antiqua: The Sistine Chapel of the Early Middle Ages

Eileen Rubery, Giulia Bordi, John Osborne (eds)

  • Pages: iv + 502 p.
  • Size:220 x 280 mm
  • Illustrations:50 b/w, 125 col., 30 tables b/w.
  • Language(s):English
  • Publication Year:2021

  • ISBN: 978-1-909400-53-5
  • Hardback
  • Available

Lavishly illustrated and containing the most recent images and research on this unique church,  this is an essential resource for early medieval historians  and archeologists working on Rome, the medieval West and Byzantium.


"(...) scholars will find the book indispensable." A. Cutler, Choice, Sept 2022 [Summing Up: Recommended. Upper-division undergraduates through faculty]

“Thoughtfully structured and generously illustrated, this carefully edited volume offers the hitherto most diverse and stimulating collection of new insights into one of most challenging monuments of the early Middle Ages.” (Erik Thunø, in Burlington Magazine, 164, 2022, p. 935)

“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 (…), a Roman imperial first-century construction inside the Forum that at some point, probably in the fourth century, became a church.” (Barbara Crostini, in CAA.Reviews, 74, 2023)


Since completing her MA at the Courtauld Institute of Art in 2004, Eileen Rubery has worked on the frescoes at S. Maria Antiqua, especially interpreting the mid-7th Century frescoes on the apsidal arch, identified by  Rushforth as linked to the Lateran Synod that Pope Martin I had presided over in Rome in 649 before being martyred for treason by Emperor Constans II. She has drawn attention to the roles played of the 'Greek' monks, John Moschus, Sophronius of Jerusalem and Maximus Confessor in events surrounding the martyrdom  of Pope Martin I for treason by Emperor Constans II. Images of the healing saints  Cyrus and John, whose miracles were recorded in a panegyric by Sophronius of Jerusalem, figure  prominently amongst the medical saints depicted in this church, linking it to Cyril of Alexandria who championed these saints. She teaches at Cambridge and Oxford Universities, Birkbeck and the Courtauld Institute within London University and the Victoria and Albert Museum and  has led many tours to Early Christian Rome.

Giulia Bordi teaches Medieval Art History at the Roma Tre University. Her research interests lie in the field of medieval wall painting and the interaction between architecture, liturgical furnishings and wall painting in the churches of Rome and Byzantium (4th-13th centuries AD). Since 2003 she has been a member of the project: “Medieval painting in Rome, 312-1431. Corpus e Atlante”, edited by M. Andaloro and S. Romano, publishing numerous papers therein. She began to work at S. Maria Antiqua in 2000. Exploring its intriguing and complex stratigraphy of painted plaster layers, she is systematicaly mapping them and proposing a new chronology of the church’s decorative campaigns from the 6th to the 11th centuries.

John Osborne is a medievalist and cultural historian, with a special focus on the art and archaeology of the cities of Rome and Venice in the period between the fifth and thirteenth centuries.  His publications cover topics as varied as the Roman catacombs, the fragmentary mural paintings from excavated churches such as San Clemente and S. Maria Antiqua, the decorative program of the church of San Marco in Venice, 17th-century antiquarian drawings of medieval monuments, and the medieval understanding and use of Rome’s heritage of ancient buildings and statuary.  He is also interested in problems of cultural transmission between Western Europe and Byzantium.  After the completion of his graduate studies at the University of London’s Courtauld Institute of Art (Ph.D. 1979), he has held faculty and administrative positions at the University of Victoria (1979-2001), Queen’s University (2001-2005), and between 2005 and 2015 served as Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Carleton University in Ottawa, where he retains a faculty position.  Promoted to the rank of full professor in 1989, he has held visiting fellowships at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge; the Istituto Ellenico di Studi Bizantini, Venice; and the Dumbarton Oaks Center for Byzantine Studies, Washington.  In 2006 he was elected as an Honorary Fellow of the British School at Rome, and in 2011 invested as a Knight of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic.


The Santa Maria Antiqua Complex in the Forum in Rome was probably established at the foot of the Palatine Hill in the 6th century. Over the following 600 years it was decorated with a unique series of frescoes bearing evidence of imperial, papal and monastic influences.  Abandoned in the 9th century, limited use probably continued up to the 11th century.  By  the 17th century the complex was completely buried under the rising floor of the Forum. Excavations in 1900 exposed a largely intact complex containing hundreds of 6th - 11th century frescoes, in some places over four layers deep and a unique Chapel of Medical Saints which suggests this was also an incubation site. The English Press hailed the site as the 'Sistine Chapel of the Ninth century'.

Lavish illustrations of these frescoes, following recent restoration,  make this book an indispensible resource, not only for those working on the church but also for those interested in contemporaneous material in medieval sites especially in Rome, Europe and Byzantium.

This monograph contains the proceedings of an International Conference held at the British School at Rome on 4-6 December, 2013. It reports results of the major project of preservation and research led by the Soprintendenza and carried out over the last 12 years on the fabric of the church, its frescoes, floor, wall and ceiling mosaics, its drainage and infrastructure. Much of the restoration was funded by the World Monuments Fund.

The conference also marked the 75th anniversary of the death of Gordon Rushforth, the first Director of the British School at Rome and the author of one of the earliest key papers on the S. Maria Antiqua site.


INTRODUCTION by Eileen Rubery, Giulia Bordi, John Osborne

Oscar Mei
1702: The discovery of Santa Maria Antiqua

T.P. Wiseman
Gordon McNeil Rushforth and Santa Maria Antiqua

Andrea Paribeni
‘With Boni in the Forum’. The relationship between Gordon McNeil Rushforth and Giacomo Boni according to archival documentation

Ernesto Monaco
Measuring Santa Maria Antiqua: from Petrignani to the present

Giovanni Gasbarri
‘Ce monument est avant tout un témoin’: Wladimir de Grüneisen and the multicultural context of Santa Maria Antiqua

John Osborne
Per Jonas Nordhagen, Santa Maria Antiqua, and the study of early medieval painting in Rome

Henry Hurst
The early church of Santa Maria Antiqua

David Knipp
Richard Delbrück and the reconstruction of a ’ceremonial route’ in Domitian’s palace vestibule

Robert Coates-Stephens
The ‘Oratory of the Forty Martyrs’

Giuseppe Morganti
“Per meglio provvedere alla conservazione dei dipinti …”.
1984–2014: Santa Maria Antiqua 30 Years Later

Werner Schmid
Diary of a long conservation campaign

The palimpsests of Santa Maria Antiqua

Maria Andaloro
The Project

Giulia Bordi
The three Christological cycles in the sanctuary of Santa Maria Antiqua

Paola Pogliani, Claudia Pelosi, Giorgia Agresti
Palimpsests and pictorial phases in the light of studies of the techniques of execution and the materials employed

Per Olav Folgerø
Expression of Dogma: Text and imagery in the triumphal arch decoration

Manuela Gianandrea
The fresco with the Three Mothers and the paintings of the right aisle in the Church of Santa Maria Antiqua

Maria Grafova
The decorations in the left aisle of Santa Maria Antiqua within the context of the political history of the Iconoclastic era

Marios Costambeys
Pope Hadrian I and Santa Maria Antiqua: Liturgy and patronage in the late eighth century

Giulia Bordi
The apse wall of Santa Maria Antiqua (IV–IX centuries)

Eileen Rubery
Monks, Miracles and Healing. Doctrinal Belief and Miraculous Interventions: Saints Abbacyrus and John at Santa Maria Antiqua and related Roman Churches between the sixth and the twelfth centuries

Richard Price
The frescoes in Santa Maria Antiqua, the Lateran Synod of 649, and pope Vitalian

Beat Brenk
A new chronology of the worship of images in Santa Maria Antiqua

Maria Andaloro
The icon of Santa Maria Nova after Santa Maria Antiqua

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