Basilica of Saint Mary of the Altar in Heaven
From time out of memory comes a story of Augustus peeking through columns to the Temple of Juno Moneta, and there being granted a vision of a child cradled in the arms of a lovely woman. You know how waking dreams are, part imagination, part insight, and so with Augustus who from the vision heard a voice that said, “This is the altar of the son of God”. Now, Augustus was adopted son of Julius, divine Caesar, so he might have assumed this altar to be his altar, if the woman had been his mother. Seems she was not. And we learn that from his waking dream Augustus Caesar chose not to exercise the full force of his magnificence, but to go about Rome simply in his broad farmer hat, asking to be called Papa, rather than Imperator, much as you might say, “Mr. Jones was my father’s name. Call me Bob.”
Likely, you know Juno was wife to Zeus, that her name in Greek is Hera. Perhaps you did not know that her temple on the Capitoline Hill, “Capitol Hill”, was the highest in Rome, which Augustus might have seen from his palace on the nearby Palatine Hill, or when in the Forum below. You might not know that from the temple Juno “Moneta” comes our words, “mint, monetary, money”, and this because Juno’s temple was Rome’s mint. Practical people, the Romans.
And the story continues. We learn from legend that Rome’s sybil (Tiburtine, seems to me) was the author of Augustus’ dream, and on the spot below the hovering vision of Mary & Christ, Augustus ordered construction of the ara coeli (Aracœli) the “Altar of Heaven” from which the name, Basilica Sanctae Mariae de Ara Cœli in Capitolio, “The Basilica of Saint Mary of the Altar in Heaven” upon Capitol Hill. Today, the Basilica of Saint Mary of the Altar in Heaven stands above Michelangelo’s Campidoglio (old symbol of new Rome, now museums of antiquity) and sits below the magnificent Monument to Victor Emmanuel II, first king of united Italy.
And there is this detail which comes to us from the hand of the anti-Christian, pro-pagan Edward Gibbon, author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776). “It was at Rome, on the 15th of October 1764, as I sat musing amid the ruins of the capitol, while the bare-footed friars were singing vespers in the temple of [Juno] (the Basilica of Saint Mary of the Altar in Heaven) that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started to my mind.” Yes, I can see that. Twenty-two columns support the roof of the nave, each column from a different Roman temple … and bits of the floor and the chapels are antique Rome, and here an altar by Michelangelo, and the Child of Ara Colei (carved of Gethsemane Garden olive), and pictures from the testaments Old and New, and saints of antiquity and modern war and many another detail that gets the mind to work, like the relics of Saint Helena, mother of Constantine, first Christian emperor of Rome.
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The Basilica of Saint Mary of the Altar in Heaven is ancient, so old that no one quite knows the date of its founding and building. We do know the church was first mentioned in 574 when already old, and we have found in the complex of buildings the ancient stones of a church of the Greek rather than the Latin rite, mark of Constantine and perhaps the influence of Saint Helena. When entering the Basilica of Saint Mary at the wood doors of the front façade you are struck by the barrenness of the place, nestled as it is between Michelangelo’s Campidoglio composition and the towering masterpiece to Victor Emmanuel. The ancient frescoes and mosaics have fallen away leaving the church naked of hagiography and telling Biblical episodes. Through the doors a richness like that found in best antique shops, a bit of this beauty, a bit of that broken masterpiece. The columns, already mentioned, are the first bit that causes the discomfit, orderly in most ways but of a variety that disconcerts, a subtle clumsiness, more unconscious than obvious.
When you turn and look from the long view of the nave to the counter façade you find a fully baroque Bernini, two hovering angels holding aloft a drape with an inscription of the 17th Century Roman senate, and above this, Urban VIII’s (Barberini) papal coat of arms. Among hundreds of statues and pictures, Michelangelo’s tomb of Cecchino Bracci, the young assistant of Michelangelo who at 15 died, a young man who Michelangelo attended when in his sickbed, whom he comforted, and remembered, both in his heart and in his verse, the verse that the queer employ to claim Michelangelo as one of their own. The tomb might seem ancient Roman if you were not familiar with the speaking subtleties of the Classive tradition.
Expect you know: our image of hero comes to us from Michelangelo, that sculpted, pictured hero preternaturally strong, almost divine, a hero part Paul Bunyan, part Superman, part Cassius Clay, thickly muscled, beautiful and good. Bunyan, Superman, Clay each come to us from Michelangelo through his acquaintance with the Laocoon sculpture group. You might remember Laocoon, the Trojan prophet who distrusted the Greek and suspected the trick of the Trojan Horse. To punish Laocoon for foretelling the future, two giant serpents were set to squeeze, poison and consume him and his sons. You will remember that it was he, Laocoon, to whom Virgil gave the line, “Beware Greeks bearing gifts.” Across from the Bracci tomb, the tombstone and epitaph of Felice De Fredis, the man who in 1506 stepped though the unstable roof of a cave below his vineyard to land upon the Laocoon sculpture group. His wife on the tomb had inscribed this epitaph, “He deserves immortality for his virtues and for having found the divine, almost alive statue of Laocoon that you can admire in the Vatican.”
In a little room, sheltered behind glass, Santo Bambino of Aracœli, the “Holy Child of Aracœli”, the Child Jesus, carved of a single olive trunk from the Garden of Gethsemane and wrapped in golden swaddling by an unnamed Franciscan friar. The image is lovely, sincere, so vulnerable to attacks by committed Progressives. Stolen by anti-Catholics of the French Revolution, but ransomed back; saved from the flames of Progressive anti-Catholics by the Italian Republican, Carlo Armellini (1848); stolen in 1994 by suspected Progressives, the work you see now is a faithful copy of the original. Again, ransom was offered, but not accepted. Some have suggested that this generation of Progressives will not be bought-off, are committed to the final destruction of the Catholic and of Christianity. The Santo Bambino statuette no longer makes the rounds of Rome in its gilded chariot to visit and to heal the sick. Perhaps the miraculous wonder of the original is missed, perhaps the fine but empty replacement puts people off miracles and wonders, as in the putting-off of the current, flaccid Vatican. We cannot be certain.
Also here, the Shrine of Saint Helena, a tempietto surmounted by a Virgin & Child, much alike the mother and child seen by Augustus, we can assume. The tempietto is fine, in its way; of the Corinthian order, a bit top-heavy, its interior statue of Saint Helena holds a reminder of the True Cross that she discovered, a competent statue recently made, and in the tempietto’s crypt, Saint Helena’s relics that are rested with hanging and arranged ex-votos, marvelous objects looking both ancient Roman and Medieval Christian.
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When existing the church, you might leave down the 125 front steps along the wall of the Victor Emmanuel II monument. When reaching the bottom, looking up you might recall that these steps are a votive offering (1348) by the people of Rome humbled by the great plague, the Black Death. Often referred to as “The Stairway to Heaven”, plaques and histories recall the Tiburtine Sybil, Augustus’ vision, the ara coeli (“Altar of Heaven”) at the stairs’ summit, and the favor in childbearing granted to childless women who ascended the 125 stairs to petition the Virgin Mary … a stairway to Heaven where you would be granted a child. We expect that the marble of the steps was repurposed from the Temple of Quirinus, Quirinus, the deified Romulus, founder of Rome … Edward Gibbon did not approve.
Exiting down the two flights of the church’s side, you might make the right and right turn to the Campidoglio and its museums of antiquity which provide context for Saint Mary’s church … a long history from the 22 unique Roman temple columns to its contemporary baroque statue of Saint Helena holding the True Cross. If you make the right and left turn you will soon stand above the Roman Forum, the Foro Romano, near the spot that many suppose to be the Tarpeian Rock, that spot where the Vestal Virgin traitor, Tarpeia, was buried beneath shields of the defeated Sabines. Later, as you know, Romans took wives from among the Sabine. Yes, from the height of this precipitous cliff it would seem the appropriate spot from which to throw murderers, traitors, perjurers.
And there is this. The Tiburtine Sybil who offered to Augustus the vision of the Virgin & Child (upon which was built the Altar of Heaven and Saint Mary’s basilica), left to us a prophecy, perhaps her most famous. Through many translations we can assume that what comes to us is an accurate memory of the original prophecy that foretells the king of a unified world, a man handsome, tall, athletically framed who in an era of great wealth will hand back Christ’s Church to God the Maker. From then, a time of malice, error and pride and the rise of the Antichrist who will upsidedown the human-world’s balance, will produce wonders and spectacles, and will delude the majority by plausible lies. When the old Classive world, its virtues, morals, symbols cease to be, this Antichrist will sit in the House of the Lord, and there begin the final persecution of Christians. In the end, this persecution will cease when God through Saint Michael slays the Antichrist upon his throne at the Mount of Olives. Yes, that same Mount of Olives from which the olive wood of the original Santo Bambino and the copy that rests in Santo Bambino’s place.
Of interest: a few days before this morning’s writing session, the Vatican held a festival for Diversity that did not mention Christ, a festival that urged peace by some unnamed magic force, some squishy human cooperation, extra Christian. I remember recent popes who reminded us that Christ is the bringer of peace, that the fallen, human world is the cause of sin, hatred, war. Seems the current pope does not share the opinion of his predecessors. Now through the storied streets of Rome, a queer parade of Pride and flesh and sex and persuasion of youth to pleasurably destructive debaucheries, and the priests, bishops, and cardinals of Rome are silent, either in fear, sympathy, or bureaucracy.
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Excerpts from the “Declaration on Human Fraternity” word salad, a study in squooshy Progressive prittle-prattle:
…We are witnesses of how, in every corner of the world, lost harmony blooms again when dignity is respected, tears are wiped away, work is fairly remunerated, education is guaranteed, health is cared for, diversity is appreciated, nature is restored, justice is honored, and communities face their loneliness and their fears. Together, we choose to live our relationships based on fraternity, fueled by dialogue and by forgiveness that “does not mean forgetting”, but renounces and does not “yield to the same destructive force” whose consequences we all suffer from… We also believe in social fraternity that recognizes equal dignity for all, fosters friendship and belonging, promotes education, equal opportunities, decent work and social justice, hospitality, solidarity and cooperation, social solidarity, economy and a just ecological transition, a sustainable agriculture that ensures access to food for all, thus favoring harmonious relationships based on mutual respect and caring for the welfare of all…
Full text of “World Meeting on Human Fraternity ‘Not Alone’”, Saint Peter’s Square, 10 June 2023.
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Featured image, Basilica of Saint Mary of the Altar in Heaven. credit: Essevu.
For more on the Houses of God, see The Beautiful Home: American Sacred Architecture,
and Anatomy of the Catholic Church: A Brief History of Catholic Church Architecture.
Basilica of Saint Mary of the Altar in Heaven
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