Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin in Rome


Church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin (Santa maria in kosmedin) - a simple strict temple, located, presumably, on the site of the ancient temple of Hercules. Until the 4th century, the Bull Market was located here. (Forum Boarium)... At the end of the 4th century, the building of the temple was turned into a public institution responsible for distributing free food to needy citizens.

At the end of the 6th century, this function was taken over by the Roman church. In 782, the temple was converted into a church for the Greek community that fled from Byzantium, and was named Santa Maria in Skola Greece (Santa Maria in Schola Graecia)... The modern name Kosmedin is possibly a distorted Greek cosmidion (beautiful).

History of construction

Until 1868, state criminals were beheaded on a spot opposite the church on a guillotine.

It is known that this territory between the Capitol, Palatine and Aventin began to be populated in the Bronze Age. And the peculiarities of the landscape, which allowed fording the river here, were used by people of the Stone Age. It was here in the 8th century BC the first proto-urban settlement took shape before the championship passed to the Palatine Hill. The bull market became the first market of the new city.

seven hills

According to legend, the giant Kakus, who lived in a cave on the banks of the river near Aventin, attacked Hercules here. Hercules killed Cacus. In gratitude, the group of Greeks, who then lived on the Palatine under the leadership of Evandra, set the hero an open altar. For a long time it was believed that the Romans came up with this legend to deduce their kinship with the Greeks. However, at the Bull Forum, the remains of Greek pottery from the middle of the 8th century BC were found, which led archaeologists to believe that there was a grain of truth in the legend.

Presumably (although not proven), this altar still exists in the crypt of the church. This assumption is also supported by the inscriptions found behind the church, compiled by the praetors responsible for the sacrifices. If so, then the current Santa Maria in Cosmedin is the oldest continuously operating temple in Rome. In fact, at the far end of the crypt, a large mass of calcareous tuff from Anio can be seen, suggesting that the altar was rebuilt in the 2nd century BC when this stone was first used.

In the 1st century, a rectangular podium was attached to the altar with three marble Corinthian columns on the short sides and a family on the facade. The latter supported a number of small arches. It is not known whether this structure had a roof or was simply the courtyard of the atrium of the altar. The columns of the facade and the left side of the podium have been preserved and are included in the structure of the church.

The actual foundation of the church is not documented. Perhaps this happened back in the 3rd century, but tradition mentions it as built by Pope Gregory the Great at the end of the 6th century. This building could be a diaconia - a spiritual institution to help the poor.

In the 8th century, Pope Hadrian began work on the restoration of the church. The project included the construction of three naves with apses and a magnificent portico. A small crypt was also built, despite the absence of any shrine stored here. In 782, the renovated church was transferred to the community of Greek monks from Constantinople, expelled from the Byzantine Empire by the iconoclasts, and received the name Santa Maria in Skola Greece (Mother of God in the Greek brotherhood).

It was popular with expatriates and Greek merchants in Rome. Their number in this century has become so great that several more monasteries had the Greek rite, and even the papal curia was in the power of Greek speakers.

Thumbnail from the Khludov Psalter. Fragment. Iconoclasts John the Grammatik and Bishop Anthony of Siley spread the icon of Christ with lime.

First name Kosmidion, replaced by its derivative Cosmedin, also began to be used in the 8th century. Its origin is a mystery to historians. One tradition holds that this Greek word for "beautiful thing" refers to the rich decoration of the church. However, the problem is that in Italy there were two more churches with this name, both named by exiled Greek monks - one in Naples, the other an Arian baptistery in Ravenna. Another tradition claims that the name Kosmidion belonged to a famous monastery in Constantinople, founded in 480 and dedicated to Saints Cosmas and Damian. And this name came to be used out of nostalgia.

In 847, the city experienced a strong earthquake. The church was damaged. Pope Nicholas I ordered its restoration with the addition of a sacristy, a papal palace and a chapel dedicated to St. Nicholas. All these innovations were destroyed during the Norman invasion of 1084.

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The next reconstruction, carried out in 1123 by order of Pope Callistus III, gave the building the look that we see today. A 7-storey bell tower appeared - a campanilla, singing choirs and galleries. The floor was covered with mosaics in the Cosmatesco style, the walls were covered with frescoes, some of which are still preserved. The bell on the bell tower appeared in 1289.

In the 13th century, the church acquired a covered gallery and a portico. In 1300, Cardinal Francesco Caetani completed the adjoining building, which now houses the winter choir. In 1433 the complex was converted into a Benedictine monastery, but became a parish church again in 1573. The area was not popular during these times. The church and monastery were located on the edge of the development area of ​​the left bank of the Tiber.

A petition to Pope Alexander VII from four doctors of medicine has survived, claiming that the atmosphere of this place was so bad "for various reasons" and so windy that staying there for more than an hour and a half became dangerous to health, and it would be good to shorten the time of the liturgies. The Pope's reaction to the petition is unknown, but the church itself was in a very poor state by the 17th century.

In 1718, a complete restoration was carried out by Giuseppe Sardi. He decorated the interior in the Baroque style, added a vault to the ceiling and created a new Baroque facade. The church has acquired an attractive appearance, and one only has to regret the loss of these jewelry at the turn of the 20th century.

The entrance was reinforced with a pair of ionic columns with a semicircular arch and a triangular pediment.

The façade of the vestibule was rebuilt to show galleries of three arches on each side of the entrance. The front of the nave had a large arched central window between two small Corinthian columns. On each side were a pair of Corinthian pilasters. Above the window was the large coat of arms of Pope Clement XI. This façade can be seen in an engraving by Giuseppe Vazi.

santa maria in cosmedin
Giuseppe Wazi. Church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin.

The modern facade looks very simple. This is the result of the restoration of 1899, carried out by Giovanni Battista Giovanale, ruthlessly removed all the baroque interior details, including the ceiling vault. This was to return the church to its original medieval appearance, as the restorer imagined it. However, now it is believed that it was a very mediocre reconstruction.

The last restoration work was carried out here in 1964. They touched the facade and the bell tower.

What can be seen

Paradoxically, the most famous thing in the church is that it has nothing to do with the Christian temple. She gave her name to the square and the area. But the worst thing is that some people call this name the church itself. This is the “Mouth of Truth” (Bocca della Verita) - a large marble disk depicting a bearded face with an open mouth. Marble - from Phrygia (Turkey). The disc diameter is 1,75 meters, thickness is 19 cm, weight is 1200 kg. It stands on a small Corinthian pedestal on the left side of the narthex.

mouth of truth
Mouth of Truth

The dating of the disk is difficult, but, presumably, this is the 1st century BC. It is believed that initially it served as a decoration of a nearby city gutter. Cloaca maxima or a manhole cover that was cleaned by slaves. However, the disc is too heavy and too fragile to be moved manually. In addition, the price of marble suggests its higher status. Alternative opinions relate it to a wall fountain or to the lid of a sanctuary, such as a talking oracle.

The legend brought fame to the object, according to which a person who put his hand in the open mouth of the image and told a lie, bit his fingers off. Perhaps the Mouth of Truth was indeed used as a medieval “lie detector,” or perhaps it was just a joke for the pilgrims.

First mention of Bocca della verita it is under this name that they appear in 1485 and then become regular. The "mouth" gained popularity among modern tourists after the release of the film "Roman Vacations" in 1953. The line for them is growing even before the opening of the church and most tourists are limited to photography with their hands in their mouths, completely not interested in the church. This is very symptomatic. The city even got around the joke that there is another sculpture - Culo della Verita or "Ass of Truth."

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Santa Maria in Cosmedin has a simple basilica plan with a nave and three apses. Its width is 20 meters (of which 10 meters is occupied by the central nave), its length is 40 meters. However, this is not a perfect rectangle - the plan shows some bending of the structure to the left. The apses of the church are internal, hidden from the outside by a wall.

santa maria in cosmedin

The bell tower of the church is one of the most beautiful medieval Romanesque campaigns in Rome. It is unusually high (34,2 meters), built of brick and has 9 tiers. The first two tiers are in the church, the third and fourth have two arched windows on each side, the fifth - three. On the last four tiers, these arches are turned into galleries with white marble columns.

santa maria in cosmedin

The modern brick facade, as mentioned above, was restored in 1899 in a pseudo-medieval style. Its narthex has six large arches, taken up by a lattice. Between the arches there are pilasters reaching the roof line. The roof is tiled. Above each arch is a rounded window with a stone grill. In front of the large entrance arch, a roof is supported, supported by four ionic columns. The actual facade of the church is located above the roof of the narthex and has three arched windows with stone bars, the holes in which are in the form of circles. Above the windows is a pediment with a small viewing window.

Because of the surrounding buildings, it is impossible to make out the external structure of the basilica (unless you have access to the nunnery on the right). To the left of the nave is an extension with external chapels. The building adjacent to the right side of the narthex contains a sacristy and a winter choir.

In the narthex, in addition to the “Mouth of Truth”, to the right of the door, there is the burial of Cardinal Alfanus, who observed the restoration of the church in the early 12th century. It is made in the form of a marble altar in a niche with a triangular canopy, supported by a pair of spindle-shaped columns. The marble doorframe of the main entrance is decorated with 11th-century carvings by Giovanni di Venetia.

santa maria in cosmedin

As mentioned above, the church’s building includes 10 antique columns of the structure that preceded it. Entering the church and looking around, you can see two of them framing the front door. The third is at the near end of the left aisle, and two more became part of the first tier of the bell tower - one at the entrance to the sacristy, and the other in the middle of it. These seven columns were the main colonnade of the original building. The other three columns, which were originally the side entrance, are located at the Baptistery and the chapel of San Giovanni Battista de Rossi.

santa maria in cosmedin

On both sides of the nave there are nine antique Corinthian columns, divided into groups of three pairs of massive pillars on each side, which are part of the walls of the nave. The nave is illuminated by rows of small arched windows below the roofline. Below the windows, faint traces of the original 12th-century frescoes, which at one time completely covered the walls, are visible. The flat wooden ceiling adorned with rows of gilded stars is a contemporary piece.

santa maria in cosmedin

The pride of the church is the floor of Cosmasco, created by the Cosmati family itself in the 11th century, although it was restored later. Huge porphyry circles, apparently obtained by cutting a giant column.

The only source of porphyry was the quarry in the eastern desert of Egypt, and owning a piece of this imperial dark red stone was incredibly prestigious. The dark green stone in the figure is a serpentine from Sparta, and the yellow inserts are marble from the territories of present Algeria.


On both sides of the entrance to the niches are rounded stones of black granite. These are the standards of Roman weights. In ancient times, they were stored in temples and were used to check the weights of merchants. After the adoption of Christianity in Rome, the stones were moved to the church.

A rare case of the beautiful preservation of a medieval building is singing choirs. The floor here is one step higher than in the nave. The floor itself is also made using the Cosmatesco technique, but even more complicated. In the far corner of the choirs is the entrance to the crypt.

The main altar of Santa Maria in Cosmedin is made from an antique granite bath. The canopy above it is made in the Florentine Gothic style with Cosmatesco decoration. The inscription on it reads: "Deodatus me fecit" (Deodat [son of Cosmas] made me). It is supported by four columns of red Aswan (Egypt) granite. The construction dates back to 1294. The relics of the martyrs Cyril, Hilarius and Coronatus are kept under the altar.

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altar santa maria in cosmedin

In the apse, behind the main altar, there is a marble pulpit or 12-century bishop's chair with three steps and armrests in the form of lions. The apse itself is decorated with frescoes of the 19th century, but in a medieval style. On the walls are the Annunciation, Christmas and Baptism, and on the vault is the Madonna and Child between Saints Augustine, Felix, Dionysius and Nicholas.

santa maria in cosmedin

On the left side of the aisle are three chapels. The first of these is the Baptistery, built by Cardinal Annibale Albany in 1727. The second is the chapel of St. Giovanni Battista de Rossi. The altarpiece shows it with poor people. On the altar, in a small reliquary, the skull of (presumably) St. Valentine is kept, and every February 14 is decorated with roses.

However, there is doubt that the skull belongs to the saint. It was excavated from the catacombs of St. Hippolytus in 1836 and, at best, belongs to some other Valentine. In the third chapel is the Crucifix. All three chapels were restored in 2014.

valentine's skull
Skull of valentines

The apse chapel at the end of the passage is dedicated to Our Lady of Loretta. The frescoes of the 19th century damaged by growing humidity show its birth (left) and death (right). On the vault, she is depicted holding the Baby Jesus in front of the Holy House. The altar is modern. The chapel of the apse of the right passage is made in the same style and is dedicated to St. John the Baptist. Modern murals depict scenes from his life.

The passage on the right through the lobby leads to the winter choirs. This is a chapel in which earlier in winter, when the main church became too cold, liturgies were held. Above the altar is the icon of Our Lady of Cosmedina, brought, as they said, by Greek monks who fled from Constantinople in the 8th century.

However, rather, this is the work of the 13th century. Since 2012, the chapel has been closed to the public and is used to store various trash and elements removed as a result of restoration. The baroque jewelery, taken in 1899, is in very poor condition. In 2013, a detailed plan for their restoration was drawn up and approved, and now the church is raising funds to carry out this work.

After restoration work, a crypt of the 8th century is open for visitors, the entrance to which is located on the left side of the choirs. Entrance fees may apply. The very construction of the crypt in the 8th century is a mystery, since there is no evidence of the storage of relics of any particular saint here. There is an assumption that the crypt was originally a tomb with a set of different relics for worship by pilgrims.

Crypta Santa Maria In Cosmedin
Crypt of the Church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin

The crypt itself is made in the form of a miniature basilica with six columns - three on each side. The columns have no reason and go straight to the floor. At the far end of the crypt, you can see the masonry belonging to the allegedly authentic Hercules altar.

In the sacristy there is a fragment of the 8th century mosaic “Adoration of the Magi”, which was previously located in the old St. Peter's Basilica. Now a church store has been set up to help maintain the building.

Currently, liturgies in the church are performed according to the Byzantine rite, as it is transferred to the Melkit community, consisting mainly of Syrian and Iraqi Catholics and originating from the ancient Patriarchate of Antioch. Masses are served in three languages ​​- hymns in Greek or Arabic, prayers in Italian, and sermon also in Italian.

The only liturgy celebrated in the church (except for special occasions) is the Sunday Mass at 10:30.

The church is open for visitors daily from 9:00 to 17:00 in winter and from 9:00 to 18:00 in summer. If you see a big line, do not be alarmed. This is the turn to the “Mouth of Truth.” Do not pay attention to her and calmly go to church.

Address: Piazza Bocca della Verità, 18

The nearest metro station is Circo Massimo (line B).