March 9, 2017

Goddesses And Female Saints: A Close Look At The Basilica Of Santa Francesca Romana


A visit to the Basilica of Santa Francesca Romana, also known as the Basilica of Santa Maria Nova, constitutes a perfect tail of your tour of the Colosseum and the archaeological area of the Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum. Whether you have visited the Roman Forum by yourself or with a tour guide, take half an hour to go see this beautiful ancient church, unjustly overlooked by the distract tourist. Immersed in the Roman Forum the Basilica of Francesca Romana was built on the very site where once stood the Temple of Venus and Roma, famous goddess of Love the former, and the latter a personification-deification of Rome itself. After the fall of the Roman Empire, in the 5th century the massive pagan temple undertook a progressive deterioration and was finally completely destroyed by an earthquake in the 9th century. The destiny of the temple was no better than its architect Apollodorus who was banished and then executed after the construction of the temple for some mocking remarks on the statues of the two goddesses contained in the edifice, both seated on marble thrones! Still, this powerful connection with the feminine understanding of the divine was not abandoned after the temple became a church. Inside the Basilica of Francesca Romana: you can see the body of a saint woman, beautifully dressed, still on display six centuries after her death, under the main altar. The church also hosts one of the most ancient images of the Virgin Mary in the world, dating back to the fifth century.


A smaller church existed already near the temple in the 8th century, and it notably contained (and still contains) a stone with the marks of the knees — or so goes the legend — of the saints Peter and Paul who knelt down to pray God to punish a certain magician, Simon, who claimed to be able to fly. In fact, the man apparently was able to fly but then plummeted in the attempt on the ground. He had no luck in the impact. Some say Peter and Paul actually simply threw him from some rock. We don’t know the truth but we prefer to credit the flying story. Anyways.

From the very beginning the church received a great lots of martyrs. Besides St. Francesca Romana, this beautiful church also contains the spoils of the Martyr Saints Nemesio, Olimpio, Simpronio, Lucilla, Esusperia and Teodulo, all transported here under Pope Gregory V in the year 999 AD, just one year before the Apocalypse, or so it was believed by many who thought the world would finish in the year 1000. It wasn’t true, but maybe this is why we think it would also be great to visit this church as a sort of continuation of Catacombs tour. The first Christians used to gather in the catacombs to pray and bury their dead. For a religion in which the idea of resurrection is so fully ingrained in the faith, it is not surprising that the body should gain great significance. The living and the dead alike await for the World to Come, the day of Revelation when all will be resurrected in flesh-and-blood to face divine justice and mercy — that Last Judgment, of which Michelangelo left one of the greatest artistic representation ever in the Sistine Chapel. But even Michelangelo’s masterpiece could not be understood, if not seen in the light of the Christian concept of death and its cult of the dead.

Over the centuries this veneration of the dead, of which the catacombs represent one initial stage, developed in forms that are coherent to the premises. That is, the worship of the martyrs, the cult of relics, and the importance placed on the saints’ mortal remains are central not just in Christian spirituality but in Christian art, architecture and aesthetics as well. If you are a fan of skulls and bones you can find here an excellent specimen of an elegant skeleton. One need only to see St. Francesca Romana’s dead body in the crypt underneath the main altar (a masterpiece of Bernini), for a very vibrant representation of the aforementioned concept. The skeleton of the female saint, placed here in 1440, is dressed in beautiful embroidered garments, like a bride ready to meet her spouse, and she holds an open book in her hand, as if reading. This is the exact opposite of stoic reflection, common to some streams of Christian spirituality, where we are all doomed to die: memento mori, “remember you have to die,” as the Latin phrase states. Here, the fundamental message that one might gather is that we all live despite the appearance. Remember you are alive!


But perhaps the most curious fact about the church of Santa Francesca Romana resides in the very reason of its oldest foundation, dating probably to 757 AD, when Pope Paul I erected and dedicated an oratory in honor of Saints Peter and Paul. But it is interesting to recall that the Basilica of Santa Maria Nova was built on the very site of the gigantic temple that Emperor Hadrian had erected in honor of the goddess Roma, the female deity that personified the city of Rome and the Roman State. It is thus striking that Santa Francesca Bussa de’ Leoni — the real name of Francesca — became Francesca Romana, i.e., “Roman,” almost as if the vanished cult of the goddess Roma somehow lingered in the name of the saint, in the same way that the Pagan temple was replaced by the Church, but both laying on the same foundation. That the relevance of female spirituality in connection to the church of St Francesca Romana was as great as it was during the time of the pagan temple of Venus and Rome, it is confirmed by the presence inside the basilica of one of the oldest portraits of the Virgin Mary, dating back to the V century, and rediscovered under a more recent layer of painting, during a restoration.

So, taking 30 minutes to visit the church of St Francesca Romana near the Colosseum is definitively worthy. And oh, if the Father is sitting as usual by the altar, maybe drinking his cappuccino, ask him how to turn on the lights. The effect is spectacular.