In the very center of Rome, there’s a surprisingly ugly church at the top of an endless flight of stairs. (Btw there’s actually a back entrance, which doesn’t requiring much of a climb–and we know exactly where it is.) Few tourists have any indication that the history of this church goes all the way back to the very beginnings of ancient Rome. And since it houses a historic image of the Madonna, it’s particularly appropriate to have a look in this month that is dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
From what archaeologists and classicists have been able to piece together, temples to both the goddess Juno and the goddess Minerva stood on the site where this church is today. And in between the two, Emperor Augustus had erected an outdoor altar to The Unknown God–right around the time when Christ was born. Not a coincidence, either–we can tell you all about it!
We know that at some point in the early centuries of Christianity, the temples were demolished, and a Christian church and monastery were erected here, because there’s a mention of it in documents dating back to the late 500’s A.D. It was subsequently given by the Pope to the new order of Franciscans, and was rebuilt in the late 1200’s. They had intended to add a lovely facade, but the money ran out and eight centuries later, the exterior remains unfinished.
That altar which Augustus had erected outdoors was contained within the church, and it’s still there today–but unless you know where to look, you will never find it! The title of the church makes direct reference to it: Santa Maria in Aracoeli, or Saint Mary on the Altar of Heaven.
Speaking of altars, over the main altar is this lovely Byzantine image of Mary, dating from around the year 1000. After World War II, Pope Pius XII came to this church and stood before this very image, when he formally consecrated the people of Rome to Our Lady.
But there isn’t a single sign anywhere, that explains any of this to the pilgrims and other tourists who hoof it all the way up those stairs for a closer look! Thousands and thousands of visitors to Rome will poke their heads inside the church this year… and won’t have a clue as to the significance of where they’re standing, and what they are looking at. Doesn’t it make more sense to visit Rome in the company of a knowledgeable guide, who can fill you in on the fascinating history of sites like these?