Rome is so chock-full of ancient statuary that visitors quickly start tuning it all out. It’s understandable, of course; but it’s a shame, because they tune out the ancient statuary in Catholic churches as well… but if they thought about it, that is always unusual enough to merit one’s full attention!
In one of Rome’s largest basilicas stands this nearly life-sized marble sculpture of Saint Helen, the mother of Emperor Constantine. It was Helen who went to the Holy Land in the 4th century and managed to find the True Cross, along with many other relics of Christ’s Passion. (We can tell you all about it!) That’s why she is shown here holding a wooden cross.
Exhausted tourists suffering from visual overload don’t realize, however, that this sculpture is actually much older than the 4th century. Archaeologists have established that it’s an ancient Roman copy of an even older Greek sculpture of the goddess Juno. So what’s she doing with Christ’s cross in her hand?
The answer is simple. The quality of this sculpture is first-rate, as can be seen from the graceful, precise folds of her dress; and so early Christians evidently concluded that it would be a shame to discard it. They replaced the head and arms, added the cross, and voila! Juno instantly became Saint Helen!
There’s nothing particulary unusual about this. Early Christians were very adept at recycling, which is why the oldest churches in Rome are filled with columns, molding, flooring and other structural elements that were obviously taken from pagan temples. Think about it: nobody’s worshipping Apollo or Venus any more, so why not haul away these lovely bits of stone sculpture and put them into a brand-new, Christian church?
Across town, we find this lovely statue of the early Christian martyr Saint Agnes. If you look closely, you’ll see that the torso is made of alabaster, while the rest of the statue was cast from gilded bronze. The alabaster was once part of a statue of the Egyptian goddess Isis, who was worshipped back in ancient Rome. In fact, the Egyptian religion was quite trendy among Romans for several generations, until Cleopatra and Mark Antony fought their losing battle for Roman domination in the 1st century B.C. (at which point all things Egyptian abruptly fell out of vogue).
Once again, the statue of Isis was particularly lovely, and alabaster is fairly valuable–so the early Christians didn’t want to waste it. That’s why a later sculptor created a new head and hands, added the martyr’s palm… and it became a great saint.
Nobody knows how many visitors to Rome’s churches completely miss fascinating elements like these every single day. That’s why a knowledgeable guide is so valuable: we’ll point out to you the items of historical interest that you would otherwise walk right by!