Photo Pilgrimage in Rome: San Saba

Today I wandered down to the most out of the way church I’m likely to visit here in Roma. San Saba is about a quarter mile northeast of the Piramide subway station, several stops southwest of the Colosseum in a quiet neighborhood.

No sign, you just see some steps leading into a walled off area…


… and a building that doesn’t look much like a church.


I got there before 9. No tourists, no one at the door to collect money, in fact, no place to make your donations that I could find. Just a quiet spot with a few souls making peace with themselves before starting the day.

And the place is perfect. The original church was started by St. Sabas monks who fled their monastery in the Judaean Desert after a massacre by Persians.

The monks came to Rome and started an Orthodox Christian monastery in the countryside in the early 600s. The relations between the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches went sour after a couple of centuries and the site was used for a new church built in the 10th Century. The interior with the rafters and old style architecture is all from that era. The mosaic style floor is also typical.


The place changed hands over the centuries and was given a Baroque facelift. Then it was returned to it’s original shape (more or less) with a few newer art works added. The alter and apse area look like this:


There’s a 13th century throne behind the main altar.


The apse wall has frescoes from the 13th century. The upper register has the Madonna and Child flanked by the apostles, and the lower one has a fresco of the Crucifixion flanked by saints. They’re all in the old Medieval/Byzantine style.


On the left side of the church, a fourth aisle preserves several other frescoes from the 13th century. They’re all in fairly rough shape. This one shows the Virgin and Child with St. Sabbas.


It’s a simple church, off the beaten path. And the quiet charms of the place are more appealing to me than the fanciness and crowds of St. Peter’s.

Photo Pilgrimage in Rome: Santa Maria della Vittoria

One of the more interesting churches in Rome is Santa Maria della Vittoria. This small church is about 8 blocks north of the Termini train station. The church is open until noon and then from 3:30 to 6 or so (time is of casual interest when it comes to church visiting hours).

Vittoria is the church that has the Bernini sculpture, Ecstasy of Saint Teresa. And the place is a classic example of  a little church with a world-class art work. The church itself was built in the early 1600s and the interior came together later in that century. It’s not much to see from the outside:

Santa Maria della Vittoria

This is the Baroque era and the church has some of the overbuilt feel from that era. But it’s nowhere near as over the top as the Gesu or as ornate as St Peter’s Basilica.

Santa Maria della Vittoria

Typical of Baroque, almost every inch of surface area is covered with decoration or highly detailed marble. The alter features a Bernini starburst and a fresco.

The ceiling is a bit of a trompe l’oeil that looks like it’s about the fall of Icarus. But the actual content celebrates a battle between the Church and some pesky Protestants that’s called “The Virgin Mary Triumphing over Heresy and Fall of the Rebel Angels.

Santa Maria della Vittoria

But we came for the Bernini sculpture and that’s off to the left in an alcove. Bernini was a devout Catholic, one who understood the deeper teachings better than most. And the writings of St. Teresa of Avila seem to have inspired him, this is one of his greatest works.

Teresa was a true Christian “mystic” — not the type who was weird and incomprehensible. No, Teresa was the real deal. Her autobiography and other writings give a cogent and detailed analysis of her spiritual practices and her experiences.

One of my buddies, Evie Toft, did her dissertation comparing Teresa’s experiences with enlightened folks from other traditions. It turns out that there are lots of similarities in these Unity experiences once you strip away the differences in vocabulary.

And Bernini clearly knows Teresa’s writings. His sculpture shows us the key moment in her autobiography when she feels an angel penetrate her heart. The shafts of gold suggest her experience of union with the Divine.

Santa Maria della Vittoria

You can see the almost fiendish glee of the angel. But the real drama lies in Teresa’s body and face. Somehow Bernini manages to get it just right, that mixture of pure bliss, pure openness, floating in the cloud of Unknowing. It’s a feeling that clearly overwhelms her with joy beyond her rational brain and her ego. Teresa’s connection with this experience is almost sexual in its totality.

Santa Maria della Vittoria

Close Up

The rest of the church is nice. Bernini’s sunburst alter piece seems to me to be an extension of the Teresa experience but seen as an abstract explosion of grace. But maybe he just had some extra gold leaf to get rid of.

Santa Maria della Vittoria

Photo Pilgrimage in Rome: Santa Maria sopra Minerva

I’ve been traveling recently. Taking lots of photos. But not having much time to post. Hopefully I can free up a block of time now. We’ve been doing a cruise of the Greek Islands (with a stop in Athens) and I will post some of those shots soon. But let’s start with where I am right now, Rome.

I’ve been to Italy before but wasn’t as prepared for the experience then and didn’t have much time. Now I have a week in Rome and my best discovery has been the churches. Obviously Rome has more than it’s share of churches. Most travelers will hit the Vatican and swing by the Sistine Chapel and St Peters. But to me, that’s just scratching the surface.

Savvy travelers know that some of the best travel experiences come when you wander into a church you’ve never heard of and discover impressive works of art and a place for reflection.

But on this trip to Italy I’ve decided to go one step further, researching holy sites that would appeal to my artistic and spiritual interests. I did some reading and looked online for images of churches that seemed special in some way. Here’s the first of my favorites.

Santa Maria sopra Minerva

Santa Maria sopra Minerva (let’s just call it Minerva) is one short block south of the Pantheon and just a few blocks east of Piazza Navona. It got it’s name because the site was the site of a temple to Minerva in Roman times.

The first church was built on the site in the 8th Century. It was totally rebuilt in the 1200s. You can see that in the general layout of the place, a long central area and not much in the way of side chapels — special alcoves are an architectural element that gets more developed in later churches.

The interior got a major renovation in the Baroque era. So like lots of other Roman churches, Minerva is a living history. And if you look closely you can see how these ancient sites are reimagined every few hundred years.


The exterior of the church is fairly simple. It’s a cream-white that has a Bernini sculpture you can’t miss, an elephant with an Egyptian obelisk on its back. Quite cool. The entrance faces west.

Step inside and once you get used to the light, you notice how long the church is. The ceiling isn’t like many Baroque churches, no dome, no trompe  l’oeil ceiling painting. Instead you have this deep blue firmament trimmed in gold.

Santa Maria sopra Minerva

Santa Maria sopra Minerva in later afternoon

The alter area is fairly simple as well. But behind it are some tasteful stained glass windows and the blue ceiling gets more elaborate frescos here.

I shot this using the candles as foreground elements against the stained glass and blue ceiling.

I shot this using the candles as foreground elements against the stained glass and blue ceiling.

To the left of the alter area is a statue of Christ, thoughtful as he stands there holding a small cross. The statue is by Michelangelo. Not one of his major works but beautiful.

I generally avoid shooting art works on their own as you’d do in an art catalogue. That’s a popular approach with first time photographers. But I find that just capturing a photo of a sculpture or painting can lead to a static approach that tends to bore the viewer. So I shot this one from the side and pulled in the southern section of the church as my background element.

Minerva, Michaelangelo Christ

Minerva, Michaelangelo Christ

From this vantage, you can see an alcove. It holds a painting by the great Medieval artist, Fra’ Filippo Lippi.

Lippi alter painting

Lippi alter painting

In closeup

Minerva, Lippi Painting Close Up

Lippi is pre-Rennasaince so you don’t get a true perspective. But his work has a purity and sense of wonder that transcends the era.

The alcove on the other side has no art by anyone particularly famous. But I liked the way the entrance sculpture and the painting played off each other.

Minerva Alcove

Minerva Alcove

Minerva is worth a stop if you’re visiting Rome.

Italy Book: Getting a Handle on the Rome Churches and Their Art

Folks who’ve been to Italy know that one of the cool thing about the churches is that you get to see great art in the places they were created for. I guess you can theoretically do that here in the USA. But here, you don’t have many churches that want to spend that much for their art, or great artists who want to paint a ceiling for 16 years. In Italy, you step into some off-the-beaten-path church and there’s an alter piece by Titian or a sculpture by Bernini.

The Sistine Chapel is the prime example of this. An entire ceiling that captures the spiritual and artistic understanding of Michelangelo. It’s like seeing our cultural DNA mapped out over our heads. Of course, with the massive crowds, your Sistine Chapel experience is also reminiscent of wading through a Tokyo subway station.

In contrast, many churches in Rome or Venice can still offer an intimate and even spiritual experience. You can sit there and take in the space and the art in your own time. Add a bit of prayer or meditation and you can almost imagine yourself a part of a 16th Century congregation.

And as I think through where I’d like to go in Rome next month, I’ve been reading up on a couple of books that cover the churches and the art they hold. The Churches of Rome by Beny and Gunn has some great details about the churches with text that walks the reader thorough the various historical eras.

The book is a great reminder that these places of worship have been displaying the core religious, artistic, architectural and cultural trends in Rome for 2,000 years.

Churches of Rome by Grimal and Rose doesn’t get into the historical details and is more issue oriented. But this book has amazing shots of the churches by Caroline Rose. Both books help to fill in the blanks for anyone who wants the context of these artistic repositories.

The Challenge

The challenge for me (or anyone) planning a trip to Rome is twofold. First, which churches are worth a visit? I’m spending more time in Rome than most tourists and I’ll return several times before the book is done. But I do a photo shoot at each church. And it takes time to breath in a location and capture its spirit. So which of the 200+ churches to cover?

The second challenge is more complicated – the context. If you saw several of Monet’s Rouen cathedral paintings side by side with zero context, your initial reaction might be, “What’s with this guy? He’s doing the same exact painting over and over but with different colors.”

But, realize that those Monet paintings were experiments in light and perception and you start to go deeper into the dynamics of the art work. This issue plays out at the churches of Rome on far grander scale.

Decoding the Art

One of the huge travel with art and travel is decoding what you’re taking in. All those pictures start to look the same – even if you understand composition. Because every single work of art has a story, an artist who lived that experience, an economic system that supported him or her, and a cultural history. That’s why so many people take tours, to get the backstory.

For example, lets just look at one church that was in my new books. San Clemente because a church when a pre-existing Roman building was consecrated some time before 385. This Roman building was built on top of a Second Century Mithra temple (shown in Caroline Rose’s photo). The Mithra cult involved sacrificing bulls as you can see.


Then a new church got built above the old one in 1108. Back then, they used to pile up the rubble from old ruins in the area and continue up. It saved on demolition costs. The church of San Clemente was restored in the 1700s, probably to deal with structural problems and more importantly, to add frescos that would evoke the Church’s current Baroque approach to religious art. The Catholic Church became more disciplined in the artistic messages they put in their churches after the Counter-Reformation.

Here’s Caroline Rose’s photo of the upper church.


What you’re seeing here is a floor structure and tiles from (I believe) the 12th Century. That amazing gold colored mosaic behind the alter is also from that initial 12 Century construction –builders often kept mosaics from the earlier version in these Roman churches. The columns, upper windows, side wall paintings and ceiling fresco are from the Baroque era.

All that kinda works for me – if I don’t look too closely at the ceiling. But a mosaic from 1100 lives in a whole different universe from a fresco from 1700. In 1100, perspective hadn’t been invented yet. The piously flat faces of Jesus and the saints in the mosaic are so unlike the ceiling fresco with all the cherubs and saints floating around in Heaven.

The point is, just having that bit of knowledge helps me to decode that church and its artistic history. And knowing what I’m seeing helps clue me into the subtleties of the architecture and the art works.

%d bloggers like this: