The Stational Churches of Rome: Santa Maria in Domnica

March 2, 2012

We continue to look at the Stational Churches of Lent.  These are particular churches in Rome associated with a particular day.  Every day in Lent has, by ancient custom, a stational church associated with it.  This series examines the stational churches associated with the Sundays of Lent. On the first Sunday of Lent, we encountered the great Basilica of St. John Lateran, notable both for its size and its tie to the Holy Father.  Not far from St. John Lateran, in fact, just a short walk down the Via dell’Amba Aradam, we come to the much more modest church of Santa Maria in Domnica.  Yet, it somehow seems fittting that as we move through this Lenten season we are brought to the humility of Mary on this second Sunday of Lent.  The grand splendor of St. John’s Basilica gives way to Mary’s small church.  For, it is Mary who was with Christ from the beginning, Mary who was there when he began his ministry, Mary who stood beside his cross, and Mary who prayed with the Apostles in the Upper Room as the Holy Spirit descended in tongues of flame.  We do not make our Lenten journey without Mary, for Christ did not make his salvific journey without Mary. Like St. John Lateran, the site of this Church has ancient Christian roots.  The location as a gathering place for Christians seems go back as early as the third century.  By tradition, these early Christians, gathering in a time of persecution, came to this house owned by Cyriaca, a Greek woman.  Nearby was a Roman barracks, on the site of what is now San Stefano Rotondo.  The Basilica of Santa Maria in Domnica probably did not first become a church, but rather a diaconia.  That is, it was a place given over to the care of the poor, often headed by a deacon of Rome.  This diaconia was especially associated with the martyr St. Lawrence, an important deacon in Rome and keeper of the Church’s treasury.  It is said that the Emperor once had St. Lawrence brought before him and demanded to be given the treasury of the church.  The holy saint agreed, asking leave to retrieve it.  He returned with the poor, the orphans, and the sick, proclaiming to the Emperor that this was the true treasury of the Church.  He was eventually executed, his body being taken by Cyriaca and buried in her family cemetery at what is now the Church of St. Lawrence outside the Walls. This former diacona should remind us of our duty of service through almsgiving in this Lenten season.

Ninth Century Mosaic
In the 9th Century, the Pope, Paschal I, has the old diaconia, which was then falling apart, torn down and replaced with the current church, done in a stye to hearken back to the early Christians in Rome.  About 700 years later, the church found itself again in a state of disrepair and was renovated by a Cardinal of the Medici family, who later became Pope Leo X. The name of the Church is a bit of a mystery.  Some hypothesize that it is the Latin form of Cyriaca, the woman whose home it was, from the Greek word meaning “of the Lord”.  (The Greek word being Kyrie of the Kyrie Eleison that we sometimes sing at Mass).  The Latin form of the Greek word would be Domnica.  Some also guess that the word is merely a corruption of dominicum, which was commonly used to describe Rome’s numerous house-churches.  Finally, some have even posited that the word (which is grammatically feminine) refers to the wife of the Emperor, and that perhaps she donated the land for the Church.
The Navicella in front of Santa Maria in Domnica
But the Church also has a second name, Santa Maria alla Navicella, which is also the name of the street on which the Basilica stands.  The origin of this name we do know.  Nacicella means ‘little boat’ and it refers to the marble statue of the small boat (a 16th century replica of an ancient statue) that has stood in front of the since the time of its renovation by the Cardinal de Medici.  (See photo)  The image of the boat is a common one for the Church and for Mary Upon entering the Church one notices immediately the great mosaic on the back of the Apse.  (See photos.)  The Mosaic goes back to the time of Pope Paschal, the early 820s.  The image depicts Mary seated on a throne with the child Jesus in her lap.  The style is very much influenced by the Byzantine style of art that remained popular through much of the early middle ages.  Surrounding Mary are “myriads of angels in festal gathering” (Heb 12:22) At the feet of the Blessed Virgin is an unusual figure–a man with a square halo.  In the Byzantine style, a square halo meant that the person depicted was still living.  This, then, is an image of Pope Paschal, venerating the Blessed Virgin Mary.  This main scene in the Apse is flanked by two other figures–most likely Moses and Elijah.  In keeping with the ancient tradition, the liturgical reading for this day is the story of the Transfiguration.  (In fact, the priest is directed on this day to use the Preface from the Feast of the Transfiguration.)  The people gathered for Mass on this day not only hear of the glorified Christ with Moses and Elijah, in this church they also see him in his humanity with the glorious and ever Virgin Mary, accompanied by Moses and Elijah–a wonderful example of the ancient tendency to link art and liturgy that has been so sadly lost in our modern age.
Spes Nostra Salve
Above these,one sees another mosaic frieze of Christ and his Apostles (and two angels).  Christ, seated within a mandorla (the almond shaped figure that is meant to represent the union of heaven and earth), is flanked by the Apostles each holding an iconic symbol.  Peter, holding the keys of his office, can be clearly seen to the right of Christ. Above these Carolingian mosaics is a baroque ceiling placed by Cardinal de Medici.  The various panels of the ceiling depict images of the Blessed Virgin, many of them from types from the Old Testament, as well as the Cardinal’s coat of arms.  To the right is a depiction of the Arc, a symbol of the Blessed Virgin.  It also mirrors the marble carving of the boat in front of the Church.  As the boat symbolizes the Church, so it symbolizes Mary who is a type of the Church.  As the Second Vatican Council teaches us, “the Mother of God is a type of the Church in the order of faith, charity and perfect union with Christ.”  (LG 63)  The words on this boat recall the words of the Salve Regina:  Spes Nostra Salve, “Hail, our Hope”. Below is a collection of images of this ancient Church dedicated to the Blessed Virgin.  May the beauty of this Church continue to aid us so that by following our Lenten observances, we may better imitate Mary in our love and fidelity to Christ. O God, who have commanded us to listen to your beloved Son, be pleased, we pray, to nourish us inwardly by your word, that with spiritual sight made pure, we may rejoice to behold your glory.  Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

More News & Events