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Santa Maria Antiqua Chapel of Theodotus frescoes on the walls

Santa Maria Antiqua – The Sistine Chapel of Early Medieval Era

Date 2016.04.18 by romecabs in Museums and Culture, Sightseeing




At the back of the Temple of Castor and Pollux (easily recognized by the 3 columns that still remained standing) is  Santa Maria Antiqua (Ancient Church of Saint Mary), a 6th century Roman Catholic Marian church built at the foot of Palatine Hill inside the Roman Forum during the reign of Emperor Justin II (565 – 578).


(click PLAY to watch the SANTA MARIA ANTIQUA CHURCH Video Presentation)


Just when you thought you saw all there is to see at the Roman Forum in Rome, from March 2016 to September 11, 2016 you have the unique opportunity to visit one of the earliest surviving ancient Byzantine churches in Rome that is only open to the public for a limited time and it should not be missed!  If you visiting Rome during this time, add Santa Maria Antiqua church to your Must See list.


Santa Maria Antiqua Church in the Roman Forum


The church itself was converted from an Ancient 1st Century Roman structure built by Emperor Domitian that served as a zig zagged imperial ramp connecting the hilltop palaces on Palatine with the Roman Forum below.  You too can access a portion of this ramp from within the church through a high ceiling passageway that leads you upward to the outdoor ramp and to a terrace for a gorgeous view of the Roman Forum.

Eventually this Roman structure was transformed into a guard chamber that protected this monumental access to the Palatine Hill. Brick pillars were erected to support a roof covering the once open atrium, and its opposing walls were adorned with Christian theme murals.

Shortly after, the guard chamber itself was converted into a church that today serves a remarkable example of an early Christian sanctuary built within an ancient Roman pagan structure.  The existing brick pillars were replaced with 4 granite columns, the porticos were adapted into 2 side aisles, and an apse was carved out of a thick brick wall.

Santa Maria Antiqua wall of saints


The interior walls were magnificently decorated with mosaics, polychrome marble, and richly colored frescoes that spanned across 3 centuries and 7 superimposed layers as newer frescoes were painted on top of older frescos creating a palimpsest that gives us a unique glimpse into the development of early Medieval and Byzantine art.

In the 9th century, Santa Maria Antiqua Church was abandoned and buried by rubble following an earthquake that sealed the building for more than 1,000 years until it was rediscovered in 1900.


Santa Maria Antiqua Church Byzantine Mosaics


Although heavily damaged by the earthquake, thanks decades of painstaking restorations to restore this ancient sanctuary, we can admire stunning and colorful ancient frescoes depicting the Virgin Mary with infant Jesus, saints and martyrs adorn the walls of the sanctuary.

The fact that this church was sealed for a thousand years, it escaped the 8-9th century Byzantine iconoclasm, and  alterations during the Baroque or Counter-Reformation periods when churches in Rome were updated.

Santa Maria Antiqua Chapel of Theodotus


You can view digital renditions of the church in its original state on a wide screen displayed inside the church near the mosaic display.

Also exhibited in the Chapel of Theodotus, Chapel of the Medical Saints, and presbytery are digital projections on the walls depicting how the original frescoes appeared a thousand years ago when the church was in use. The awe inspiring digital exhibition inside the Chapel of Theodotus is not to be missed! Descriptions in Italian and English accompany the projections for a visually spectacular and informative experience.


Santa Maria Antiqua Church Imperial Ramp


To give you an idea of this grandiose imperial vestibule, you can exit the church through a side doorway and walk through the tall covered passageway onto the zigzagged ramp leads up toward Palatine Hill and to a lovely terrace for a stunning view of the Roman Forum below.


For 30 years between 1980 to 2012 Santa Maria Antiqua was closed to the public and only permitted limited access to scholars who applied for a special visit.

An extensive conservation project was carried out by the Italian government ( Archaeological Superintendency of Rome) and the World Monuments Fund at a cost of about  2.7 million Euros.  The church is open for public visitors from March 17 to September 11, 2016.


You can visit Santa Maria Antiqua inside the Roman Forum with an Admission Ticket good for Roman Forum – Colosseum – Palatine Hill.  Currently tickets are 12 Euros purchased on arrival, or 14 Euros if purchased in advance online (to avoid ticket lines on arrival).


If you wish to visit Santa Maria Antiqua church on our ROME IN A DAY TOUR,    SEVEN WONDERS OF ANCIENT ROME TOUR    or   PANORAMIC ROME FOR CRUISERS SHORE EXCURSION,  please let us know so we can assist you with a visit to the Roman Forum from where you can access the sanctuary.




  • The Roman Forum is an archaeological site with uneven terrain. Please wear sturdy comfortable shoes. High heels, dressy sandals, and flip flops are NOT recommended in the Roman Forum.
  • To locate Santa Maria Antiqua church, follow the pathway behind the Temple of Castor and Pollux  towards the base of Palatine Hill. Look for indicator signs posted.
  • When visiting, take a moment to watch the digital reconstruction of the church video playing on a large screen on the right side wall near the Mosaic display.
  • Wait for the lights to go out in the Chapels of Theodotus and Medical Saints and watch the spectacular digital projections on the walls.
  • Do NOT use flash when taking photos. Not only flash photography is prohibited, but the flash ruins the ancient and delicate frescoes on the walls. So be sure to turn your flash off on your camera ahead of time. 
  • Follow the “Belvedere” sign at the end of the wall of the saints mural, and turn right after you enter the doorway. This will take you through the tall passageway and upward along the zigzagged imperial ramps to a small terrace above for a beautiful view of the Roman Forum below.
  • To avoid potential ticket lines, you can book your Roman Forum / Palatine Hill / Colosseum combo ticket ONLINE.


Thank you very much for visiting our Travel Blog. 

For information on our Day Tours, Shore Excursions and Transfers, please visit our website at

We look forward to seeing you soon in Rome!


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