The exact meaning of the beautiful mosaic on the facade of the church of Santa Maria in Trastevere has long been a puzzle.
In the centre of the mosaic, which may date back to the 12th century, sits the Virgin Mary suckling the Christ Child, an image known as the Madonna Lactans. At the base of her throne kneel two tiny figures, whose tonsured heads indicate an ecclesiastical background.
Mary is flanked by ten female figures. Eight of the ten are crowned and clad in royal regalia, while the two to the Virgin's left do not wear crowns and are more simply dressed. All ten figures have halos and are carrying lamps, but the lamps of the two uncrowned figures are unlit! The iconography of this scene is unique and its significance unclear. The mosaic was once thought to illustrate the story of the Wise and Foolish Virgins, but this is now disputed.
My name is David Lown and I am an art historian from Cambridge, England. Since 2001 I have lived in Italy, where I run private walking tours of Rome.
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