The exact meaning of the beautiful mosaic on the facade of Santa Maria 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.
Santa Maria in Trastevere, thought to be the first church in Rome dedicated to the Virgin Mary, was founded during the reign of Pope Julius I (r. 337-52). It was rebuilt by Pope Innocent II (r. 1130-43), a member of the Papareschi, a wealthy local family. The campanile sports a small mosaic of the Virgin and Child.
The portico, which is crowned with four statues, was added in 1702 by Carlo Fontana.
There are more beautiful mosaics inside the church.
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 and
small-group walking tours
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