Santa Maria sopra Minerva is Rome’s only medieval Gothic church. Work began in 1280 and continued for almost a century until 1370. The church was transformed during both the Renaissance and Baroque periods and ‘restored’ in the middle of the 19th century.
The church was thought to have been built on top of an ancient Roman temple dedicated to the goddess Minerva, hence its name. In truth, the church and adjoining convent occupy the site of three ancient temples, one Roman and the other two Egyptian (the Isèum dedicated to the goddess Isis and the Serapèum dedicated to the god Serapide).
For millennia Rome was prone to heavy flooding and part of the façade of Santa Maria sopra Minerva is decorated with plaques, which record some of the heights the flood waters reached.
Santa Maria sopra Minerva, which belongs to the Dominican Order, is made up of a nave, two aisles, two transepts and a choir. The aisles are lined with private chapels. A chapel of particular interest is the fifth off the right aisle, the Cappella dell' Annunziata.
The sixth chapel is the Cappella Aldobrandini. When, in 1592, Cardinal Ippolito Aldobrandini became Pope Clement VIII (r. 1592-1605) he had the family chapel enlarged and redecorated. The altarpiece is by Federico Fiori, also known as Federico Barocci (c.1535-1612) or Il Baroccio, and depicts the Institution of the Holy Eucharist (1594). The painting is flanked by statues of St Peter and St Paul, the work of Camillo Mariani. The tombs of the pope’s mother and father line the side walls, while a rather modest statue of the pope, himself, stands in a niche to the back of the left wall.
The right transept is home to the Cappella Carafa, which is home to some of the most beautiful Renaissance frescoes to be found in Rome.
The transept also houses the late-13th century Gothic tomb of Bishop Guillaume Durand (died 1296), the signed work of Giovanni di Cosma(died c. 1305). The partially destroyed mosaic depicts the Virgin and Child flanked by San Domenico and San Privato. All that remains of the poor bishop is his head.
Tomb of St Catherine of Siena
Lying before the high altar is the tomb of St Catherine of Siena (1347-80), which is ascribed to the sculptor Isaia da Pisa (active 1447-64). Catherine Benincasa was canonised in 1461 by Pope Pius II (r. 1458-64), himself a citizen of the Republic of Siena. However, her effigy was carved before this event, which is why the edge of her pillow is inscribed Beata Katerina, a reference to her earlier beatification.
The choir is home to the funerary monuments of two Medici Popes, Leo X (r. 1513-21) and Pope Clement VII (r. 1523-34).
There are only three churches in Rome which can boast a sculpture by Michelangelo and Santa Maria sopra Minerva is one of them. Michelangelo’s statue of the Risen Christ (1519-21) stands to the left of the high altar. Christ, who is portrayed standing entirely naked, holds the Cross and the instruments of his Passion. The gilded ‘loin cloth’ was a later addition.
It should be added that this sculpture was Michelangelo’s second version and one with which he remained dissatisfied. He was assisted in its completion by a young assistant, Pietro Urbano. As the pupil’s work fell far short from the high standards demanded by the master, he was soon dismissed. Michelangelo had discarded the first version on discovering a black vein in the marble, which marred the face. The statue now stands in the sacristy of the church of San Vincenzo in the small town of Bassano Romano, which lies about forty miles to the north of Rome.
Tomb of Fra Angelico
A short distance from Michelangelo’s statue lies the tomb of the Florentine painter, Fra Angelico, who died in Rome on February 18th, 1455. Fra Angelico was also a Dominican priest, which is why Santa Maria sopra Minerva became his final resting place.
In the chapel behind the tombstone, the Cappella Frangipane, there is an example of the work of Benozzo Gozzoli, Fra Angelico’s most famous pupil. It is a painting on silk of the Virgin and Child and would once have served as a processional banner. The chapel is also home to a Renaissance funerary monument, which uses a recycled ancient sarcophagus in its design. The sarcophagus is decorated with a beautiful image of Hercules fighting the Nemean lion and on top of it lies the effigy of Giovanni Arberini.
The great Baroque sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) was to the 17th century what Michelangelo had been to the 16th and Santa Maria sopra Minerva is fortunate enough to boast two documented works by the master. His polychrome monument to Suor Maria Raggi adorns the fifth pillar on the left side of the nave. It was created after 1647, the year Lorenzo Raggi, one of her descendants, became a cardinal. His name, and that of Ottaviano and Tommaso Raggi, are noted in the Latin inscription at the bottom of the memorial. Maria Raggi (1552-1600) was a nun, who lived in a palazzo near the church. Extremely pious, she spent much of her day in prayer and reportedly performed many miracles.
Bernini’s animated bust of Giovanni Vigevano is the highlight of the funerary monument, which stands between the third and fourth chapels off the left aisle. The whole monument was once thought to be his work, but most scholars now think that only the bust can be securely attributed to him. Bernini was only a teenager when he carved it.
When you leave the church look out for an image of a dog seated on a book with a torch in its mouth, which can be seen over the side doors. The Dominicans were often known as the Domini Canes (Dogs of the Lord); the torch represents the flame of Christian truth, which the order worked to promote in its battle against heresy.