The Pantheon and Santa Maria Sopra Minerva

It’s not hard, standing beneath this, more than 100ft below, to imagine the ancient Romans in this temple, gazing upwards into the eye of heaven. The teeming crowds of tourists today are no different. We all look upwards the minute we enter the huge doorway of the Pantheon, our eyes caught in awe by the perfectly circular oculus streaming light.

Today, as it has for thousands of years, the world’s oldest place of worship continues to welcome the crowds through her huge bronze doors. But instead of ancient Romans peering through sheep innards and other oracles to seek divine insight from the gods, you get hordes of tourists milling about peering though camera viewfinders to seek that perfect shot.

What began as a temple to all the ancient gods of Rome is still today a place of worship as the Santa Maria della Rotonda.

It is still the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome. It’s also a math geek’s idea of heavenly perfection.

I’m no math whiz but even I was dazzled by the stats and the numbers. Think about this: the height of the Pantheon and the diameter of the interior space inside is the same – 142ft. As if it is a perfect sphere sitting in a cube. Don’t ask me about the mathematical formulae. I left all that back in school after my last math exam almost 30 years ago! In fact just thinking about how the ancient Romans managed to calculate all that to such an accurate degree without even a Casio calculator makes me feel very ashamed of myself for flunking math!  And I had MY Casio!

On top of that, these over-achievers, not content with colonising much of the western world and central Asia, went ahead to build the darn thing.

Inside the Pantheon, 2000 years ago, you would have seen all the important Roman gods – one for love, for health, for success, for wealth and more, lining the circular perimeter. By the 7th century, the statues of the gods were removed and today, altars and tombs of famous figures in Italian history take their place. There’s Raphael in one corner (below left), and almost directly across, the last king of Italy (right).

Outside the Pantheon, in the Piazza della Rotonda, it is a noisy, lively mix of tourists, buskers, horses and carriages and centurions (below). The only fight these have today is to convince tourists that it’s worth €5 to take a picture with them.

As with many Roman piazzas, there is always a fountain as a centrepiece. This particular one was built about 500 years ago. But what’s interesting is the red obelisk in the middle (below). This was actually made by the Pharoah Ramses II for the temple of Ra. Somehow it was brought to Rome where it stood some distance away from the Piazza della Rotonda.

Then about 700 years ago, it was discovered under the apse of this church, not far from the Pantheon:

This is the Basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary which is built over the former temple to the goddess Minerva. Actually the temple was not dedicated to Minerva but to the Egyptian goddess Isis, but let’s not sweat the details. This rather plain-looking exterior gives no hint about the wealth of art treasures within nor the religious significance of a very important woman laid to rest inside.

In a time when women’s voices were seldom heard, St Catherine of Siena was one voice which stood out. So influential was she that she managed to do what many other learned scholars and church officials could not: persuade the pope to move the papal administration back to Rome from Avignon. Well-respected for her spiritual writings and her outspoken voice in politics, St Catherine was made the patron saint of Rome and of Italy, together with another well-loved saint, Francis of Assisi. We did not plan it to be so, but this trip would see us visiting the burial places of both these saints.

Catherine died at the age of 33 and her body is interred here in a beautifully-lit glass case:

Well, actually not all of it.

Inside the marble effigy is not a complete body. Her head lies in her hometown of Siena. The story of how it got there is part legend.

The Sienese wanted her body back home but the Romans would not release it. So (and this is where it gets icky for me) they sneak in, hack off her head and put it in a bag. But as they tried to leave, the guards asked to search the bag. If I were a guard I would not have liked seeing a half decomposed human head grinning back at me in that bag. But luckily for them and for the Sienese, all they found was a bunch of roses. St Catherine must have decided to spare them the trauma and maybe she also wanted to go home, so poof! The head was changed into roses. If you ever want to sneak something past customs, maybe you should invoke St Catherine’s name for some help. At the very least this Doctor of the Church may be able to help you talk your way out of any sticky situations!

I may be Catholic but I’m always puzzled by the fervent obsession with relics of saints – particularly assorted body parts and bodily fluid like blood, fingernails, toenails, hair, teeth, heart and other organs. Brings new meaning to the phrase RIP – Rest In Piece! And you wonder why some of us struggle with the concept of organ donation!

On a personal note, I’d been to Siena twice. But weirdly enough each time time I tried to photograph a statue of her in her house, it always turned out badly, leaving the statue in silhouette. But I guess third time’s the charm.

St Catherine is not the only luminary buried here. She’s in good company with several popes and Fra Angelico, the famous Renaissance painter.

St Catherine’s shrine was not the only important sight in the church. Here’s the breath-takingly illuminated Carafa Chapel with Filippino Lippi’s stunning frescoes:

And Michelangelo’s Christ the Redeemer (note that the bronze modesty towel is NOT the work of Michelangeo! I don’t see what’s the issue really – Christ may have had divine origins but he was human like the rest of us and certainly had the same equipment!):

While everyone makes a beeline for the Pantheon, the star attraction in this part of Rome, it’s worth spending time in this sprawling yet quiet church.







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