5th Century Frescoes From a Church Built Into a 1st Century Roman Aqueduct

Originally appeared at: New Liturgical Movement

A reader brought this article in the History Blog to my notice recently, which I encourage you to read. It features a partially restored and recently reopened church that was originally built in the 1st century AD as an aqueduct in a small village, Santa Maria in Stelle outside Verona, Italy. There is a World Monuments website description here.

The current exterior of the church

The History Blog article linked above describes in thorough and well-presented detail the content of the frescoes, which date from the 5th to the 9th century, and gives an account of the church’s history. It began as an aqueduct, which later had a nymphaeum (a shrine dedicated to the water spirits known as nymphs) built into its arches in the 3rd century AD. This became a baptistry in the 4th century, and in the following century, a church. In the hypogeum (which is the underground part, what we might call the crypt in a church today) there is a fresco of the Virgin Mary with a blue background and stars, not yet restored, and not clearly discernible at this point. This is what gives its name to the village. 

Frescoed room

Frescoed room detail

This aroused my curiosity. It seems that the need for a baptistry was greater than the need for a church, which is why it was built first. The other place where I have seen this occurring is at the Duomo in Florence, where the baptistry was built a century or so before the main cathedral building. One couldn’t image this happening today - any suggestions as to the thinking behind this would be welcome in the comments!

The ceiling's decoration

The ceiling's decoration with Christ Enthroned among the Apostles

The frescoes are all line based, that is, they use line to describe form, rather than tonal variation, and are done with a sure and smoothly flowing hand, which indicates great skill, especially on this scale. Coloration tends to be applied as flat, ungraded tone. The donkey upon which Christ rides is done particularly gracefully, I thought.

The northern chamber, recently restored with Christ Enthroned among the Apostles, above the altar.

The post also includes a link to a visual device, here, that leads to a virtual tour of the more recently constructed north chamber, which has frescoes of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, the three young men in the fiery furnace, and the massacre of the Holy Innocents. Look out for the ornate and beautiful floor design, not remarked upon by the writer of the article.

The three young men in the fiery furnace

The Massacre of the Holy Innocents

The Massacre of the Holy Innocents

Another point that struck me is the contrast between the care given to the use of space under the arches of an aqueduct in Roman times, and the most common use for the space between such arches today, which are under viaducts. Today, in California, at least, these become tented villages for the homeless. The post also includes a link to a visual device, here, that leads to a virtual tour of the more recently constructed north chamber, which has frescoes of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, the three young men in the fiery furnace, and the massacre of the Holy Innocents. Look out for the ornate and beautiful floor design, not remarked upon by the writer of the article.

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