What is Santa Maria Degli Angeli?
Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri, or The Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels and of the Martyrs in English, is a 16th-century church that incorporates the remains of the 4th-century Baths of Diocletian.
Santa Maria Degli Angeli History
Built inside the remains of the monumental 4th-century Baths of Diocletian, this idiosyncratic and impressive church is often used for grand state funerals. In the mid-16th century, swept up in the fervour of the Counter-Reformation, Pope Pius IV decided that the great central hall of the pagan baths ought to become a Catholic place of worship. Legend held that as many as 40,000 Christians had laboured to erect these baths, the largest in imperial Rome, and so the Pope believed it was fitting to construct an edifice to commemorate their toil. Pius commissioned the celebrated sculptor and architect Michelangelo to design the structure, converting the tepidarium (or warm room) of the ancient baths into the church. Unfortunately, little remains of his original design since the building was renovated in the 18th century, though it’s assumed his desire was to preserve, as much as possible, the ancient building that predated the church.
The underwhelming, ruined façade of the basilica sharply contrasts the stunning interior. In the vestibule (the first room as you enter the church), look up at the colourful stained-glass dome at the centre of the coffered ceiling. This was created by contemporary Italian-American artist Narcissus Quagliata, and features a series of optical lenses that show ‘the movement and alignment of the celestial bodies’, as well as gilded spherical steel anchors that hold the glass in place.
Once you’ve passed through the vestibule, you can admire the vast interior embellished with towering monolithic columns (eight of which were recycled from the ancient baths), vaulted ceilings, impressive marble walls and floors, sumptuous frescoes, and arresting paintings. You might also notice that the shape of the church itself is rather unusual. In the mid-18th century, late Baroque architect Luigi Vanvitelli was instructed by the Carthusian fathers (whose religious order was relocated to a monastery built in the ruins of the ancient baths) to alter the orientation of the church. The nave, or the main part of the church where the congregation sits, now forms two colossal transepts, the wings of the building that project out from the central passageway and form the arms of a cross shape.
As you explore the church, you’ll come across a bronze Meridian Line set into the marble floor, and may even see the ray of sunlight that shines through a hole in the church’s wall and follows the line along the ground. In the early 18th century, Pope Clement XI commissioned Italian scientist Francesco Bianchini to construct the mechanism in order to determine the accuracy of the Gregorian Calendar and calculate the length of the year.
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