Basilica of Santa Maria in Ara Coeli

Rome, Italy

The Basilica of St. Mary of the Altar of Heaven (Basilica di Santa Maria in Ara coeli al Campidoglio) is a titular basilica located on the highest summit of the Campidoglio. The shrine is known for housing relics belonging to Saint Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine and various minor relics from the Holy Sepulchre.

The foundation of the church was laid on the site of a Byzantine abbey mentioned in 574. Many buildings were built around the first church; in the upper part they gave rise to a cloister, while on the slopes of the hill a little quarter and a market grew up. Taken over by the papacy by the 9th century, the church was given first to the Benedictines, then, by papal bull to the Franciscans in 1249-1250; under the Franciscans it received its Romanesque-Gothic aspect. The arches that divide the nave from the aisles are supported on columns, no two precisely alike, scavenged from Roman ruins. During the Middle Ages, this church became the centre of the religious and civil life of the city. in particular during the republican experience of the 14th century, when Cola di Rienzo inaugurated the monumental stairway of 124 steps in front of the church, designed in 1348 by Simone Andreozzi, on the occasion of the Black Death.

The original unfinished façade has lost the mosaics and subsequent frescoes that originally decorated it, save a mosaic in the tympanum of the main door, one of three doors that are later additions. The Gothic window is the main detail that tourists can see from the bottom of the stairs, but it is the sole truly Gothic detail of the church.

The church is built as a nave and two aisles that are divided by Roman columns, all different, taken from diverse antique monuments. Among its numerous treasures are Pinturicchio's 15th-century frescoes depicting the life of Saint Bernardino of Siena in the Bufalini Chapel. Other features are the wooden ceiling, the inlaid cosmatesque floor, a Transfiguration painted on wood, the tombstone of Giovanni Crivelli by Donatello and the tomb of Cecchino dei Bracci, designed by his friend Michelangelo.

The relics of Saint Helena, mother of Constantine the Great are housed at Santa Maria in Aracoeli, as are the remains of Saint Juniper, one of the original followers of Saint Francis of Assisi. Pope Honorius IV and Queen Catherine of Bosnia are also buried in the church. The tablet with the monogram of Jesus that Saint Bernardino of Siena used to promote devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus is kept in Aracoeli.

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