Santa Maria sopra Minerva

The Basilica of Saint Mary Above Minerva (Latin: Basilica Sanctae Mariae supra Minervam, Italian: Basilica di Santa Maria sopra Minerva) is a titular minor basilica and one of the most important churches of the Roman Catholic Dominican order in Rome, Italy. The church, located in the Piazza della Minerva in the Campus Martius region, is considered the only Gothic church in Rome. It houses the tombs of the St. Catherine of Siena and the Dominican painter Fra Angelico (Blessed John of Fiesole). The father of modern astronomy Galileo Galilei, after being tried for heresy in the adjoining monastery, abjured his scientific theses in the church on the 22nd of June 1633.

The basilica gets its name because, like many early Christian basilicas, it was built directly over (sopra) the foundations of a temple dedicated to the Egyptian goddess Isis, but erroneously ascribed to the Greco-Roman goddess Minerva. Behind a self-effacing facade, its arched vaulting is painted with brilliant red ribbing, and blue with gilded stars, a 19th century restoration in the Gothic taste. The basilica is located on the small piazza Minerva close to the Pantheon, in the rione Pigna.

The present Cardinal Priest of the Titulus Sanctae Mariae supra Minervam has been Cormac Murphy-O'Connor since 2001.


In the area surrounding the basilica and the former convent buildings, there were three temples in Roman times: the Minervium, built by Gnaeus Pompey in honour of the goddess Minerva about 50 B.C., referred to as Delubrum Minervae, the Iseum dedicated to Isis, and the Serapeum dedicated to Serapis. Details of the temple to Minerva are not known but recent investigations indicate that a small round Minervium once stood a little further to east on the Piazzo of the Collegio Romano. In 1665 an Egyptian obelisk was found, buried in the garden of the Dominican cloister adjacent to the church. Several other small obelisks were found at different times near the church, known as the Obelisci Isei Campensis, which were probably brought to Rome during the first century and grouped in pairs, with others, at the entrances of the temple of Isis.

There are other Roman survivals in the crypt. The ruined temple is likely to have lasted until the reign of Pope Zachary (741-752), who finally Christianized the site, offering it to Eastern monks. The structure he commissioned has disappeared. In 1255 Pope Alexander IV established a community of converted women there who were later transferred to San Pancrazio thereby allowing the Dominican Friars to obtain the church in 1275. The Dominican Friars made the church and adjoining monastery their headquarters before later establishing it in Santa Sabina. The Dominican Order still administers the area today.

The Dominicans began building the present gothic church in 1280, modeling it on their restored church in Florence, the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, following plans seemingly drawn up by two talented Dominican friars, Fra Sisto Fiorentino and Fra Ristoro da Campi, during the pontificate of Nicholas III. With the help of funds contributed by Boniface VIII, this first Gothic church in Rome was completed in 1370. It was renovated by Carlo Maderno and others, given a Baroque facade, then restored in the 19th century to its present neo-medieval state. The gates are from the 15th century.

The sacristy was the seat of two conclaves. The first, held in the March 1431, elected Pope Eugene IV, the second, in March 1447, Pope Nicholas V.

After the condemnation his scientific theses, Galileo Galilei pronounced the famous abjuration in the church on the 22 June 1633.

The church was elevated to the rank of minor basilica and the first titular was appointed in 1556. The current Cardinal Priest of the Titulus S. Mariae supra Minervam is English Cormac Murphy-O'Connor.



At the end of the 16th Century, Carlo Maderno gave the church a Baroque facade, then restored in the 19th century to its present neo-medieval state. Another significant feature on the facade are marks which date back to the 16th and 17th centuries which indicate that various floods of the Tiber rose to 65 feet (20 m).

Minerva's Pulcino

In front of the church there is one of the most curious monuments of Rome, the so-called Pulcino della Minerva. It is a statue designed by the Baroque sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini (and carried out by his pupil Ercole Ferrata in 1667) of an elephant as the supporting base for the Egyptian obelisk found in the Dominicans' garden. It is the shortest of the eleven Egyptian obelisks in Rome and is said to have been one of two obelisks moved from Sais, where they were built during the 589 BC-570 BC reign of the pharaoh Apries, from the Twenty-sixth dynasty of Egypt. The two obelisks were brought to Rome by Diocletian, during his reign as emperor from 284 to 305, for placement at the Temple of Isis which stood nearby. The Latin inscription on the base, chosen by the pope who commissioned the sculpture to support the obelisk found on the site, Alexander VII, is said to represent that "...a strong mind is needed to support a solid knowledge".

The inspiration for the unusual composition came from Hypnerotomachia Poliphili ("Poliphilo's Dream of the Strife of Love"), an unusual 15th century novel probably by Francesco Colonna. The novel's main character meets an elephant made of stone carrying an obelisk, and the accompanying woodcut illustration in the book is quite similar to Bernini's design for the base for the obelisk. The curious placement of the obelisk through the body of the elephant is identical.

The sturdy appearance of the structure earned it the popular nickname of "Porcino" ("Piggy") for a while. The name for the structure eventually changed to Pulcino, the Italian for a small or little "chick". This may have been a reference to the comparatively short height of the obelisk or, an obscure reference to the major charity of the Dominicans to assist young women needing dowries, who made a procession in the courtyard every year. The latter were once depicted in a local painting as three tiny figures with the Virgin Mary presenting purses to them.


The nave with its pointed arches is very Gothic in style, making this church unique in Rome. This impression was partially altered by Carlo Maderno, who added later Baroque elements to the 13th century nave. The stained glass windows are mainly from the 19th century. Although built in Gothic style, the best of its works of art are Renaissance.

Carafa Chapel

The Carafa Chapel, with late 15th-century frescoes (1488–1493) by Filippino Lippi, was commissioned by Cardinal Oliviero Carafa in honour of Saint Thomas Aquinas. There are two Marian scenes, the Annunciation and the Assumption; over the altar is his St Thomas presenting Cardinal Carafa to the Blessed Virgin, and on the right-hand wall his Glory of St Thomas. It was inaugurated in 1493, and is also known as the Chapel of St Thomas Aquinas. The relics of St Thomas Aquinas were kept in this chapel until 1511, when they were moved to Naples. Designed by Pirro Ligorio in 1559, the tomb of Gian Pietro Carafa, who became Pope Paul IV in 1555, is also in the chapel.

Cappella Capranica

The chapel is also known as the Chapel of the Rosary. The stucco ceiling was made in 1573 by Marcello Venusti. The chapel contains the tomb of Cardinal Domenico Capranica by Andrea Bregno.

Michelangelo's Cristo della Minerva

The Cristo della Minerva, also known as Christ the Redeemer or Christ Carrying the Cross, is a marble sculpture by Michelangelo Buonarroti, finished in 1521, located to the left of the main altar.

Cappella Aldobrandini

The Aldobrandini chapel was designed by Giacomo della Porta but it is Carlo Maderno that completed della Porta's project (after 1602). It was consecrated in 1611. The canvas depicting the Institution of the Eucharist and dated from 1594 is by Federico Fiori. The monument to the parents of Pope Clement VIII, Salvestro Aldobrandini and Luisa Dati, is by Giacomo della Porta. The first Blessed Sacrament Confraternity to be approved by the Holy See was established in this chapel, with St. Ignatius of Loyola as one of its earliest members.

Cappella Raymond of Penyafort

The chapel dedicated to Raymond of Penyafort houses the tomb of Cardinal Juan Diego de Coca, by Andrea Bregno. The ceiling fresco Jesus Christ as a Judge, between two angels is by Melozzo da Forlì.

Other major artworks

  • Annunciation (1485), by Antoniazzo Romano - shows Cardinal Juan de Torquemada OP presenting girls who received a dowry by his Guild of the Annunciation to the Virgin. The cardinal is buried nearby.
  • The tombs of the Popes Leo X and Clement VII by Antonio da Sangallo the Younger.
  • Tomb of Urban VII
  • Tomb of Fra Angelico, by Isaia da Pisa (1455)
  • Tomb of Guillaume Durand the Elder, bishop on Mende, signed by Giovanni di Cosma (1296)
  • Memorial to Maria Raggi, by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1643)
  • Tomb of Francesco Tornabuoni (1480), one of the best works by Mino da Fiesole


Saint Catherine of Siena is buried here (except her head, which is in the Basilica of San Domenico in Siena). Beyond the sacristy, the room where she died in 1380 was reconstructed here by Antonio Barberini in 1637. This room is the first transplanted interior, and the progenitor of familiar 19th and 20th century museum "period rooms." The frescoes by Antoniazzo Romano that decorated the original walls, however, are now lost.

The famous early Renaissance painter Fra Angelico died in the adjoining convent, and is buried here also, as is Pope Paul IV and the Medici popes Leo X and Clement VII.

Before the construction of San Giovanni dei Fiorentini, the Minerva was the church of the Florentine nation, and therefore it houses numerous tombs of prelates, nobles and citizens coming from that Tuscan city. Curiously, Diotisalvi Neroni, a refugee who had taken part in the plot against Piero de' Medici, was buried here in 1482, and was later joined by other members of the family. Also buried here are Pope Urban VII, Latino Malabranca Orsini, Michel Mazarin (Archbishop of Aix), brother of Cardinal Jules Mazarin.

List of cardinal-priests from Santa Maria sopra Minerva

Other churches with this name

In Assisi, another church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva was built in the 16th century within the surviving cella of a late Republican temple of Minerva. Its Corinthian portico still stands.


  • Grundmann, Stefan; Fürst, Ulrich (1998), The Architecture of Rome: an architectural history in 400 individual presentations, Stuttgart: Ed. Axel Menges, ISBN 3930698609, 

  • Masetti, Pio Tommaso (1855) (in Italian), Memorie istoriche della chiesa di S. Maria sopra Minerva e de' suoi moderni restauri, Rome: Tip. di B. Morini, OCLC 24239739, 

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