The basilica is
dedicated to the Virgin Mary and takes its name “Ara Coeli”, meaning
“Altar of Heaven”, from a legendary altar said to have been erected
on the site by the Emperor Augustus hundreds of years before the church was first
constructed. The legend can be traced to the middle ages in a guidebook for
visitors to Rome known as the Mirabilia
Urbis Romae which told a story where the Tiburtine Sibyl, who was an
ancient pagan priestess, prophesied the coming of Christ to Emperor Augustus,
telling of how a king would come from heaven in the flesh in order to judge the
world. According to the legend, after the prophecy, Augustus had a vision while
on Capitoline Hill where he saw a beautiful virgin holding a young boy in her
arms and heard a voice saying: “This is the altar of the son of God”.
The legend states that after the event, Augustus built an altar on Capitoline
Hill bearing the Latin inscription “Ara Primogeniti Dei” (“Altar
of the Firstborn of God”). Because Jesus was born in the Roman province of Judea while Augustus still reigned as
emperor the legend took hold. There is however no evidence that any of the
events as cited in the legend actually took place.
The first record of a
Christian church on the site dates to the sixth century AD. In the thirteenth
century the entire structure was renovated and expanded. The iconic steep
staircase of 124 steps, added in 1348, leads to the basilica’s main entrance.
Inside the basilica,
the visitor sees a typical early Christian basilica with a wide center aisle,
two side aisles and numerous side chapels. The aisles are divided by ancient
Roman columns, all of them different from each other and taken from various
ancient Roman monuments and structures. One of the columns, (the third on the
left after the entrance), bears a Latin inscription from the second or third
century AD of “A Cubiculo Augustorum” high up on its shaft. The
inscription translates to “From the Imperial Chamberlain of Augustus”.
An Imperial Chamberlain was an attendant to the emperor. He was responsible for
overseeing daily operations of the imperial palace, overeeing imperial servants
and responsible for the imperial bedroom and wardrobe. During the twelfth century, the word cubiculo (Latin for “Imperial
Chamberlain”) was mistranslated as bedroom which in Latin is cubiculum which led many to erroneously believe the
column was from Emperor Augustus’ bedroom.
Within the first
chapel on the right (known as the the Bufalini Chapel) are fifteenth century
frescoes by the famous Italian Renaissance painter Pinturicchio. They depict
the life of St. Bernardino of Siena,
an Italian priest and Franciscan missionary who was canonized in 1450.
At the end of the
center aisle is the main altar. On the front wall of the archway above the the main
altar are paintings at the upper left and right corners of the archway
commemorating the legend of the prophecy to Augsutus. The painting on the left corner
of the archway depicts the Tiburtine Sibyl and the painting on the right corner
depicts Emperor Augustus.
To the left of the
main altar is a freestanding circular chapel dedicated to St. Helena, the
mother of Emperor Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor of Rome. When Constantine became emperor, he gave his mother Helena access to the Roman treasury in order to locate
Christian sites in Jerusalem.
Between AD 326 and AD 328 Helen undertook the journey to Jerusalem. She was responsible for the
construction of the Church of the Nativity in Jerusalem, which was built over the site believed
to have been where Jesus of Nazareth was born. She was also responsible for the
construction of the Church of Eleona on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, believed to have been the site
where Jesus ascended into heaven. Some of her remains were transferred to the
basilica in the twelfth century and are held in an urn on the chapel’s altar.
Below the chapel’s altar is the altar known as the “Ara Coeli” (“Altar
of Heaven”) discovered in the seventeenth century AD. It was once believed
by pilgrims to Rome
to be the altar erected by Emperor Augustus after he received the prophecy and
vision however the altar actually dates back to the twelfth century AD and was
constructed in order to commemorate the legend. The inscription on the altar
“You ascend to the holy
church of the mother of light, the first of all of them founded in the city.
Know that the emperor at that time, Octavius erected this altar when the holy
offspring of heaven was revealed to him”.