According to the great art critic and historian Federico Zeri, the Sancta Sanctorum cycle in Rome is one of “the greatest artistic discoveries of the 1900s”. In 1995, during a public meeting, he declared, “I doubt there will ever be another revelation of this magnitude, as no other monument exists, in Rome or elsewhere, that is as important as this one and yet waits to be restored.”
The Santa Sanctorum – officially the Church of Sain Lawrence in Palatio ad Sancta Sanctorum, near the Basilica of Saint John Lateran – was the personal chapel of the early Popes, named after a Latin expression that literally means “holy things among holy things”.
In the 16th century it was incorporated in the building that also includes the Holy Stairs (the twenty-eight steps climbed by Jesus as he went to the praetorium in Jerusalem for his trial); it used to hold some of the most important relics in Christian history, and still features the Acheiropoieta (icon said to have been made without hands, miraculously) of Christ the Savior.
The inscription above the altar reads, ‘Non est in toto sanctior orbe locus’ (“There is no holier place in the world than this”).
The Sancta Sanctorum frescoes were commissioned by pope Nicholas III and painted between 1278 and 1380; Zeri and many of his colleagues agree that they mark the return of realism in painting, after centuries dominated by the few, fixed models of Byzantine art: “New elements such as the inclusion of flaws in the representation of individuals, the research of three-dimensionality, the importance given to the relation between a body and its surrounding environment – all of which will become evident with Giotto a few decades later – are indeed already present in these Roman works.”
While commenting the cycle, Zeri also noticed the gilded capitals of two porphyry stone columns in the lower section of the building: “All capitals in fact used to be golden: they were covered with paint containing gold. Aside from the Sancta Sanctorum, the only other building that I know of in which they have remained golden is the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, commissioned by Constantine and re-built by Justinian.”
Red porphyry stone and gold: the colors of Rome.