Trade, laws and healing cults in the early middle ages

S. Maria Antiqua, Theodotus Chapel

S. Maria Antiqua, Theodotus Chapel. Photo: E Rubery

Director Christopher Smith looks back on an exciting series of events on the early middle ages.

We have been immensely lucky to have had an outstanding run of events on the early middle ages at the BSR.  Each year the Union of the foreign academies at Rome holds a lecture, and this year we were delighted not only to have the conference here, but also to welcome back former director Richard Hodges, currently President of the American University at Rome.  Richard’s lecture on Charlemagne without Mohammed was a tour de force, revisiting his work with another BSR Director, the much missed David Whitehouse, in the light of recent archaeological evidence from northern Europe all the way to China.  Inevitably we returned at the end to Richard’s hugely important dig at San Vincenzo al Volturno.

Shortly afterwards, we welcomed Michael Crawford to give the second lecture organised by the BSR and the Institute of Classical Studies.  In a typically learned lecture, Michael surveyed evidence for knowledge and use of the Digest of Justinian in the early medieval period, and found far more evidence than has recently been thought.  The detailed manuscript work underpinning this lecture leads to far-ranging revisions of our understanding of early medieval intellectual life.

S. Maria Antiqua, left aisle. Photo: E Rubery

This fortnight of events culminated in a three day conference on S. Maria Antiqua, the extraordinarily important and beautiful church unearthed early in the 20th century in the forum.  The first major work on the church was that by the BSR’s first Director Gordon Rushforth, whose life and work was discussed at the outset of the conference, with a characteristically brilliant account of the English community in Rome in the early years of the 20th century by Peter Wiseman opening the proceedings.

S. Maria Antiqua has recently been the subject of a major restoration by the Superintendency of Rome and the World Monuments Fund, and we were delighted not only to have the WMF represented by Lisa Ackerman, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, but also to have been able to work closely with the superintendency, who provided a full and fascinating account of their painstaking work, followed by a guided tour of the church.  The conference proceeded to look at the history and nature of the church.  The importance of healing saints from the east in the foundation, the centrality of the church in the Councils of the Church, its relationship with the papacy, and the foundation of the nearby Oratory of the Forty Martyrs, held an international audience gripped for three full days, and on Saturday morning many participants visited the churches of Santa Passera, with its rarely seen ninth century frescoes, and the stunning basilica of Santa Sabina.

SMA Henry Hurst

Photo: E Rubery

In the middle of the conference, participants all boarded a bus to travel to hear the distinguished Princeton professor Peter Brown give a brilliant Patricia H. Labalme Friends of the American Academy Library Lecture on Constantine, Eusebius of Caesarea and the Future of Christianity.  Peter was Rivoira Scholar at the BSR in 1958 and graciously chaired part of the S. Maria Antiqua conference.

This wonderful conference gathered almost all the experts in the world on this church and its history, and by embracing all aspects of the necessary disciplines, history, art history, archaeology, and conservation science, was similar to the hugely successful BSR conference on Old Saint Peter’s in 2010, the publication of which was launched at the conference (see our website for publication details).

Eileen Rubery on site at S. Passera with conference guests

Eileen Rubery on site at S. Passera with conference guests. Photo: C Smith

We are immensely grateful to Eileen Rubery for her commitment to this project and her tireless organization of the event; to our friends and colleagues at the superintendency of Rome for their unstinting support and the wonderful tour they gave of S. Maria Antiqua, which they have so brilliantly restored with the help of the WMF; to Carleton University for generous financial support and to John Osborne for his advice and help; and to all the participants at a conference which is sure to produce a landmark publication. Gordon Rushforth would surely have been proud to see the BSR sustaining his own fascination with the early medieval period.

By Christopher Smith (BSR Director)