The Church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva (pictured right) has the distinction of hosting Galileo’s heresy trial in 1633 and is worthy of a visit for that reason alone! The church is located in the Piazza della Minerva and is open daily and is not far from the Piazza Navona – just a short walk to the east. As its name implies, it was believed to have been constructed over an ancient temple dedicated to the goddess, Minerva. However, this is erroneous as the church stands over an ancient temple dedicated to the Egyptian deity, Isis. Regardless, this church is one of the most important Dominican churches in Rome, one of the church’s minor basilicas, and is believed to be the only Gothic church in the city.
The church boasts the remains of Saint Catherine da Siena (except for her head which is in the Church of San Domenica, Siena) as well as those of the Renaissance artist, Fra Angelico, and Pope Paul IV and two Medici popes, Leo X and Clement VII. Also worth a visit is Michelangelo’s Christ the Redeemer, a marble statue located to the left of the main altar. The highlight of this church, though, from an artistic standpoint, is Filippino Lippi’s frescoes in the Carafa Chapel. Completed in 1493, the frescoes of St. Thomas are the most intriguing, depicting him confounding the heretics. It should be no surprise that this church, then, was chosen to be the location for Galileo’s trial.
Outside the church in the piazza is a sculpture of Gian Lorenzo Bernini — an elephant carrying an obelisk that serves as a symbol for the reign of Pope Alexander VII (pictured left). It is humorously known as Il Pulcino di Minerva (“Minerva’s chick”). The obelisk part of the sculpture is Egyptian, brought to Rome during the reign of Domitian and one of the shortest of the obelisks in Rome. The statue bears the inscription “a strong mind is needed to support a solid knowledge” – perhaps a warning to heretics who sought to challenge the church’s authority!
How to reach the church:
There’s no metro line nearby — the closest is either Colosseo or Fontana di Trevi/Barberini and walking. Several bus lines pass nearby: C3, 40, 46, 62, 63, 64, 70, 81, 87, 116, 119, 492, 628. I suggest walking through Rome to make the most of your trip.
For more information:
This web site has some excellent photographs of the church (interior and exterior). National Geographic’s city guide to Rome has an excellent description of the church (pp. 134-135, 3rd edition). Giancarlo Palmerio and Gabriella Villetti’s Storia edilizia di S. Maria sopra Minerva in Roma, 1275-1870 published by Viella in 1989 is an excellent resource on the history of the church. Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons both have photos and excellent summaries of the church.
*photos used here were listed as being
in the public domain at the time of publication