Santa Maria dell’Orazione e Morte
Today I bring you a photo from one of my favorite churches. It’s probably one you’ve never heard of before and I’ve never actually been inside because it’s so rarely open. Santa Maria dell’Orazione e Morte is located on the via Giulia (right behind Palazzo Farnese) and is easily recognizable with its skull decorated facade. I’ve had people ask before why there are so much skull and skeleton imagery in Catholic churches here in Italy, and the answer is that death was all around these people during the times when these churches were built. Plague and famine were common and people were much more used to dealing with death than we are in this modern age.
This particular church was the home of a confraternity that helped provide burials for the impoverished and anonymous. Let’s remember that in the 16th century when this confraternity was created, it was these sorts of organizations that did charitable works. There was no sort of government intervention, but rather these lay communities tied to the Catholic church banded together to perform various charitable activities. Of course there was also a social aspect to the confraternity, and in cities like Venice, they would take on a larger social importance within society.
The facade of the church was reworked in the 18th century, but retains features that would be appropriate for an organization handling burials. Aside from the skulls, you’ll also find hourglasses with wings. This is a very common symbol to convey the message that one cannot escape the sands of time and that our souls at some point will eventually fly away.
The angle featured is of a skull atop a pilaster that flanks the left side of the doorway. You will also find marble plaques, probably from the original 16th century church, to either side with slots for donations. The one on the left asks for donations to help keep the lamps at the cemeteries lit, while the one on the right goes toward the burial fund. Ominously enough, the skeleton on the lefthand plaque holds a flag that reads Hodie mihi cras tibi (It is my lot today, yours to-morrow).
For some great shots inside and outside of the church check out Photographic Travels in Italy. Congrats to Steve for happening upon it while it was open!