The church you are visiting is called «Santa Maria above Minerva» because it is constructed upon the ancient Roman temple dedicated to Minerva, queen of wisdom and of peace in the pagan era.
The six splendid Corinthian columns and the entire façade are still intact after nearly 2025 years. The pilgrim climbs the steps to the entrance and is deeply moved. Even the lateral walls of the building are well preserved, but they are only visible from the outside.
From the year 295 BC, Assisi became part of the comune of Rome, the latter having been victorious over the Italian confederacy. In the year 88 BC, the city became a “Municipium romanum” (Roman municipality), with all the rights and regulations afforded to Rome.
During the reign of the emperor Augustus, the city of Assisi was transformed into a well organized residential and turistic centre (during the years 28-25 BC).
The grand Forum (a rectangle measuring 44 x 88 meters inside) was constructed; various temples were built, the city walls were completed, the baths and the (healing) springs of mineral waters were opened, and the theatre was constructed alongside the amphitheatre.
Among the many monuments constructed was the Temple of Minerva, which at that time dominated the Forum complex and even today, still dominates the “Piazza del Comune”, the heart of Assisi and a wonderful example of medieval architecture.
Situated in the town centre, as if set on a podium, the Temple of Minerva has stood for centuries as a witness to life in Assisi during both the imperial period and the gradual decline of the Roman empire.
With the ascendance of Christianity, the temple, for a long time, a centre for pagan cultism, the temple, witnessed the heroism of the first martyrs condemned in the Tribunal courts in front of its silent columns.
Some important dates of this new era, which paved the road for Christian Assisi are as follows: In the year 313 AD, the emperors Constantine and Licinius published an edict of tolerance towards Christianity. In 341, Constantine II and Costanzo prohibited paganism and pagan celebrations in the temple, both of which were punishable by death. In 380, under the emperor Theodosius, Christianity became the state religion. In 435, Theodosius II ordered the sign of the cross to be put everywhere.
The pagan cult was brought to an end and the Temple of Minerva remained abandoned and silent for over a century, its importance destroyed, owing to the changed political and religious conditions.
The precise date is not known, but probably in the second half of the sixth century, the Benedictine monks restored the temple and made use of it. The divided the cella into two floors, creating living rooms in the upper part and the church of “San Donato” in the lower part. Even the pronao was divided into two floors. It became a comfortable and secure home!
With the act of May 24, 1212, for one hundred years, with the option of renewal, the Benedictines leased the temple to the Comune of Assisi (which was created in 1198, but only truly thrived after the peace with Perugia in 1210). However, they kept the rooms of the upper floor of the pronao as a home for themselves.
The magistrates of the Comune transferred their offices into the rooms of the upper section of the cella of the temple (from the former headquarters, located in San Rufino). On February 23, 1215, the head of the Comune began to function from its new base, and remained in the temple until 1270.
The “sigillum” of the Assisi municipality bears the image of Minerva. That is why the Magistrates certified as authentic the stone coffin of Francis who died with the image of Minerva imprinted on his signature ring.
In the spring of 1270, the head of the Comune took up office in the “Palazzo del Capitano del popolo”, where he remained until 1300 when his duties came to an end.
It should be noted that in the time from 1200 to 1300 the pronao functioned as the Tribunal court and the little church of “San Donato” was used as the municipal jail at least until the beginning of the fifteenth century. One can see this when looking at the fresco by Giotto (which depicts windows with strong iron grillwork, etc.), which forms part of the pictoral history of Saint Francis located in the upper part of the Basilica.
In 1456, when no longer a jail, the church of “San Donato” was reopened. In the meantime, the Italian Renaissance culture had been growing and was a culture that celebrated the world’s classical arts (Greco-roman literature, sculpture, architecture, etc.).
In the years 1527-1530, the magistrates of Assisi, following requests and complaints by the citizens, ordered some urgent restoration projects to be undertaken. In 1539, Pope Paolo III, making a visit to Assisi, ordered the Temple of Minerva to be completely restored and dedicated to the Virgin Mary, queen of true wisdom. The temple then took the name of “Santa Maria sopra Minerva”.
Therefore, there is an interesting continuity between the dedication of the Temple of Minerva, «the goddess of pagan wisdom» and the dedication to the Virgin Mary, «the queen of Christian wisdom».
The four Corinthian columns, the cornices and the frontispiece of the altar are made of terracotta with a façade of stucco and embellished with gold. The other parts and the putti are made entirely of stucco.
In the middle of the frontispiece, a painting by Giorgetti depicts God the creator, encircled by angels in the act of embracing all of creation.
Over the painting, there was a Latin inscription (now preserved behind the altar): «This glorious temple, already dedicated to Minerva, the goddess of false wisdom (now consecrated) to the Mother of true wisdom».
On the cornice, in relationship with the Corinthian columns, there are symbolic statues of Purity and of Charity, as well as two very great angels. The other two smaller angels sit upon a small semi-circular cap, above which is the radiant monogram of the Virgin, between two small putti.
Halfway up, from column to column, flutter two putti of good workmanship that stand in relief on every side.
At the top, on the ceiling, in the rear, one can admire many putti in glorious form, carrying flowers in a lively and festive manner.
On May 8, 1758, the Third Regular Order, having built the new convent of San Antonio with an attached church, left the temple to the Congregation of the Oratory of “San Fillippo Neri”.
The Fillippines immediately constructed a large convent (actually the Bozzoni palace) and dismantled the little rooms that still burdened the upper part of the pronao.
Giorgetti’s altar was redesigned according to controversial opinion, inspired by the style of the era. The refectory, already in Romanesque style, was remade and designed like a sarcophagus, like the two lateral altars.
On the sides of the altars are two large medallions by Giorgetti (the birth of the Virgin and presentation to the temple and the Virgin’s annunciation and messenger angel) that were removed and replaced by two small ornamental choirs.
The two statues below, of San Rocco and San Sebastian, were replaced with plaster statues of St. Peter and St. Paul, with their symbols (keys and the papal tiara, the sword and book). Even the Virgin Mary with baby has been removed from the centre of the altar and has been replaced with a large painting by San Filippo Neri. The three statues were transferred to the Cathedral of San Rufino. Now, there is no trace of their evidence.
The inscription at the top of the main altar was replaced by the following: «To the very great and omnipotent God in honour of the Holy Virgin Mary, Mother of true wisdom and of San Filippo Neri».
On the vaulted ceiling (1760), there is a medallion with “San Filippo” in glory, supported by four angels made of golden stucco standing in relief; the allegory of the four cardinal virtues (justice and fortitude on the right, prudence and temperance on the left) are seated on clouds and encircled by small golden putti. They are temperas by F. Appiani.
Over the main altar (1760), there is a medallion with the three theological virtues (temperas by F. Appiani). On the opposite façade, over the organ, there is a medallion with musician angels (temperas by F. Appiani).
The two lateral altars were added in an essential composition. Two rose-colored columns, with golden capitals, are enclosed within triangular pilaster strips and are placed in an oblique line in respect with the ground surface. On this line, rests the cornice with many varied edges. Above it is a semi-circular scroll, surrounded on every side by angels of golden stucco. In the centre of the mirror, two small fluttering putti support the crown of glory. The architecture is of wood and painted to appear as marble.
The paintings in the lateral altars (1764): the passage of “Sant’Andrea Avellino”, painted by A. M. Garbi (at right); the passage of “San Giuseppe” painted by the Austrian Martino Knoller (at left).
By design of the Perugian Pietro Carattoli, there was constructed the large sacristy (1658 1659). In the sacristy, we can admire: The Crucifixion (painting by F. Appiani); the messenger angel and Annunciation (by G. Martelli); “San Francesco di Sales”, “San Nicola di Bari”, “San Liborio”, The Nativity, The Announcement to the Shepherds, the Derision of Christ (by Bassano); “San Girolamo penitente” (G. Giorgetti); the descent of the Holy Spirit (Sermei, 1630); and the Vision of “San Filippo” (B. Orsini).
For the first time, there was installed a pipe organ (renewed in 1957 by the Ruffatti firm, and restored in 1997 by the Valentini firm).
The actual space of the church measures 11.55 meters in width and 20.20 meters in length (that is 1.80 meters more narrow and 5.45 meters longer than the ancient cella of the original temple).
With the Napoleonic suppression of 1810, the Filippines had to abandon the Temple of Minerva, which passed to secular clergy.
In 1896, at the centre of the main altar, the painting by San Filippo was replaced by the statue of Madonna of Lourdes, a gift from France to the city of Assisi.
With the notarised deed dated April 14, 1918, the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, after a time of 160 years was once again entrusted to the Friars of the Third Regular Order of St. Francis, who still lovingly and faithfully watch over it today.
From 1989-1995, the following important restoration and renewal projects have been carried out: the cleaning of columns and of the roman façade, cleaning of the main altar, repainting of the interior, reflooring, electrical and microphonic installation, heating installation, remodelling of the liturgical spaces according to the new likings.
The large central altar symbolizes Christ, around which the Christian community congregates.