A letter from 1965 alerted a curious historian to the existence of an interesting painting that was hidden in one of Rome’s many churches. Her discovery of the medieval fresco was a huge accomplishment. It reveals an impressive depiction of religious icons, although some of the vibrant painting remains concealed.
Searching for a Mysterious Painting
According to ABC, art historian Claudia Viggiani started her search for the painting when she came across a letter to the Superintendent of the Lazio region mentioning an excellently preserved fresco in a church that had been restored in 1216, 1582, and 1750.
One of the only other details that was available to Viggiani was that the church was dedicated to the saints Alexius (aka Alexis of Rome and Alexis of Edessa) and Boniface. Oddly that was enough information for the historian.
There is a very old church that was founded between the third and fourth centuries that honors both saints and has documented restoration works that fit all three dates. It is located on the famous Aventine Hill and now known as the Basilica dei Santi Bonifacio ed Alessio (Saint Boniface and Alexius basilica).
A Remarkable Medieval Fresco
Although Viggiani had identified the location for the fresco, she still had another task ahead of her. A wall had been placed over part of the painting during restoration works. This helped preserve the artwork, but part of the wall still hides a section of the fresco today.
Even though the fresco is at least 900 years old – it has been dated to the 12th century – its colors still shine brilliantly. An intense black background provides a contrast to the red clothing and yellow halos seen on the two men at the top of the fresco. The lower section presents an image of an angel.
Viggiani described the significance of the medieval fresco and explained who the two key figures are to ANSA, “This is absolutely an exceptional find. Especially for the very rare iconography, which shows two figures that can be recognised in the part of the painting at the moment visible, most likely Saint Alexis and Christ the Pilgrim.”
Who was Saint Alexis?
E A Greene writes that Saint Alexis is the patron saint of pilgrims and beggars. But Alexis started life as the son of a wealthy Roman Christian named Euphemian (or Euphemianus). His parents wanted Alexis to marry well, but he had other plans – Alexis had dedicated himself to God. However, he followed his parents’ wishes and was married.
After the big wedding celebration, Alexis bid his new wife farewell and set off to follow his holy goals. He lived in Syria for a time as a beggar who shared his alms with the other poor people and generally did enough helpful actions that people began to regard him as a saint (other versions say he gained fame when the Virgin Mary revealed him as a Man of God.)
Either way, Alexis found himself going back to Rome and eventually his parents’ doorstep. After the years and hardships he endured while away, no one recognized him, but his parents allowed him to live under their stairs. His true identity wasn’t revealed until they found a letter on his dead chest describing his story.
An Exceptional Medieval Fresco with More to Reveal
The fresco’s restorer, Susanna Sarmati, praised the polychrome frame around the painting as “exceptionally sophisticated” and said that in comparison to other medieval frescoes in Rome, “their state of conservation despite restoration, is mediocre. This one, however, which was never touched is almost perfect.”
Will we ever see the part of the fresco that is still hidden away?
Viggiani believes so, “We owe this to the Romans,” she told ANSA, “and there are more surprises awaiting us.” Even with its long history and years of excavations, discoveries such as the medieval fresco remind us that there are still mysteries and hidden relics tucked away in the Eternal City.