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The Early Medieval Paintings and Other Decorated Surfaces

The completeness of the Medieval cycle of paintings and the existence of decorated surfaces which document the appearance of the room during pagan times, are elements which qualify Theodotus’ chapel as one of the most outstanding spaces of Santa Maria Antiqua.

Detail of the paintings attributed to the Domitian period A first decorative phase is traditionally attributed to the time the church was built under the reign of Domitian (81-96 A.D.).

It includes white plaster with remains of painted decorations, present in the higher portions of the walls and on the vault.

The decoration on the wall represents a fake architecture in red which, as indicated as extremely small colour residues, is probably the preparation for a painting on dry plaster.


Detail of the decoration on the higher portion of the walls


Starting from the higher portions of the walls and on the barrel vault, remains of a geometric decorative pattern, based on intertwined circular motifs, are visible.




Detail of the opus testaceum layer

The layer of opus testaceumThick horizontal brick work, fixing mortar for a decoration in opus sectileDecoration composed of thin, polychrome marble slabs which form an inlay work, is dated to a successive decoration belonging to the late Roman period.

The lower registers of this marble decoration were removed in the VIII century in order to make space for the cycle of paintings. Several clues however give the possibility of affirming that the remaining opus sectile did coexist with the early Medieval paintings. Its removal took place probably with the abandonment of the church.


Fragment of a marble slab located on the southern wall

During the early Medieval period, the adaptation of space to the new liturgic functions led to a number of structural modifications.

A marble slab fragment and holes for the insertion of beams testify the division of the room in order to create a space for the altar (naos) in the southern part of the chapel.




Detail of the painting carried out on a thin layer of plaster based on lime and hay

The painting is applied on a thin layer of plaster based on a mixture of lime and finely ground hay, the latter having left numerous traces on the surface.

This composition, which is affected by oriental influences, is used in most of the paintings throughout Santa Maria Antiqua.




Detail which illustrates the use of colours with a lime base


Another characteristic that the paintings in Santa Maria Antiqua have in common is the more or less extensive use of lime whitewash as a binder for colour.

In the paintings belonging to the chapel of Theodotus, the use of colours combined with whitewash is so generalized and characterized by the thickness of the applied paint (see photo) that we could talk about lime painting or half fresco.



Detail which illustrates the use of colours based on Egyptian Blue


The analysis of the blue pigment used for the Virgin’s dress in the frame which includes Theodotus and his family, has revealed a late use of Egyptian Blue, an artificial pigment who’s notion disappears during the middle ages.

Egyptian Blue has been used for the colobium
Sleeveless tunic or with short sleeves used by the early monks
 of the crucified Christ and other painting details.



Detail which illustrates the use of templates for the painting of faces

A technical peculiarity regarding the paintings in the chapel of Theodotus is the use of templates for the creation of faces, hands and feet.

For these parts, painted last, a first layer of lime whitewash was laid inside the template in which the shape to be replicated was cut out.

The painting would then be finished applying veils of colour on the lime preparation while it was still wet.