In the Forum Romanum, the fifth-century church Santa Maria Antiqua houses the only extant example in Rome of the Maria Regina wearing the loros, a significant garment that distinguished imperial figures. Byzantine images of consuls and emperors wearing the loros abound, suggesting that the Maria Regina’s regalia in Santa Maria Antiqua was a politically-charged statement. There are multiple interpretations as to why this seemingly unprecedented depiction of the Virgin Mary in stately attire was commissioned in Rome.
As the Emperor and Empress resided in Constantinople when this fresco was painted in the mid-sixth century, the prevailing argument has been that the image represents an imperial presence in Rome in the absence of the actual ruler, especially as the fresco is painted next to the entrance to the imperial palace on the Palatine Hill. More recent suggestions propose that the image developed from Byzantine iconography and was painted when Justinian’s two generals, Belisarios and Narses, visited Rome to restore order. Rationale for this is the encaustic icon of Maria Regina without the loros in Santa Maria in Trastevere produced a century or two later. The absence of the loros there, then, might suggest that the Roman iconography needed to be distinct from the imperial trend to distance Rome from Constantinople, thereby declaring its allegiance to the pope alone.
Further Reading: Bissera V. Pentcheva, Icons and Power, The Mother of God in Byzantium (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006).
Maria Regina, Santa Maria Antiqua, Rome, mid-sixth century, fresco.
Santa Maria della Clemenza, Santa Maria in Trastevere, Rome, late sixth-eighth centuries, encaustic.
Nave View with Maria Regina in the right of the apse, Santa Maria Antiqua, Rome, mid-sixth century.
Detail, Consular diptych of Areobindus.
Emperor and Empress Nicephorus III and Maria of Alania, (1074-81), Paris, BnF, MS Coislin 79, fol. 2.