Origin of the Altar of God - Santa Maria in Aracoeli
Emperor Augustus and Santa Maria in Aracoeli
Our story goes back to the time of Emperor Augustus. As it unfurls, it appears Emperor Augustus got wind of a movement in the Senate to laud him as God.
This greatly upset the Emperor and he turned to the Tiburtine Sybil for a word. Whereupon, after three days of fasting, she prophesied the descent from the heavens of "the King of the ages."
"I see clear signs that justice will be done: soon the earth will be wet with sweat and from the sky will descend the King of the ages."
As she was imparting her prophetic message, the Emperor was doing all he could to try to discern the unclear prediction, when he had a vision of the Blessed Mother.
Before him stood the Virgin Mary on an Altar, radiant, bathed in a flood of blinding light illuminating Her and the Infant Jesus nestled in Her arms.
As he stood there, mesmerized, he heard a mysterious Voice from above say, "This is the Altar of the Son of God."
Upon hearing this, the Emperor fell to his knees, prostrating himself on the ground, in homage to the Heavenly Image.
He subsequently refused the title of King, which the populace were about to confer upon him. He immediately erected an Altar dedicated to the First-born Son of God and built a church over it, which was eventually enlarged. He called it The Altar of the Heavens or The Ara Coeli.
The unusual and miraculous aspect of this account is the fact that Caesar Augustus, emperor of Rome, ruled before the birth of Christ.
He was emperor from 27 b.c. to 14 a.d. How amazing is our God to have given us an apparition of Our Lady and the Child Jesus to a pagan emperor before she was even born?
So this Altar of the Heavens and the church built over it, which was dedicated to the First-Born Son of God, was all done before Jesus or Mary were born. You can call it amazing; you can call it fantastic; we like to call it Divine!
We see documentation of this in Rome's first guide book, from the Twelfth Century. Prior to this, the Church had issued an official booklet showing a copy of John Malalas' Eighth Century Universal Chronicles relating an even earlier Byzantine historian, Timoteus, from the Fifth - Sixth Century. From this, alone, it is highly plausible (and most likely) that a church dedicated to the Virgin existed on the Capitol hill, since before the fifth century, called St. Mary's on the Capitol. It was only after the twelfth century that it officially became The Aracoeli.
To further affirm this, if you look carefully you will find on one of the columns in the central nave of the church, an inscription which reads: "a cubiculo Augustorum" (or from the bedroom of Augustus). It would appear it comes from the Emperor's palace.
There is also an Altar in the church, which is believed to have been from the time of Emperor Augustus, whose stone tiles retell the legend surrounding the Ara Coeli.
At that Altar there is also an urn, which is believed to contain the remains of Saint Helena, Constantine's mother, who was responsible for the Shrines in the Holy Land and the finding of the True Cross.
To further confirm the legend, we have heard there are Sixteenth Century frescos in the main apse depicting the pagan Emperor and his Sybil, whose prophesy prompted the building of the Ara Coeli.
When we were last there, the area was covered with canvas and scaffolding, as it was going through a restoration.