The Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is one of the four greater basilicas of Rome and it has two facades. One of them is located in Piazza Esquilino. One of the facades has twin domes. The rear facade faces the lovely Marian Column and has a massive bell-tower.
According to legend, on the night of August 5, 356 the Madonna appeared in a dream to a nobleman and the Pope (cannonized Saint Liberius). She asked them to build a sanctuary dedicated to her on the summit of Esquiline Hill. The dream foretold of a blizzard that miraculously occurred on August 5, 352. According to this legend, on the morning of August 5th, 358, the Esquiline Hill in Rome was completely covered in snow. In an apparition, the Virgin promised pope Liberius that this would happen.
Ever since the year 358, every August 5th is celebrated with a Mass and the traditional “snowfall” made from white rose petals. The liturgical feast of the Dedication of the Basilica of St. Mary Major is celebrated each year on the august 5th to commemorate the miraculous snowfall. At the conclusion of the Mass, the snow of white rose petals falls from the dome of the Chapel of Our Lady.
There are beautiful mosaics representing the “Miracle of St. Mary of the Snow” in the portico. A precious (bronze, marble and lapis-lazuli) relief by Stefano Maderno in Cappella Paolina portrays the pope drawing the plan of S. Maria Maggiore on the snow which had fallen on the top of the Esquiline hill. Although snow usually doesn’t occur in Rome in August, hail-storms are not unlikely to occur. The miraculous “Legend of the Snow” is re-enacted every year at the Basilica on August 5th to commemorate the feast day of Our Lady of the Snow as white rose petals fall from the dome of the basilica.
Here’s a virtual tour of the basilica http://www.vatican.va/various/basiliche/sm_maggiore/vr_tour/index-it.html
Under the altar is a crypt housing the remains of St. Matthais, who was the Apostle that was chosen to replace the vacancy left by Judas Iscariot. In front of the confessio that houses part of Christ’s manger is a kneeling statue of Pope Pius IX. The tombs of Popes Pius V, Sixtus V, Paul V, Cardinal Rodriquez (1299) and Clement VIII are in this basilica. The 1740 Baldacchino was built by Ferdinando Fuga.
The church has had many names over the years: Santa Maria della Neve (English: St. Mary of the Snow), then Santa Maria Liberiana after Pope Liberius. After the basilica obtained a relic of the Holy Crib it was called Santa Maria Del Presepe (St. Mary of the Crib). It was finally named Santa Maria Maggiore (St. Mary Major) because it is the largest of the 26 churches in Rome dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
The church has a wide central nave separated by 40 columns; 36 are made from bianco greco marble and four are granite columns. There are mosaics on each side of the nave from 430-431 during the papacy of Sixtus III. Above the mosaics and between the windows, there are a series of frescoes from 1593 representing scenes from the life of the Virgin. The gilded gold coffered ceiling was begun by Giuliano da Sangallo in the middle of the 14oos.
The Marian column that graces the front of the basilica is crowned with a bronze statue of the Virgin known as the Salus Populi Romani (The Salvation of the Roman People). It is from Constantine’s Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine and was erected in 1614 according to the design by Carlo Maderno. It has a fountain at the base with eagles and dragons. The column was erected as a token of gratitude for the miraculous remission of the plague during the Baroque era.
As a papal basilica, Santa Maria Maggiore is often used by the pope when he presides over the annual Feast of the Assumption of Mary on August 15th each year.
Pope Paul V put Carlo Maderno in charge of relocating a column in front of the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore; the surviving 46 foot high column of Basilica di Massenzio. At the time this building was known as Tempio della Pace and in the long inscription the pope explained that the column was dedicated to the Virgin Mary because ” ex cuius visceribus princeps verae pacis genitus est donum dedit” (the Prince who gives true peace came from her womb). For this reason the column is also known as Colonna della Pace. The column and the small fountain in front of it are decorated with the eagles and dragons of the pope.
The construction of Santa Maria Maggiore started in 420 under Pope Celestine I but the majority of the basilica was built under Pope Sixtus III (432-440) after the Council of Ephesus. The inscription on the triumphal arch reads: “Sixtus Episcopus plebi Dei” (Sixtus the bishop to the people of God). Pope Sixtus III built the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore on the summit of Esquiline Hill.
The travertine facade is flanked by twin buildings with five entrance doors into the Basilica. The one on the left is the Holy Door.
The Holy Door (Porta Santa) is opened only when a Holy Year is announced. The doors to the left of the Holy Door lead to the loggia with the mosaic decorations of the old facade.
Here’s a virtual tour of the Loggia http://www.vatican.va/various/basiliche/sm_maggiore/vr_tour/Media/VR/St_Mary_Loggia/index.html
Arrangements must be made in advance to view the georgeous mosaics by Filippo Rusuti that were created toward the end of the 13th century.
In the Borghese Chapel, the basilica currently houses the oldest Marian image in Rome called the Salus Populi Romani (Salvation of the Roman People ). For centuries, the people of Rome have prayed to this icon in times of famine, war and national crisis.
It was painted by Saint Luke the Evangelist using the wooden table of the Holy Family in Nazareth. It is currently enshrined in the Santa Borghese Chapel of the basilica surrounded by five gilded bronze angels designed by Camillo Mariani. Here’s a virtual tour of the Borghese Chapel with the treasured icon http://www.vatican.va/various/basiliche/sm_maggiore/vr_tour/Media/VR/St_Mary_Borghese_Chapel/index.html .
The icon was placed in the chapel in 1613. The crowns were added to the icon by Pius XII in 1953. Radiocarbon dating establishes the age of the icon to be approximately 2,000 years old.
After the Crucifixion, Christ’s mother ”Our Lady” moved to the home of St. John. She took a few of her personal belongings with her including a table built by the Redeemer in the workshop of St. Joseph. When the residents of Jerusalem asked St. Luke to paint a portrait of the Mother of God, he did it on top of this table. St. Luke listened carefully as the Mother of Jesus spoke of the life of her son, facts which the Evangelist later recorded in his Gospel. Legend also tells us that the painting remained in and around Jerusalem until it was discovered by St. Helena in the fourth century. Together with other sacred relics, the painting was transported to Constantinople where her son, Emperor Constantine the Great, erected a church for its enthronement.
The relief above the altar in the Borghese Chapel depicts Pope Liberius marking off the dimensions of his basilica in the newly-fallen snow. The relief was made by Stefano Maderno in 1612.
The basilica is loaded with coveted mosaics; there are 36 panels in the nave and the mosaics of the triumphal arch date back to the 5th century. The “Coronation of the Virgin” mosaics in the apse were finished in 1295 and are signed by the Franciscan friar Jacopo Torriti. The coveted mosaics depict scenes of the Virgin and Christ, as well as scenes from the Old Testament and Egyptians Drowning in the Red Sea.
The lovely rear facade of the basilica was designed by Carl Rainaldi (1673) and it reflects Baroque architecture. Santa Maria Maggiore is the only Roman basilica that retained the core of its original structure despite several additional construction projects and damage from the earthquake of 1348.
When the Avignon papacy formally ended and the Papacy returned to Rome, the Basilica became a temporary Palace of the Popes due to the deterioration of the Lateran Palace. The papal residence was later moved to the Palace of the Vatican in what is now Vatican City.
The basilica houses the tombs of many popes. The Capella Sistina was built for Pope Sixtus V and houses his tomb. The altar in the Chapel’s center has a beautiful ciborium from 1590 composed of four bronze angels holding a tempietto. Pope Paul V is buried in the Borghese Chapel with the “Salus Populi Romani” icon of the Virgin.
In front of the main altar there is a beautiful statue of Pope Pius IX by Ignazio Iacometi. The pope is kneeling in contemplative prayer while gazing at the relic of Christ’s manger from Bethlehem.
The relic of Christ’s manger is located in front of the main altar in the confession in a gold and silver reliquary designed by Valadier in 1802. The relic came to Rome when Saint Jerome’s body was brought to the church from Bethlehem. The relic is in front of Pius IX kneeling in Prayer.
The canopied main papal altar resembles Bernini’s Baldachinno in Saint Peter’s Basilica. It was designed by Fuga who used four porphyry columns. The columns are encircled with bronze palm branches moving in an upward direction that were added by Giuseppe Valadier in 1823. The Corinthian capitals with Pope Benedict XIV’s coat of arms on the base of the columns.
Here’s a virtual tour of the altar showing the Baldachinno and the passageway to the relic of the crib http://www.vatican.va/various/basiliche/sm_maggiore/vr_tour/Media/VR/St_Mary_Nave1/index.html
The monument of Clement IX is by C. Painaldi. The baroque statue of the pontiff was done by Domenico Guidi with “Charity” on the left by Ercole Ferrata and “Faith” on the right by Cosimo Fancelli. The pope is actually buried in front of the confessional.
I love the Baptismal Chapel with the beautiful font. Here’s a virtual tour of the Baptistery http://www.vatican.va/various/basiliche/sm_maggiore/vr_tour/Media/VR/St_Mary_Baptistery/index.html
Bernini’s Saint Cajetan holding the Holy Child resides in this church. Near the papal altar there is an inscription on the marble step that reads: “Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who brought honor and art to the city, here humbly lies.” Bernini’s father Pietro is also buried here.
The gilded gold of the coffered ceiling of the Basilica was presented by the soverieigns of Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella from the gold mines of Latin America. There’s an interesting musuem under the church. It’s loaded with sacred artifacts and objects. I love the presepio.
Dr. EveAnn Lovero writes Italy Travel Guides. To learn more about Rome visit www.vino-con-vista.com