April 20, 2016

An Ancient Roman Church Built On The Site Of A Summer Snowfall

Close up of the mosaics of the facade with a giant guarding angel

Whether as part of one of our special Jubilee Tours, or as a stop on the Holy Year pilgrimage, a visit to the Church of Saint Mary Major is a must for everyone who wants to witness one of the most exquisite manifestations of the Catholic Church’s role of protectress of Christian artistic expression in the Eternal City.

St Mary Major: A Jewel In The Crown Of Roman Churches

A major Papal Basilica, the church of Santa Maria Maggiore, St Mary Major, is also one of the city’s most beautiful and richest in art and religious relics of the first rank. Features such as the triumphal arch and the nave, covered in unique fifth century mosaics, the impressive bronze and porphyry baldachin as well as the presence of the Salus Populi Romani, the venerated icon of the Virgin Mary and that of a relic of the Holy Crib have been attracting visitors for nearly sixteen centuries. A must-see for art lovers, the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore is also a compulsory stop for pilgrims traveling to Rome during the Jubilee of Mercy declared by Pope Francis for the year 2016. In particular, those visiting Rome in the first week of August can witness a unique ritual celebrating the origins of the church, whose location was indicated, according to legend, by a miraculous snowfall that covered the Esquiline Hill, one scorching hot summer day. Namely, on August 5, the Feast of the Dedication, during Mass swarms of white rose petals pour from openings in the church’s gilded coffered ceiling, recreating the miracle of the snowfall.

The Largest Marian Shrine in Rome

According to its ranking among Roman Catholic churches, the Basilica of Saint Mary Major is considered a major Papal basilica, one of only four, alongside the Archbasilica of St. John in the Lateran, St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, and the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls. Its superlative importance is also enhanced by its status of Marian shrine par excellence among other around thirty churches dedicated to the Virgin Mary spread around the city. As a Papal basilica, it is often used by Pope Francis, who visited the church the day after his inauguration and is known to regularly pray here. One of the first churches to be dedicated to the Virgin, St Mary Major was built in the 5th century, during the pontificate of Pope Sixtus III (432 – 440), soon after the 431 Council of Ephesus decided that the Virgin Mary should be referred to as Theotokos, meaning the Mother of God. In its aftermath, the cult of the Virgin Mary became very popular in Rome. This prompted Mark Twain, who wondered on his 1867 visit to Rome at the high number of places of worship dedicated to the Virgin to jot down in his travel diary that the city had

“so many churches named for Mary that they have to be distinguished by all sorts of affixes”. (Mark Twain, 1867)

Indeed, after being originally called simply Santa Maria, the church had to be given several appellatives, such as Santa Maria della Neve (St. Mary of the Snows) after its legend of origin, and later that of Santa Maria Liberiana after Pope Liberius, who traced the outline of the church in the snow, the day after the miraculous snowfall fell on the Esquiline. Finally, the name Saint Mary Major was given in order to honor its status as the largest and most important shrine dedicated to the Virgin Mary. And the superlatives don’t end here. Remarkably, Santa Maria Maggiore is the only one among the four Papal basilicas to have kept its original Paleochristian structure, although many features were added by several art-loving pontiffs, including two chapels in the 16th and 17th centuries, which changed the church’s layout to one of a Latin Cross. In addition, the church is located on the summit of the Esquiline Hill, the tallest of Rome’s seven hills. Moreover, its 14th century campanile, the highest of any Roman church, stands at 75 meters (240 feet), a remarkable presence on the city’s skyline.

The ceiling and the baldachin of the basilica of St Mary Major in Rome. The gold comes from the Inca Empire

The Ceiling Was Decorated With The Gold Of The Inca Empire

The combination of unique art treasures housed by the church and valuable religious relics makes this papal basilica a perfect destination for those seeking to experience the transcendent power of art and find respite in one of the holiest places in Rome. Once visitors step under the impressive 18th century facade built after designs by Ferdinando Fuga and walk into the church, the magnificence of the basilica will immediately become apparent: particularly on bright, sunny days, its gilded ceiling covering the large nave adorned with fifth century mosaics unique in their aesthetic and historical value will shimmer in the sunlight. According to legend, the ceiling was decorated using the first shipment of gold sent to Spain from the Inca Empire, offered by the Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella to Pope Alexander VI. The nave mosaics, depicting scenes from the Old Testament with exquisite craftsmanship, are rivaled by the magnificent large-scale mosaic covering the apse showing the Coronation of the Virgin, by Jacopo Torriti and by those of the triumphal arch, illustrating scenes featuring Christ and the Virgin Mary.

Bernini’s Tomb in St Mary Major, in Rome

Yes, Another Sistine Chapel!

The church also features two twin chapels, the Sistine Chapel (not to be mistaken with the one painted by Michelangelo, located in the Vatican!), located to the right of the high altar, and Capella Paolina, also called the Borghese Chapel, the burial place of the powerful Borghese family, whose history is entwined with that of Rome. The Borghese Chapel is also the place where the 1000-years-old icon Salus Populi Romani (meaning Protectress of the Roman People) depicting the Madonna and Child is displayed. A detail of interest for art lovers, Santa Maria Maggiore also houses the tomb of Renaissance master Gian Lorenzo Bernini, a rather humble resting place for the man who exerted a remarkable influence on art and architecture. No Rome Tour is complete without a visit of the Papal Basilicas and St Mary Major in particular. It is in this place, so often overlooked, that so many artistic, historical and religious paths converge to give life to one of the most beautiful churches in the Eternal City.