The basilica of St. Mary Major or Santa Maria Maggiore is not an original constantinian basilica, but it is considered one of the 4 patriarchal churches of the Roman Catholic church. The word ‘Major’ is used to identify that this is the most important of the over 80 churches in Rome dedicated to Mary. According to legend, in AD 358 Pope Liberius had a dream, in which he was told by the Virgin Mary to build a church where the snow fell. Although snow is rare in Rome, the most unusual point about this story is that the Pope received this dream in August, and the probability of snow was very slim. The next morning, however, he received reports that snow had indeed fallen on the Esquiline hill in the city. Today, this miraculous story is played out on 5 August, with thousands of white flower petals used to represent the snow, which cascades down from the coffered ceiling onto the hypogeum or Papal Altar. This proto-church was later destroyed and the present basilica dates back to the 5th century, during the reign of Pope Sixtus III.

Photo by Flickr user: Steve Moses

Photo by Flickr user: Steve Moses

Despite this story, the location of the church on the Esquiline hill does have some historical relevance. This area was full of domus ecclesiae (or house churches) where early Christians, in the first 3 centuries AD, would come to worship in secret, inside private homes. There are many churches in this area that date from the early Christian period which were founded on the site of these original domus ecclesia such as at the churches of San Martino ai Monti and Santa Pudenziana. While the site chosen for Sta. Maria Maggiore is likely not to be connected with one of these secret house churches, the location may have been chosen as a way of commemorating and celebrating the importance of this area of Rome in helping to preserve the early Christian religion during a time of active persecution under the Roman Empire.

Unlike the of the other patriarchal or pilgrim churches in Rome, Sta. Maria Maggiore never burnt down, nor was it destroyed, damaged or extensively rebuilt over time. It was, however, continuously improved, redecorated, and enlarged. The present day effect is an amalgamation of architectural styles and decorative motifs, but one which is charming, successful and very interesting to explore.

The main façade faces east, and is a late Baroque work dating from 1743 by Ferdinado Fuga on the orders of pope Benedict XIV. Fuga’s lively, and decorative white marble façade seems to be completely at odds with the solemn austerity of the brick Romanesque campanille (bell tower) which towers over the building to the right of the entrance. However, the division of the façade into two storeys and the tripartite arched openings on the upper level indicate a very sensitive approach to the preservation of the earlier church. The deep-set open loggia was specifically designed to allow the original 13th century mosaics and mediaeval brick façade to be seen. These mosaics were not only important in terms of art history, but they also tell the story of the origins of the church, the “miracle of the Snows” as it is known. Fuga’s façade is remarkable given his brief: the original façade was to be maintained so that the mosaics could be seen, but there was also the problem caused by the two palatial buildings, which had been completed in the 16th and 17th centuries, either side of the church, crashing right up to the walls of the basilica. Fuga’s decision to maintain the height of the flanking palace buildings gives the whole composition unity, while the entrance to the church is clearly demarcated by the contrasting use of white marble, and the fact that it seems to step forward when compared with the buildings either side. The columns are topped with gigantic statues of saints, with the central pedimented section on the upper storey being crowned by the Madonna and Child.

The 75-meter tall campanille, was built shortly after the popes returned from Avignon in 1377 and was most likely used as a beacon or marker to guide pilgrims to the church and is the tallest in Rome. The church is also marked at the back. Although the façade of the apse could not be said to be an traditional ‘entrance façade’, there is a doorway leading into the church here, reached by climbing a monumental staircase. At the bottom of the stairs, at street level, Pope Sixtus V had an obelisk erected in 1587, to guide pilgrims around the 7 pilgrim churches of Rome. This obelisk is oriented towards the northern gates of Rome, at Piazza del Popolo, while the bell tower is aligned with the front façade of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, and the side entrance to the Lateran Cathedral.

As you walk through the portico you will notice that there are three doors, which represent the 3-aisled interior of the basilica. The central door is made of bronze, but is relatively new, dating from the 1940s. Even more recent is the Holy door, which was opened for the first time by Saint Pope John Paul II for the 2000 Jubilee.

Photo by Flickr user: april

Photo by Flickr user: april

Uniquely, given that the basilica is over 1,600 years old, the nave and aisles at Santa Maria Maggiore date back to AD 440 when the building was first consecrated. The sumptuous, gilded ceiling was designed by Giuliano da Sangallo in the late 15th century and commissioned by the Spanish pope Alexander VI, Borgia. It is said that the gold was brought back after Columbus’s first voyage to America and was donated by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. The floor was inlaid in marble by the Cosmati family in 1288, and is a beautiful example of this extremely sought after mediaeval style. Perhaps the most splendid piece of decoration comes from the mosaics that decorate the nave and run up to the triumphant arch at the end of the nave. They date from the original 5th century building, commissioned by Pope Sixtus III, and tell the old testament stories of Abraham, Jacob, Moses and Josua. The mosaics on the arch itself, divided into 4 sections, depict several stories connected to the life of Mary including the Annunciation, the Adoration of the Magi, the Presentation in the Temple and the Flight into Egypt.

In the late 13th century pope Nicolas IV decided to demolish the original apse and had it rebuilt several meters back, which allowed him to create a transept between the original nave and the newly constructed apse. The apse mosaics, which date from 1295 and are by Jacopo Torritti, show the Coronation of the Virgin. On the lower section are scenes from the life of Mary and two beautiful archantus trees, whose leaves curl around the gold background, arranged either side of the main decoration.

At the end of the nave is the Papal altar, covered by the richly decorated baldacchino (canopy) with 4 magnificent porphyry and bronze columns designed by Ferdinando Fuga. The columns were found at the site of Hadrian’s Villa and repurposed by Fuga to decorate the basilica. The confessio, under the high altar, contains a statue of Pope Pius XI, and in the lower section the remains of St. Jerome, one of the doctors of the church. The lower section was created to resemble the cave of the nativity in Bethlahem. A carved crystal replica of the Holy Crib inside which are wooden fragments, believed to be from the original crib of the nativity.

Photo by Flickr user: tudor-rose

Photo by Flickr user: tudor-rose

The recreation of a manger scene or crib is, still today, a common decorative element used around Christmas time, and has its origins at the church of Santa Maria Maggiore. In 432, pope Sixtus III created a “cave of the Nativity” and the tradition continued until pope Nicolaus IV had Arnolfo di Cambio sculpt the “Nativity” in 1288. The 13th century “cave” was located where the Capella Sistina can now be found, to the right of the nave. When pope Sixtus V, who is buried in this chapel, commissioned the work in the 16th century, he ordered the architect Domenico Fontana to carefully move, without dismantling, the ancient “cave” complete with the surviving sculptural pieces by di Cambio. The original “cave” is now located in a second confessio beneath the altar of the Capella Sistina. In the center of the chapel is a richly decorated altar which represents 4 life-sized angels in bronze covered in gold leaf, who are carrying a model of the chapel in miniature. This scene is overlooked by a statue of Pope Sixtus V himself, kneeling in prayer, to the right of the altar. Beneath this altar is a second confessio that contains a nativity scene dating from the 16th century.
On the corner, between the apse area and the Capella Sistina, you can see small chapel which contains the carved tomb of Cardinal Rodriguez. This gothic tomb dates from 1299 and contains an exquisite example of marble and mosaic work by Giovanni Cosmati. Between this area and the columns which surround the high altar in the apse you will find the tombstone of Gianlorenzo Bernini, one of the most prolific and important artists of the 17th century. Bernini chose to be buried at Santa Maria Maggiore and had had the foresight to design a grand monumental tomb for his final resting place, which was, unfortunately for him, never built. In its place is a humble tombstone inscribed with his name was placed at the base of the columns.

Photo by Flickr user: Bindalfrodo

Photo by Flickr user: Bindalfrodo

The mirror image of the Sistine Chapel, to the left of the nave, was built in 1611 by Flaminio Ponzio for Pope Paul V Borghese. It is known as the Pauline or Borghese Chapel. The chapel is typical of the Baroque style with polychrome marble decoration and is painted with frecoes from some of the most important artists of the early Baroque period in Rome, including the Cavaliere d’Arpino, Giovanni Baglione, and Guido Reni. The image of the Madonna contained in this chapel is known as the Salus Popoli Romanus who is supposed to be the protector of the heath of the people of Rome. Legend has it that it was painted by St. Luke the evangelist, with the help of an angel, although today it is generally believed to date from the 13th century.

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