The Basilica of Saint Mary Major, one of the four great ancient basilicas in Rome, was founded in the 4th century. This church stands on the Esquiline hill and its bell tower is the tallest in Rome. The pilgrim who comes to venerate the Virgin Mary in this ancient Catholic Basilica, dedicated in her honour, will hardly experience the same emotion of the previous pilgrims who, by going up the Esquiline hill, were able to see the Church separated from the city, rising over palaces and homes. Indeed, the building back then was not as solemn as the present one, nor as majestic as the one from the Vatican hill, built by Constantine over Peter’s tomb. However, it prevailed in its dimension and, above all, in the purpose for which it was built- it was dedicated to the Holy Virgin Mary, Mother of Jesus and Mother of all men. The Basilica of Saint Mary Major owes its true beginnings of history to a particular event and one man. The Ecumenical Council of Ephesus (431) is the event where Mary was officially declared the Mother of God. The man is Sixtus III, the Pope who, several years after this declaration was made, wanted a Church to be dedicated to the Virgin Mary and to be built on the Esquiline hill. After more than 1,500 years and despite the additions and modifications in the interior and exterior, the Basilica is fundamentally the one of Sixtus II. It is the the most significant Marian interest in Rome. It is the first, the greatest, the largest, and the most important Church dedicated to the Mother of God, the “Theotokos.”
To the modern pilgrim who enters the Basilica of Saint Mary Major, it proves to be difficult, if not impossible, to associate the temple with the early paleochristian church. Nonetheless, the space, the mosaics of the walls and the façade of the apse are the antique ones. The surface and the wood ceiling immediately strike the visitor’s attention due to its richness and beauty. The first one is a cosmos like style and although it has been restored various times, it is for the most part the original of the 12th century. The wood ceiling comes from the 15th century. One tradition, without documented proof, states that the gold used for the golden decorations of the ceiling were donated by queen Elizabeth of Castilla.
The Legendary Tale
The narration of the construction of the first church has legendary origins. The story was told by Friar Bartolomé de Trento in the 13th century. The friar narrated that a rich and pious Roman senator named John and his wife, unable to have any children, had thought of donating their goods and properties to the Church. The night between the 4th and 5th of August of 358, the Virgin Mary appeared in their dreams to John and Pope Liberio, asking them to dedicate a Basilica on the place where snow would fall that night. The next morning, the rich senator and the Pope headed towards the Cispio where precisely that night of August it had snowed prodigiously. In this place, Pope Liberio, before the presence of a great multitude of faithful, traced over the fresh snow the plans for the future church, according to the tradition of the previous arquitects who before beginning the building of a building, would draw the project over the sand to true scale. That building, precisely in honour of Pope Liberio was also designated “Liberiano” and as a remembrance of the event of August 5th, the liturgical feast of the Virgin Mary is celebrated in Rome and venerated under the title of “Our Lady of the Snow.”
The Virgin Mary “Salus Populi Romani”
The beautiful icon known under the title of “Salvation of the People of Rome” is one of the images that tradition attributes to the evangelist Saint Luke and is certainly one of the most venerated in Rome. According to one legend, Saint Luke was a painter and amongst the images painted by him, there was a painting of the Virgin Mary. That is why many artists have represented the evangelist painting the sweet face of the Mother of God. The legend comes as a result that Saint Luke, among the evangelists, is the one who narrates more amply the birth of Jesus and in this context, speaks of the Mother of the Saviour. There are many icons attributed to Saint Luke. The Virgin of the Basilica of Saint Mary Major is considered the “Virgin Mary of Saint Luke.” In reality, the icons attributed to him have all been done in the Middle Ages. It is said that the popes and the people of Rome, in the serious moments in its history, had entrusted themselves to a miraculous image. This image, although it is impossible to establish its author and the year it was completed, is an “icon,” that is, the tangible expression that from generation to generation has been a means of communication with the Virgin Mary. In this way, the image, apart from its historic-artistic value, brings to mind the devotion to the Mother of God from hundreds of generations and the trust they have placed in her intercession before her Son from whom she obtains liberation from evil and the biggest calamities.
Relics of the Manger
The basilica was formerly titled “Saint Mary of the Manger” since it preserved some small pieces from the manger on which the Child Jesus was placed. The crypt found underneath the main altar represents the heart of the Basilica even though it is not in the same geometric centre. The visual effect the crypt gives, reminds us of the main events of the Christian faith, the birth of God made Man and his Mother the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Pius IX, who had on December 8, 1854 proclaimed the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, ordered that the reconstruction of the crypt would be made under the altar of Confession. The richness of the polychromatic marbles honour the relics of the manger contained in a precious display case, inside of which Pius VII on December 23, 1802 had personally placed them. The small pieces, which tradition and devotion have considered a part of the manger where the newborn Child Jesus was laid, came to Rome in 642 during the Pontificate of Pope Theodore I. Origens and Saint Jeronimo in the 3rd and 4th centuries respectively, say to have seen the Manger in Bethlehem, precisely in the grotto of the Nativity. Tradition holds that Jeronimo had been buried in Saint Mary Major and that his relics would currently be in the sarcophagus of the major altar. It is beautiful that the Doctor of the Church who translated the texts of Sacred Scripture from Greek to Latin and who spent various years of his life in Palestine to be in direct contact with the places where Jesus lived, rests in this Basilica that in celebrating the Maternity of Mary, helps to read salvation history from its beginnings.
In artistic terms, one of the aspects of great interest in the Basilica are its mosaics. To examine them by theme it is necessary to start with those of the central nave which are found under the windows and which were originally 42.
Through the more significant biblical characters who are found on both walls, all of the Old Testament is narrated. To the left are Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, rings of a chain that from generation to generation lead to the birth of the Messiah. To the right are Moses and Joshua. In the long walk of 40 years in the desert that took the hebrew people from slavery in Egypt to the promised Land, one can read an anticipation of that radical liberation of man that the Saviour would fulfill with his birth, death, and resurrection. The promises announced in the Old Testament are fulfilled in the person of Jesus. This theme is described in the mosaics of the triumphant arc where the Cross is raised on high, the final sign of salvation fulfilled by Christ with his death and resurrection, and witnessed by the Church represented by the Apostles Peter and Paul at the side of the throne. The arc of the apse is not original but rather it was built at the end of the 13th century by Jacopo Torriti. The passing of the centuries has not put any obstacles to the thematic course of the early mosaics, but rather it confirms them and gives them value, underlining that everything that was promised in the Old Testament and fulfilled in the New finds in Mary its synthesis and culminating moment. Christ and his Mother are seated on one throne, manifesting the intimate relationship that unites Mother and Son in the redemption project of humanity. The Church, represented by the saints that make up the crown of Christ and the Virgin Mary in her glorification, contemplates with anticipation the final destination of all of humanity. This image and its significance synthesise all of the history of the Basilica of Saint Mary Major. In this basilica one also finds the tombs of various Popes such as Saint Pius V, Sixtus V, Clement VIII.