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  • Writer's pictureWill von Behr, MA

A Brief History of The Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome

What is Santa Maria Maggiore?

Basilica Papale di Santa Maria Maggiore, or The Basilica of Saint Mary Major in English, is a Roman Catholic church dating back to the mid-4th century and dedicated to the Virgin Mary, with beautiful Byzantine mosaics and the humble pavement tomb of the Bernini family.

The Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore

Santa Maria Maggiore History

Despite its apparently dull, 18th-century, stony exterior, Santa Maria Maggiore contains a wealth of beautifully preserved Byzantine mosaics.

The site’s original structure dates all the way back to the mid-4th century. According to a 13th-century legend, an apparition of the Virgin Mary appeared to both Pope Liberius and John, a Roman patrician. She instructed them to build a new church on the Esquiline Hill, on the very spot where a summer snowfall would miraculously land the next morning. The snow, so she claimed in her vision, would mark the layout of the new building. All that Mary prophesied came true and Santa Maria della Neve, or ‘Saint Mary of the Snow’, was founded. On 5th August each year, the miraculous snowfall is celebrated with a shower of white petals that fall from the ceiling.

The present building, however, was completed in the early 5th century, after the Council of Ephesus, a gathering of senior Christian bishops, declared that the Virgin Mary was not merely the Christotokos, or ‘Mother of Christ’, but also the Theotokos, or ‘Mother of God’. From then on, she was recognised as more than simply Jesus’ mother, but also as a religious icon to be worshipped in her own right. Churches venerating the Virgin Mary rapidly sprung up throughout the Christian world, Marian hymns were written, and feast days were announced celebrating her life.

Although encased in an 18th-century shell, the basilica’s interior contains works dating from as many as 1,300 years earlier. The central nave is decorated with strikingly well-preserved mosaics from the 5th century recounting notable scenes from the Old Testament. Look up and enjoy the basilica’s coffered ceiling, meaning the sunken square panels similar to those found in the Pantheon’s dome. At its centre, you’ll see the Borgia family’s coat of arms, with a bull as its crest, a prominent Spanish family under whose instruction the ceiling was built. It was decorated in the late 15th century with gold sent by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, the first gold Christopher Columbus brought back from the New World.

Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore

It’s no surprise that Santa Maria Maggiore houses some of the most important Marian artworks in existence. Look out for the Byzantine icon of the Madonna and Child in the Borghese Chapel, which dates from the 7th or 8th century. Many Catholics believe this to be a true likeness of the figures, because, according to tradition, it was painted by the evangelist Saint Luke who had portrayed them from life.

Make sure not to miss the 13th-century apse mosaic, which depicts scenes from Mary's life and her coronation as Queen of Heaven. Also, to the right of the high altar is the humble pavement tomb of the Bernini family, with the name of Gian Lorenzo Bernini (the celebrated 17th-century Italian architect and sculptor) inscribed on the step above.

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