Sunday, August 11, 2013

Santa Maria Maggiore: history, legends, curiosities

Today's photos:

1. The façade of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore.

2. A view down the center aisle of the basilica.

3. You will never guess where the gold of the ceiling came from!

4. The Borghese chapel is a favorite of our Papa Francesco.

5. The pope prays in his favorite chapel the day after his election.

6. Pius V is one of several popes buried in the basilica.

7. Some people think the back of the basilica is more spectacular than the front.


Santa Maria Maggiore: History, Legends and Curiosities

Numerous are the interesting legends and curiosities which enrich the history of this church, one of the four major basilicas of Rome. One of the most intriguing of these stories is the legend relating to why, where and when the basilica was built. The traditional story of the founding of the church dates back to the thirteenth century . . . when the church was already 900 years old!

The Virgin Mary is said to have appeared on the night of August 4-5, 352, to Pope Liberius (352-366) and to a certain John, a wealthy Roman patrician. The Madonna told them to build a church in her honor on the Esquiline hill, one of the famous seven hills of Rome. The problem was that the Esquiline covered a large area, so where exactly, the pair wondered, were they to build this church? The answer came from the Virgin herself. She said that the following morning, August 5, they would find a patch of snow on the ground; the church was to be built on this site.

Sure enough, the next day the city awoke to find a patch of ground on the Esquiline hill covered with snow! Liberius himself is said to have designed the church which John then built, as the story goes, at his own expense. This legend explains the two alternate names of the church: Basilica Liberiana (for Pope Liberius) and Santa Maria della Neve (St. Mary of the Snow).

A curiosity

The legend of the snowfall lives on because every year on August 5, a pontifical mass is celebrated to recall the founding of the church on that date. In the evening of the same day an artificial snowfall is produced in front of the basilica to recall the miraculous event.

Of course, if you prefer fact to legend, you will want to know that the present church was probably built during the pontificate of Sixtus III (432-440). It was dedicated to Mary, the Mother of God, following the Council of Ephesus which, in 431, had officially proclaimed the dogma that Mary is, indeed, the Mother of God.

There is, however, a curious event which serves to connect the legend and the fact. This version says that the present church is a rebuilding of the earlier Liberian Basilica. But what necessitated this reconstruction of the original church just a few years after it was built? The following curiosity answers this question.

A curiosity

Pope Damasus I (366-384) was opposed by the antipope, Ursinus, whose supporters barricaded themselves inside the church to protest the election of Damasus. In order to put an end to this illegal occupation of the basilica, the followers of Damasus removed the roof and hurled the tiles down onto the supporters of the antipope. Then the church was completely rebuilt by Sixtus about fifty years later, and this is the church we have today.


Our current pope, Papa Francesco, is very devoted to this church and he paid two un-announced visits to it during the first two months of his pontificate, the first of which took place the day following his election. A third visit was on May 30 in the annual Corpus Domini procession from the Basilica of St. John Lateran to the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore.  The special interest of Francesco in this basilica stems from the emphasis he places on his position as bishop of Rome. The church is home to a twelfth-century painting officially called Madonna della Neve (Our Lady of the Snow), but over the centuries it has taken on a more popular name: Salus Populi Romani (Safety of the Roman People). It is very dear to the Romans because of the many miracles said to have benefited the population through the intercession of the Virgin. In fact, the purpose of the "surprise" visits of Papa Francesco, the new bishop of Rome, was to pray in front of this painting which is in the Borghese chapel to the left of the sanctuary.


This basilica even has what you might call "an American connection". The magnificent ceiling  was created in the early 1500's by Giuliano da Sangallo. Visitors to the basilica are awe-struck by its glittering gold. And where did all this gold come from? It was part of the treasures of the New World brought back to Europe by Christopher Columbus. It was Isabella di Castiglia who donated the gold to the Spanish pope, Alexander VI Borgia. In fact, Alexander became pope in 1492, the year in which Columbus discovered America.


Five popes are buried in this church: Nicholas IV Masci (1288-1292), Pius V Ghisleri (1566-1572), Sixtus V Peretti (1585-1590), Clement VIII Aldobrandini (1592-1605) and Paul V Borghese (1605-1621).


A curiosity


Not only are popes and other ecclesiastical figures buried in this basilica, but other persons as well. The famous Gian Lorenzo Bernini, for example, is entombed in the floor just to the right of the main altar, with only a simple headstone to mark the spot. Another interesting curiosity is that in the Borghese chapel where Paul V is interred, are the remains of Paolina Bonaparte, the sister of Napoleon. Paolina married into the Borghese family, which gave her the right to be buried in the family chapel.


If you have been to Rome, you know that there are dozns of churches named Santa Maria. Some people mistakenly believe that Santa Maria Maggiore was the first church in the city to be dedicated to Mary. A reasonable assumption, it would seem, since it is indeed very old. However, the truth is that a full century earlier another place of worship, in Rome's Trastevere neighborhood, had already been given that name, thus becoming the first Roman church to be dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Anyone who has read my guidebook, The Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere, can tell you that!

We have only scratched the surface of the history and legends of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. For much more, including additional photographs, see Rome: Sights and Insights, Chapter 20: Santa Maria Maggiore


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