The Patriarchal Basilicas: Part 1, St Mary Major

“The façade is the magnificent work of Ferdinand Fuga (1741), and faces east, opening in a portico of five arcades on the lower story and three arches in the upper loggia, which covers the thirteenth-century mosaics of the previous façade.

Like precious gems set into the façade, the mosaics illustrate the origin of the Basilica. In the first scene, the Blessed Virgin appears to Pope Liberius and the Roman Patrician John in the dream that will inspire the location of the new basilica. An exceptional event would confirm the divine will – on August 5, 358, a snowfall covered the Esquiline Hill and in this snow, the Pope traced the perimeter of the future basilica.

The foundation stone for this façade was laid on March 4, 1741 by Pope Benedict XIV. Many eighteenth-century sculptors contributed to this remarkable project. The works both within and outside of the Basilica were completed just in time for the Jubilee Year 1750.

Situated on the summit of the Esquiline Hill, St. Mary Major is the only patriarchal basilica of the four in Rome to have retained its paleo-Christian structures.

Tradition has it that the Virgin Mary herself inspired the choice of the Esquiline Hill for the church’s construction. Appearing in a dream to both the Patrician John and Pope Liberius, she asked that a church be built in her honor on a site she would miraculously indicate.

The present Basilica dates back to the fifth century AD. Its construction was tied to the Council of Ephesus of 431 AD, which proclaimed Mary  Theotokos, Mother of God. Sixtus III commissioned and financed the project as Bishop of Rome. Crossing the threshold, one is overwhelmed by the vision of vast space, splendid marbles, and marvelous decoration. The monumental effect is due to the structure of the basilica and the harmony that reigns among the principal architectural elements. Constructed according to Vitruvius’ canon of rhythmic elegance, the basilica is divided into a nave and two side aisles by two rows of precious columns. Above these columns runs the skillfully wrought entablature, interrupted at the transept by the grand arches erected for the building of the Sistine and Pauline chapels. The area between the columns and the ceiling was once punctuated by large windows, half of which still remain, while the other half have been covered over by a wall. Over the walled windows, today one can admire frescos showing stories from the life of the Virgin.

In the crypt under the high altar lies the celebrated relic known as the Holy Crib. A statue of Pope Pius IX kneeling before the ancient wooden pieces of the manger serves as an example to the faithful who come to see the first humble crib of the Savior. Pius IX’s devotion to the Holy Crib led him to commission the crypt chapel, and his coat of arms is visible above the altar. The precious crystal urn trimmed in silver, through which the faithful can venerate the relic, was designed by Giuseppe Valadier.”–From Santa Maria Maggiore

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One Response to “The Patriarchal Basilicas: Part 1, St Mary Major”

  1. Chris Berke Says:

    The ceiling is guilt with the first gold brought back from the “New World,” a gift from the King and Queen of Spain.

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