The Basilica of Summer Snows

Author: June Hager


"Widely believed to be the most important church dedicated to Mary in Western Christendom"--Santa Maria Maggiore.

by June Hager

Santa Maria Maggiore (St. Mary Major) is widely believed to be the most important church dedicated to Mary in Western Christendom. In the course of sixteen centuries all the arts have joined together to glorify this ancient basilica as the house of the Virgin Mary on earth.

Once past the eighteenth century facade, the visitor to Santa Maria Maggiore will find himself in a jewel box of art treasures of every epoch and style. Classical marble columns divide the nave and side aisles. Byzantine mosaics glitter with gold in the apse, while smaller gem-colored mosaics from an earlier period wind their way high above the architrave. The main altar is a blaze of gilded bronze and porphyry, balanced by the richness of other materials--marbles, agates and lapis lazuli--used for the various side altars.

The basilica's architectural and artistic masterpieces, contributed by some of Catholicism's most powerful Popes, underline one constant theme--the pre-eminence of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of Jesus and the true Mother of God.


Even today Santa Maria Maggiore is known as the "Liberian Basilica," in honor of Pope Liberius (352-66). According to legend, a miraculous summer snowfall, announced in a dream to both Pope Liberius and to a pious and wealthy Roman couple (who had decided to give all their earthly goods to the church and needed a good cause) fell on August 5 on the site where Liberius then erected a church to the Madonna in the year 358. The legend of "Our Lady of the Snows" can be traced back to the seventh century, although the miracle was first recorded in writing by Fra Bartolomeo of Trento around 1250. Santa Maria Maggiore celebrates the event every August 5 with a showering of flower petals inside the basilica.

Leaving legend aside, history tells us that Pope Liberius was a firm crusader against the Arian heresy, which denied the divinity of Jesus Christ in his human person. We know that in Liberius' time the Esquiline Hill had been settled by barbarian troops who were largely Arian. By erecting a church to the Virgin Mary, Liberius perhaps wished to foster her cult as the Mother of God against the spread of Arian beliefs.


Pope Liberius' basilica fell into ruin and disappeared. Santa Maria Maggiore as we see it today took shape in 432, when Pope Sixtus III (432-40) decided to build a new and more magnificent structure near (if not on) the site of Liberius' former Marian church.

The time was ripe for Sixtus to forcefully reaffirm the Marian cult. Even in the late Empire a temple to the Roman mother goddess Juno Lucina was still flourishing on the Esquiline Hill and was frequented by many Roman matrons approaching childbirth. It is highly likely that a church to the Virgin Mother of God was erected to supplant the enduring pagan cult of Juno Lucina. In fact, some of Santa Maria Maggiore's marble columns came from the Juno Lucina temple, which was located, according to archeological findings, about 300 meters from the basilica's present site.

Sixtus III had an additional incentive for the construction of his new church. In 431 the Church Council of Ephesus condemned the Nestorian heresy which denied the unity of the divine and human natures in the person of Christ. The Council affirmed that the person of Jesus possessed both divine and human natures and was thus truly God and truly man. Mary, being the mother of the divine person Jesus, was also the Mother of God. It was Sixtus' intention, realized in a series of mosaics (Annunciation, Adoration of the Magi, Flight into Egypt, etc,) in the triumphal arch over the altar. to invite the faithful to meditate on the divinity of Christ and the Virgin's divine motherhood. In one touching panel, Joseph looks perplexed as an angel takes him aside to explain his role in the impending Nativity.

Other series of mosaic panels around the nave architrave depict scenes from the Old Testament, emphasizing the link between Christ's birth and the Messianic prophecies. Furthermore. a precious wooden relic believed to be part of the sacred crib was associated with Santa Maria Maggiore from earliest times. Sixtus III reproduced the grotto. or manger of Bethlehem, to house the relic in an outside chapel, which became an attraction for pilgrims from all over the world. (The remains of that presepe, with thirteenth century statues by Arnolfo de Cambio, are now in the 'Sistine' side chapel. while the sacred relic is encased in a nineteenth-century reliquary under the main altar.)


In the Middle Ages, Nicholas IV (1288-92) replaced Sixtus III's apsidal Mosaics with an even more splendid portrayal of the Virgin in Glory. A glittering gold and jewel-like mosaic "Coronation of the Virgin," executed by the Franciscan monk Giacomo Torriti around 1290, then became the aesthetic focal point of the entire basilica. Pope Nicholas replaced Sixtus' earlier representation of the Madonna with Child with a portrayal of the Virgin as a crowned and bejewelled Byzantine bride, enthroned side by side with Christ. This Marian iconography, known as the "Glorification of the Virgin," first made its appearance a century earlier in another Roman church, Santa Maria in Trastevere (see "Inside the Vatican," October 1993) and coincided with the rapid spread of the Marian cult throughout twelfth and thirteenth century Europe. Other mosaics in the band below recount events in the life of the Virgin (Annunciation, Nativity, Assumption, etc.).


Down through the ages the endeavors of powerful Popes and the addition of innumerable works of art further enhanced Santa Maria Maggiore's essence and "raison d'etre" . . . the exaltation of the Virgin Mary as the Mother of God.

The golden wood ceiling over the nave was commissioned by the Borgia Pope Alexander VI (whose coat of arms is prominently displayed), designed by the "father of the Italian Renaissance." Leon Battista Alberti, and (supposedly) embellished with the first gold brought from the new world, donated by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain.

A later Renaissance Pope, Sixtus V (1585-90), perhaps one of the world's earliest urban planners, decided to make Santa Maria Maggiore the very heart of the eternal city. In his reorganization project, carried out by Domenica Fontana in 1585, the basilica was to be the center of a radial series of streets, extending like the points of a star to connect with Rome's most important sacred sites. An obelisk, removed by Fontana from Augustus' mauseleum on the orders of Sixtus V, was erected to the rear of the basilica's apse, and marks the focal point of this ambitious urbanistic vision. Sixtus also removed the earlier reproduction of the sacred manger to an elegant crypt beneath his own side chapel.

Across from Sixtus V's chapel. Pope Paul V of the influential Borghese Family built his own chapel in 1611 to house an earlier icon of the Madonna with child All the famous artists of the day, goldworkers, architects, painters and sculptors worked to realize the flamboyant spirit of the seventeenth century Counter- Reformation with larger-than-life portraits, contorted marble angels and the contrasting shades of amethyst, agate, and lapus lazuli. According to a strong seventh-century tradition, the Madonna icon, said to have belonged to the Evangelist St. Luke (but actually datable from somewhere between the fifth and eighth centuries), was carried through the streets of Rome by Pope St. Gregory the Great in the year 594 to pray for deliverance from a pestilence. When the plague miraculously ceased, the grateful Roman population, gave the icon the appellation of "salus populi romani" (salvation of the Roman People) a popular veneration of the image which continues to this day.


The Santa Maria Maggiore we enter today has a neo-classical facade designed and executed in 1741 by Ferdinando Fuga on the orders of Pope Benedict XIV. (He also gave a classical regularity and symmetry to the interior by making all of the columns uniform, paring, shortening and adding on and providing all with Ionic bases and capitals.) For the basilica's exterior, Fuga managed to offset some of the incongruity of styles by enclosing the thirteenth century mosaics, including the above mentioned rendition of the miraculous snowfall. This mosaic, along with the bronze statue of the Virgin and Child on top of the 15 meter-high column (erected by Paul V in 1614) which dominates the square before the church, are our exterior preparation for the wealth of tributes we will encounter to the glory of the Mother of God inside Santa Maria Maggiore.

Across from this pillar, in a wing of the basilica complex, Santa Maria Maggiore Vicar Capitular and Administrator Monsignor D.J. David Lewis stressed the basilica's active spiritual life. More than 50% of the church's visitors, from all over the world, he said, come to pray before the sacred icon of the "Salus Populi Romani," and in the height of the pilgrimage season up to 50-60 masses a day will be said In the various chapels. For five years, under Msgr. Lewis' concerned direction, a process of repair, restoration and conservation has been continuing, "in order to ensure that the basilica will survive for yet another 1,000 years or more, as a sign of certain hope in the guidance and protection of Mary the Mother of God.