Our Lady’s Own Basilica
On August 5 we mark the feast of the Dedication of the Major Basilica of St Mary Major. Here we look at that ancient church’s history and significance.
Of Rome’s four major basilicas, St Peter’s is imposing, St John Lateran magnificent, St Paul Outside the Walls elegant, and St Mary Major extravagant. Indeed, to describe the latter as opulent is to understate its grandeur. The flamboyant ceiling is made of gold which was brought to Europe by Christopher Columbus and presented by Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain to the notorious Pope Alexander VI.
But don’t let all that wealth fool you: Santa Maria Maggiore is also a place of prayer — especially for Pope Francis, who visits the basilica before and after every foreign trip to pray to the miraculous icon of Salus Populi Romani (Protectress of the Roman People).
On August 5 we mark the feast of the Dedication of St Mary Major, the oldest of the four major basilicas. In the year 352, legend has it, the Virgin Mary appeared in a dream simultaneously to Pope Liberius and a wealthy patrician named Giovanni and his wife. The Virgin Mary instructed them to build a church at a particular spot. They would find it by snow covering the ground on the Esquiline Hill of Rome — in the summer heat of August.
Following the miraculous snowfall, the story goes, Pope Liberius marked the outline of the future basilica on the snow-covered ground. The construction of the church began shortly after, and it was completed around the year 360. This is why the basilica is sometimes referred to as Our Lady of the Snows.
The legend is first recorded in the 10th century, and the Church gives it no historical credence. Nonetheless, it is still marked by white rose petals dropping from the dome every August 5.
What, however, is known is that Pope Liberius did build a basilica at that spot in the 4th century, possibly repurposing the residence of a prominent Roman family to so. But the present structure was built under Pope Celestine I, who consecrated the basilica on August 5, 434, to the Virgin Mary, to celebrate the decision of the Council of Ephesus in 431 to affirm the title of Mary as Mother of God. It was one of the world’s first churches to be dedicated to Mary.
Relic of Christ’s birth
So it is fitting that the basilica houses a relic known as the Holy Crib, believed to be a fragment of the manger in which the infant Jesus was laid by his mother in Bethlehem. Mosaics of Our Lady, created in the 5th century, are among the earliest depictions of Mary, and influenced future representations of her.
As mentioned, Our Lady is also present in the famous icon of Salus Populi Romani, kept in the Borghese chapel. Legend surrounds that icon’s provenance. One has it that the image was painted by St Luke himself, and brought from the Holy Land to Rome by St Helena. Its history can be traced back to the late 6th century, when a plague afflicted Rome. Pope Gregory the Great (590-604) carried the image in procession to pray to Our Lady for an end to the plague. The plague ended, and the icon has been venerated as miraculous ever since.
A changing look
Over the centuries, St Mary Major basilica underwent several renovations and additions, resulting in a hotchpotch of architectural styles, including Byzantine, Romanesque and Baroque. The interior of the basilica is adorned with superb mosaics (some dating back to the 5th century), marble columns, and ornate decorations. And lots of gold!
St Mary Major has become a place of pilgrimage for Christians from around the world (apart from all the tourists who come to behold its splendour). In 1552, St Philip Neri declared it one of Rome’s Seven Pilgrim Churches (the four major basilicas, plus those of St Lawrence Outside the Walls, St Sebastian Outside the Walls, and Santa Croce in Gerusalemme).
The basilica holds the tombs of the great 17th-century artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini and five popes (including St Pius V), as well as the relics of St Jerome and St Pancras.
On August 15, the pope traditionally celebrates the Mass for the feast of the Assumption at St Mary Major — After all, it is Our Lady’s major basilica in Rome.
Published in the August 2023 issue of The Southern Cross magazine
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