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Basilica Papale di Santa Maria Maggiore (Basilica of Saint Mary Major), Rome

Overview

Santa Maria Maggiore - view from Piazza Esquilino
Santa Maria Maggiore - view from Piazza Esquilino

Photo by Sixtus on Wikimedia Commons

Santa Maria Maggiore - facade
Santa Maria Maggiore - facade

Photo by PierreSelim on Wikimedia Commons

Basilica Papale di Santa Maria Maggiore, or Santa Maria Maggiore, is one of the four major Papal basilicas in Rome, and is often used by the Pope along with the Archbasilica of Saint John in the Lateran, Saint Peter's Basilica, and Saint Paul's Outside the Walls. One of the oldest basilicas, it contains the Salus Populi Romani, the venerated image of the Virgin Mary said to have been painted by St Luke the Evangelist himself, and the oldest paleo-Christian mosaics. Even if it is on Italian territory and not in Vatican City State, it is an extraterritorial property owned by the Holy See.

Description

Santa Maria Maggiore - interior with mosaics on the nave and apse
Santa Maria Maggiore - interior with mosaics on the nave and apse

Photo by Livioandronico2013 on Wikimedia Commons

This church contains mosaics from the 5th century. Its nave was decorated with mosaics representing stories from the Old Testament: stories of Abraham, Jacob, Isaac on the left side, and Moses and Joshua on the right side. The mosaics from the Triumphal arch represent scenes of the Childhood of Christ: Annunciation, Presentation in the Temple, Adoration of the Magi, Meeting with the governor Aphrodisio, Massacre of the Innocent, and Three Wise Men near Herod. The two holy cities, Jerusalem and Bethlehem, are represented on the sides. New mosaics were added in the 12th through 14th centuries: a mosaic representing the "Coronation of Mary" and "Stories of Mary" by Jacopo Torriti from 1295, and mosaics by Filippo Rusuti on the façade.
Apse mosaic - detail
Apse mosaic - detail

Photo by Moroder on Wikimedia Commons

Apse mosaic - detail
Apse mosaic - detail

Photo by Papageno Papagena on Wikimedia Commons

Nave mosaic - detail
Nave mosaic - detail

Photo by Antoinetav on Wikimedia Commons

Nave mosaic - detail
Nave mosaic - detail

Photo by Realulim on Wikimedia Commons

Santa Maria Maggiore - interior with tabernacle and mosaics
Santa Maria Maggiore - interior with tabernacle and mosaics

Photo by Dnalor 01 on Wikimedia Commons

Borghese Chapel
Borghese Chapel

Photo by Tetraktys on Wikimedia Commons

Borghese Chapel - cupola
Borghese Chapel - cupola

Photo by Livioandronico2013 on Wikimedia Commons

Byzantine icon 'Salus Populi Romani'
Byzantine icon 'Salus Populi Romani'

Photo by SeoulKing on Wikimedia Commons

The Borghese or Pauline Chapel (Cappella Paolina) of the Basilica contains the Salus Populi Romani, the venerated image of the Virgin Mary, a Byzantine icon of the Virgin Mary and Infant Christ holding a Gospel book. According to the tradition it was painted by St Luke the Evangelist from real life using the wooden table of the Holy Family in Nazareth. The Sistine Chapel, decorated by a large team of artists, directed by Cesare Nebbia and Giovanni Guerra, contains a crystal reliquary by Giuseppe Valadier, containing wood from the Holy Crib of Jesus Christ, Saint Jerome's tomb, and Pope Sixtus V and his patron Pope Pius V's tombs. Outside the Sistine Chapel is the tomb of Gianlorenzo Bernini and his family.

History

The original church was built during the pontificate of Pope Liberius (352-366). According to the tradition, its location was inspired by the Virgin Mary herself. It is said that she appeared in a dream to both Pope Liberius and the Roman patrician Giovanni on the same night, saying that a place for a new church was miraculously indicated. The next morning, August 5, an unusual snowfall marked the place where the new church was to be built. August 5 became a feast day in the General Roman Calendar, called the Dedication of the Basilica of St Mary of the Snows. The church was rebuilt by Pope Sixtus III (432-40), who dedicated it to the cult of the Madonna. It is considered one of the first churches built in honor of the Virgin Mary, being built immediately after Virgin Mary was proclaimed Mary Mother of God in 431 by the Council of Ephesus. A new apse and other mosaics were added in the 12th through 14th centuries. In 1376 a new bell tower was added, the tallest in Rome at 75 meters high. The basilica was restored, redecorated and extended numerous times. In the 15th century, Cardinal Guglielmo d'Estouteville had the side aisles covered with vaults, while the central nave was decorated with a rich golden coffered ceiling, with the heraldic coat of arms of the pontiff in the center. The project attributed to architect Giuliano da Sangallo. The interior of the Santa Maria Maggiore underwent a major renovation for all of its altars in the 16th and 17th centuries. In 1585, Pope Sixtus V commissioned his architect Domenico Fontana to add a new chapel, the Sistine Chapel, named after the Pope (different by the Sistine Chapel in Vatican, commissioned by Pope Sixtus IV). In the 18th century, Pope Benedict XIV commissioned Ferdinando Fuga to build the present façade and to restore and redecorate the interior.

Legends

The bell tower
The bell tower

Photo by Lalupa on Wikimedia Commons

This church contains a famous bell, "La Sperduta", in its belltower, which rings every day at 9pm---a practice which originated a legend dating from the 16th century. It is said that a shepherdess once got lost with her flock and at evening time, since she hadn't arrived, the bells of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore were rung to guide her home. She never returned, so the bells continue to call her. In another version of the story, a pilgrim was lost and immediately after praying to the Virgin asking for help, he heard the bell ringing, guiding him to the Basilica. From these legends the tradition of the daily evening bell toll was begun, a ritual is called the "Sperduta" ("Lost").