13 January 2017

Visiting six churches in Rome:
5, Santa Maria Maggiore or Saint Mary Major

The Basilica of Saint Mary Major stands on the summit of the Esquiline Hill (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

If every visitor and pilgrim to Rome has a favourite church in the Eternal City, then I thought this week it would be worth introducing six churches that are among my favourites in Rome and that I visited while I was there last week:

1, Santa Maria in Trastevere;

2, Santa Maria della Scala, also in Trastevere;

3, Chiesa Nuova, or the Church of Santa Maria in Vallicella;

4, San Giovanni in Laterano, or Saint John Lateran;

5, Santa Maria Maggiore or Saint Mary Major;

6, The Pantheon, or Santa Maria ad Martyres (Saint Mary and the Martyrs), often known Santa Maria Rotonda.

5, Santa Maria Maggiore or Saint Mary Major

Saint Mary Major contains a successful blend of different architectural styles (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore or Basilica of Saint Mary Major is a Papal basilica, along with Saint John Lateran, Saint Peter’s, and Saint Paul outside the Walls, and is also the largest Roman Catholic church in Rome dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Of all the great churches in Rome, this church has the most successful blend of different architectural styles, and has magnificent mosaics.

Under the Lateran Treaty signed in 1929 by the Holy See and Italy, Saint Mary Major stands on Italian sovereign territory and not the territory of the Vatican City State. However, the Vatican fully owns the basilica, and in Italian law it enjoys full diplomatic immunity.

This ancient basilica enshrines the image of Salus Populi Romani, depicting the Virgin Mary as the protector of the Roman people.

The Basilica is sometimes known as Our Lady of the Snows, with a feast day on 5 August. The church has also been called Saint Mary of the Crib because of a relic of the crib or Bethlehem brought to the church in the time of Pope Theodore I (640-649).

A popular story says that during the reign of Pope Liberius, a Roman patrician named John and his wife, who had no heirs and decided to donate their possessions to the Virgin Mary. They prayed about how to hand over their property, and on the night of 5 August, at the height of summer, snow fell on the summit of the Esquiline Hill. That night, this childless couple resolved to build a basilica in honour of the Virgin Mary on the place that was covered in snow.

However, this story only dates from the 14th century and has no historical basis. Even in the early 13th century, a tradition had common currency that Pope Liberius had built the basilica in his own name, and for long it was known as the Liberian Basilica. The feast of the dedication was inserted for the first time into the General Roman Calendar as late as 1568.

But the legend of the snowfall and the bequest it inspired is still commemorated each year on 5 August when white rose petals are dropped from the dome during Mass and the Second Vespers of the feast.

The canopied high altar in Saint Mary Major is reserved for Mass said by the Pope (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Despite appearances, the earliest building on the site was the Liberian Basilica or Santa Maria Liberiana, named after Pope Liberius (352-366). It is said Pope Liberius transformed a palace of the Sicinini family into a church, which was known as the Sicinini Basilica.

A century later, Pope Sixtus III (432-440) replaced this first church with a new church dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Santa Maria Maggiore, one of the first churches built in honour of the Virgin Mary, was built in the immediate aftermath of the Council of Ephesus in 431, which proclaimed the Virgin Mary the Mother of God.

The present church retains the core of this structure, despite several later building projects and damage caused by an earthquake in 1348, and Saint Mary Major was restored, redecorated and extended by successive popes, including Eugene III (1145-1153), Nicholas IV (1288-1292), Clement X (1670-1676), and Benedict XIV (1740-1758).

When the Popes returned to Rome after the papal exile in Avignon, the Lateran Palace was in such a sad state of disrepair, and Saint Mary Major and its buildings provided a temporary Palace for the Popes. Later they moved to the Palace of the Vatican on the other side of the River Tiber.

Between 1575 and 1630, the interior of Santa Maria Maggiore underwent a broad renovation encompassing all its altars. In the 1740s, Pope Benedict XIV commissioned Ferdinando Fuga to build the present façade and to modify the interior. The 12th-century façade was masked during this rebuilding project, with a screening loggia added in 1743. However, Fuga did not damage the mosaics of the façade.

Although Saint Mary Major is immense in area, it was built to plan. The design of the basilica was typical for Rome at that time. It has a tall and wide nave, an aisle on either side. and a semi-circular apse at the end of the nave, with beautiful mosaics on the triumphal arch and nave.

The Athenian marble columns supporting the nave may have come from the first basilica, or from another antique Roman building. They include 36 marble and four granite columns that were pared down or shortened to make them identical by Ferdinando Fuga, who provided them with identical gilt-bronze capitals.

The 16th century coffered ceiling, designed by Giuliano da Sangallo, is said to be gilded with the first gold brought back from the Americas by Christopher Columbus and presented by Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain to Pope Alexander VI.

The canopied high altar is reserved for Mass said by the Pope, the basilica’s archpriest and a small number of priests. Customarily, the Pope celebrates Mass here each year on the feast of the Assumption (15 August). Pope Francis visited Saint Mary Major a day after his election.

The Coronation of Mary depicted in the apse mosaic (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The unique treasure in Saint Mary Major must be the fifth century mosaics, commissioned by Pope Sixtus III. The mosaics include some of the oldest depictions of the Virgin Mary in Christian art, celebrating the declaration of her as the Theotokos or Mother of God at the Council of Ephesus in 431. The nave mosaics recount four cycles of sacred history featuring Abraham, Jacob, Moses and Joshua; seen together, they tell of God’s promise to the Jewish people and his assistance as they strive to reach it.

The story, which is not told in chronological order, starts on the left-hand wall near the triumphal arch with the Sacrifice of Melchisedek. The next scenes illustrate earlier episodes from the life of Abraham. The stories continue with Jacob, with whom God renews the promise made to Abraham, Moses, who liberates the people from slavery, and Joshua, who leads them into the Promised Land.

The journey concludes with the two final panels. These frescoes date from the restoration commissioned by Cardinal Pinelli and show David leading the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem and the Temple of Jerusalem built by Solomon.

Christ’s childhood, as told in apocryphal Gospels, is illustrated in four images in the triumphal arch. The first, in the upper left, shows the Annunciation, with the Virgin Mary robed like a Roman princess. The story continues with the Annunciation to Joseph, the Adoration of the Magi and the Massacre of the Innocents. The upper right illustrates the Presentation in the Temple, the Flight into Egypt and the meeting between the Holy Family and the Governor of Sotine. The last scene represents the Magi before Herod.

At the bottom of the arch, Bethlehem is depicted on the left and Jerusalem on the right. Between these scenes, the empty throne waiting for the Second Coming is flanked by Saint Peter and Saint Paul. Together they will form the church of which Peter is the leader, and Sixtus III is his successor.

In the 13th century, Pope Nicholas IV, the first Franciscan pope, decided to destroy the old apse and build the present one, placing it several meters back in order to create a transept for the choir between the arch and the apse. The decoration of the apse is the work of the Franciscan friar Jacopo Torriti, and the work was paid for by Cardinals Giacomo and Pietro Colonna.

Torriti’s mosaic, dating from 1295, is divided into two parts. The central medallion in the apse shows the Coronation of the Virgin Mary, while the lower band illustrates the most important moments of her life. In the centre of the medallion, enclosed by concentric circles, Christ and Mary are seated on a large oriental throne. Christ is enthroned like a young emperor and he is placing a jeweled crown on her head; she is dressed in a colourful veil, like a Roman empress. The sun, the moon and a choir of angels are arranged around their feet, while Saint Peter, Saint Paul, and Saint Francis of Assisi along with Pope Nicholas IV flank them on the left. On the right, Torriti portrays Saint John the Baptist, Saint John the Evangelist, Saint Anthony and the donor, Cardinal Colonna.

In the lower apse, mosaic scenes to the left and the right show the life of the Virgin Mary, while the central panel represents the Dormition, telling the story in a way that is typical of Byzantine iconography rather than western narratives. She is lying on a bed, as angels prepare to lift her soul to Heaven, the the apostles watch astonished and Christ takes her soul into his arms. Torriti embellishes the scene with two small Franciscan figures and a lay person wearing a 13th century cap.

The Crypt of the Nativity is said to contain wooden relics from the Crib in Bethlehem (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Under the High Altar, the Crypt of the Nativity or Bethlehem Crypt has a crystal reliquary designed by Giuseppe Valadier and said to contain wooden relics from the Crib of the Christ Child in Bethlehem.

The statue in the crypt of Pope Pius IX in prayer is by Ignazio Jacometti, ca 1880, and is over the tomb of Saint Jerome (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The crypt is also the burial place of Saint Jerome, who translated the Bible into Latin or Vulgate version and died in 420. Above his burial place is a kneeling statue of Pope Pius IX, who proclaimed the dogma of the Immaculate Conception on 8 December 1854 and who ordered the reconstruction of the crypt.

In the right transept, the Sistine Chapel or chapel of the Blessed Sacrament, is named after Pope Sixtus V. This chapel, which was designed by Domenico Fontana, includes the tombs of Pope Sixtus V and Pope Pius V. After his ordination as a priest, Saint Ignatius of Loyola celebrated his first Mass in this chapel on 25 December 1538.

Just outside the Sistine Chapel is the tomb of Gian Lorenzo Bernini and his family.

The Assumption of Mary was painted inside the cupola of the Borghese Chapel by Galileo’s friend Ludovico Cardi (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The celebrated icon of the Virgin Mary in the Borghese Chapel is known as Salus Populi Romani, or Health of the Roman People. The icon is said to have saved the people of Rome from the plague. Tradition attributes the icon to Saint Luke the Evangelist, and this richly decorated chapel was designed for Pope Paul V Borghese.

The Assumption of Mary was painted inside the cupola of the chapel by Ludovico Cardi nicknamed Il Cigoli. Above the clouds, the Virgin Mary is seen being transported towards Heaven. The moon beeneath her feet is painted as it was seen through the telescope of Galileo, who was a friend of Cigoli.

The floor of the church is paved in opus sectile mosaic, featuring the Borghese heraldic arms of an eagle and a dragon.

The 1995 rose window symbolises the link between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

In 1995, a new, rose window in stained glass was created for the main façade by Giovanni Hajnal. It reaffirms the declaration of the Second Vatican Council that Mary, the exalted daughter of Zion, is the link that unites the Church as the New Covenant to the Old Testament and the Covenant with the Children of Israel. To symbolise the Old Testament, Hajnal used the the two tablets of the Ten Commandments and the seven-branched Menorah or candlestick, and for the New Testament he used the Cross, the Host and the Chalice of the Eucharist.

The 14th century campanile or bell tower is the highest in Rome at 75 metres. It was erected by Pope Gregory XI after his return from Avignon.

Outside, the column in Piazza Santa Maria Maggiore came from the Basilica of Constantine in the Forum and was designed by Carlo Maderno. It was erected in 1615 and has since become the model for numerous Marian columns throughout the Catholic world.

The church is served by Redemptorist and Dominican priests. In the portico, there is a fine statue by Bernini and Lucenti of King Philip IV of Spain, one of the benefactors of the church. The King of Spain is ex officio a lay canon of the basilica. In a similar manner, the President of France is ex officio an honorary canon of Saint John Lateran, which I was describing yesterday.

The development of the city has taken away the impact of Santa Maria Major’s commanding position on the summit of the Esquiline Hill, but the church is still considered by many to be the most beautiful church in Rome after Saint Peter’s.

Inside the Baptistery in Saint Mary Major (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Tomorrow: The Pantheon, or Santa Maria ad Martyres.

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