Rome’s Papal Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore is a magnificent church in the heart of Rome on the Esquiline Hill within walking distance of the Coliseum, the Papal Basilica of San Giovanni Laterano and Termini Station.
Attracting millions of tourists per year, the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore is the largest and oldest church dedicated to Mary in Rome. As one of the 4 Major Basilicas of Rome it has been the focus of countless pilgrimages to Rome and features on our Passion of Christ Tour and 4 Papal Basilicas Tour.
Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore / Basilica of St Mary Major
In Italian and thus locally, the name of the Basilica is the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore. This translates into English as the Basilica of St Mary Major. The Mary / Maria referred to in the name refers to Mary – the Mother of Jesus Christ. The Major / Maggiore aspect refers to the Basilica’s status as a Major Basilica (read more below). There are only 4 major basilicas in Rome which were the focuses of countless pilgrims who had made their once in a lifetime pilgrimage to the Eternal City of Rome.
Liberian Basilica and Sicinini Basilica
The appellation ‘Liberian Basilica’ or ‘Basilica of Santa Maria Liberiana’ refers to the very beginnings of the church. Originally the church was an important Roman house which a man by the name of Liberius who went on to become Pope Liberius (352-366) converted into a church once Christianity had been decriminalised.
It is argued by Pius Parsch that this original house was owned by a Roman family of the name Sicinini and that Liberius converted their home at their request. For this reason it was also called the ‘Sicinini Basilica’.
Whatever the ownership of the original house that Pope Liberius converted into a church, it seems that that building was replaced with the present structure dedicated to Mary by later Popes – either Pope Celestine I in around 420, or perhaps slightly later by his immediate successor – Pope Sixtus III who served from 432-440.
Even now however, the appellation of the ‘Liberian Basilica’ in reference to Pope Liberius first actions to turn the house into a church is still be used today in official communications e.g. the Holy See press office referring to it as the “Papal Liberian Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome”.
Basilica of the Crib
As mentioned, the origins of the Basilica stretch back to the time of Pope Liberius (352-366) but the Basilica is also associated with something that pre-dated even that and reaches back to the very earliest beginnings of Christianity – the crib that Jesus lay in as a baby. The earliest evidence we have is that Jesus was born in a grotto in Bethlehem1 and over this grotto, St Helena – the mother of Emperor Constantine – established the Basilica of the Nativity and allowed veneration of the crib there. Relics of this crib were then brought to Rome during the pontificate of Pope Theodore (640-649) who was Palestinian and was concerned with the danger of the treasures being plundered by the muslims. The crypt was thus transported to Rome and laid at the Liberian Basilica and so first was given the name of Sancta Maria ad Praesepe or St Mary of the Crib in English2.
During the Basilica restorations of 1893, Fr Lais formally & solemnly opened the relics to investigate and found five pieces of wooden board made of sycamore tree of a sycamore species found in the Holy Land3.
References to the Basilica as St Mary of the Crib are to be found in the Tridentine editions of the Roman Missal from 1568 as the place of the pope’s Mass (the station Mass) on Christmas Night.
Basilica of the Snows
The least factual, but most devotional and popular, is the association of the Basilica with a legendary miracle known as the Miracle of the Snows.
The legend of the Miracle of the Snows according to the 1911 Catholic Encyclopedia is that
“During the pontificate of Liberius, the Roman patrician John and his wife, who were without heirs, made a vow to donate their possessions to the Virgin Mary. They prayed that she might make known to them how they were to dispose of their property in her honour. On 5 August, at the height of the Roman summer, snow fell during the night on the summit of the Esquiline Hill. In obedience to a vision of the Virgin Mary which they had the same night, the couple built a basilica in honour of Mary on the very spot which was covered with snow. From the fact that no mention whatever is made of this alleged miracle until a few hundred years later, not even by Sixtus III in his eight-line dedicatory inscription … it would seem that the legend has no historical basis.”4
Indeed the first reporting of this alleged miracle occurs only after 1000. However, it then took off in popularity even forming the subject matter of a famous 15th century painting of Masolina di Panicale. The relief in the Paul V Borghese side chapel of the Basilica above the miraculous icon of Salus Populi Romani also shows this legendary scene and was sculpted by the famous sculptor, Stefano Maderno. Consequently, in 1568 the General Roman Calendar was amended such that the name of the feast of the dedication of the Basilica on 5th August was changed from Dedicatio Sanctae Mariae (Dedication of St Mary) to Dedicatio Sanctae Mariae ad Nives (Dedication of St Mary of the Snow)5.
However in 1741, an investigation commissioned by Pope Benedict XIV recommended that the addition of ad Nives should be removed, but this was only actioned in the revision that took place in 1969 when it finally was formally removed.
Nevertheless, the legend is still remembered each year on the feast of the dedication of the basilica by the release of white rose petals from the dome during the Mass and Second Vespers of the feast. A nice devotional tradition that is charming to be present at.
The Papal Patriarchal Major Basilica & The Popes
The Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore (St Mary Major) not only has lots of different names, but also has a lot of statuses.
Firstly, it is a Basilica. No Catholic Church can be raised to the level of a Basilica without a formal apostolic grant which are not easy to come by.
Secondly, it is one of the 5 traditional Patriarchal Basilicas, namely the Patriarchate of Antioch.
Thirdly, it is now designated as a Papal Basilica.
Finally it is one of only 4 Major Basilicas that are the most important basilicas in Rome. The most important of course being the Arch-Basilica and Cathedral of Rome (and so the Mother Church of the World) – St John Lateran.
The highest ranking Basilicas in the Catholic Church are the 4 major Basilicas, all located in Rome. They are: the Cathedral and so Mother Church of Rome – the Arch-Basilica of St John Lateran (home to the heads of Sts Peter & Paul), the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore (St Mary Major), the Basilica of St Paul Outside the Walls (home of the body of St Paul), and the Basilica of St Peter (home of the body of St Peter).
The title Major Basilica was brought in by the papal bull Antiquorum Fida Relatio by Pope Boniface in 1300 (when the heads of Sts Peter & Paul were transferred from the Ark of Leo III to the Arch-Basilica of St John Lateran). In that year Pope Boniface instituted a Holy Jubilee Year and granted certain indulgences attached to those 4 Major Basilicas.
Ever since, these 4 Major Basilicas have served as a focus for pilgrims venturing to Rome on pilgrimage in order to deepen their faith and avail themselves of merciful indulgences.
Each of the traditional 5 Latin Patriarchates of the world – Patriarchate of Rome/the West, Patriarchate of Constantinople, Patriarchate of Antioch, Patriarchate of Jerusalem and the Patriarchate of Alexandria. Traditionally each Patriarchate was represented in Rome with a titular “Patriarchal Basilica”, and as mentioned, the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore was the Patriarchal Basilica of the Patriarchate of Antioch.
However, it was decided that these ancient understandings of Patriarchates was no longer helpful in the modern world, and the title of the Patriarchate of the West was abandoned in 2009 by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity under the pontificate of Benedict XVI. Of course the schisms of history and development of the Catholic Church geographically have today resulted in a different classification and identification.
Instead of the term Patriarchal Basilica, the term now used is simply Papal Basilica to designate the high importance of the Basilica without tying it to now outdated notions of the previous Patriarchates. There are therefore 5 Papal Basilicas – St Mary Major, St Peters, St John Lateran, St Paul Outside the Walls and St Sebastian Outside the Walls.
When the papacy returned to Rome towards the end of the 14th Century after the Avignon Controversy, their usual home of the Lateran Palace adjoining Rome’s Cathedral of St John Lateran was inhabitable and dilapidated. Consequently they lived at Santa Maria Maggiore until eventually relocating to the Vatican where the successors to St Peter live today.
There are 6 popes buried in the Major Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore – Pope Clement VIII, Pope Honorius III, Pope Clement IX, Pope Nicholas IV, Pope St Pius V, and Pope Sixtus V.
The Basilica also contains the relics of St Jerome who was famous for translating the Bible from Hebrew & Greek into the Latin Vulgate during the 4th and 5th centuries.
The Basilica & Mary
The Basilica as we see it now is essentially as was built by Pope Sixtus III in 432 A.D. For those readers amongst you who know about early Church history, especially in regard to the development of a coherent rationale of doctrine to explain the beliefs always held, you will remember that 431 AD (the previous year) was a very important year in the history of the Church – the year of the Council of Ephesus.
It was this Council that decided one of the Christological problems of the time by declaring that Mary was the Mother of God (Theotokos in Greek, or Dei Para in Latin). Mary was formally declared to be the Mother of the Person of Jesus Christ, the 2nd person of the Divine Trinity – God Almighty.
The Church celebrated this promulgation with great jubilation and Pope Sixtus III wanted to further honour Our Lady and record this magnificent title by re-constructing the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in 432 – the beginning of his Pontificate.
Although claiming it’s more conspicuous origins in the Pontificate of Pope Liberius (352-366) before the major work of Pope Sixtus III in 432, the Basilica also underwent other work over time for the purposes of restoration, redecoration or extension.
Works are understood to have taken place under the pontificates of:
- Pope Eugene III (1145-1153),
- Pope Nicholas IV (1288-1292) – the first Franciscan pope who extended the apse and commissioned the grand mosaic as we see it today,
- Pope Clement VI (1348-1358) – during the Avignon controversy after a great earthquake in Rome in 1348
- Pope Sixtus V (1585-1590) – commissioned the (2nd) Sistine side chapel
- Pope Paul V (1605-1621) – commissioned the Borghese side chapel and the palace like wings to the Basilica
- Pope Clement X (1670-1676)
- Benedict XIV (1740-1758) – commissioned a protective screen facade to protect the external 5th century mosaics and other works by the architect Ferdinando Fuga.
The original architecture of the 5th century Basilica “so closely resembles a 2nd century imperial Basilica that it has sometimes been thought to have been adapted from a basilica for use as a Christian church. Its plan was based on Hellenistic principles stated by Vitruvius at the time of Augustus.” 6
Vitruvius was the Roman architect par excellence who expressed the correct proportions and principles to be employed in the design of a Basilica. The dimensions of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore conform to these exactly.
Indeed, the marble columns leading up the nave are indeed all 1st century columns repurposed from either the first Basilica or other Roman monuments.
The bell tower, or campanile, is the tallest in Rome at 146 ft / 75 metres.
From the exterior, the Basilica looks a lot like a palace, which is understandable given that it served as the papal residence for a time.
On entering the Basilica, one is overwhelmed by the grand proportions and golden opulence that greets your eyes.
Much of this golden colour comes from the golden ceiling which was designed by Guillermo Sangallo (a Spaniard) and which was carved in wood but with gold overlaid. That gold was some of the first gold to be brought back from the New World – the Americas – by Christopher Columbus who gave it to the Spanish King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, who in turn donated some to the Spanish Pope at the time – Pope Alexander VI – where it was eventually used for the ceiling here.
Perhaps the most important features of the interior however are the 5th century mosaics that line the nave and which culminate in the 5th century mosaics of a different style on the triumphal arch.
These nave mosaics chart the different stories through the Old Testament that point to Mary and Jesus as the fulfilment of the prophesies. To walk up the nave is to walk forward in the Jewish Old Testament salvation history, to arrive at the link between the Jewish Old Testament and Catholic New Testament – Mary.
Thus the aftermath of the Council of Ephesus is being shown – with Mary as the Mother of Jesus, Mother of God, and also showing the unity of Scripture.
Icon of Salus Populi Romani
One of the most miraculous icons in Christendom, the Icon of Salus Populi Romani is an icon of Our Lady holding Christ. Tradition holds that it was painted by St Luke, but we do know that it arrived in Rome in 590 and was greeted by Pope Gregory the Great who attributed to it the cessation of a deadly plague in the city that had claimed his predecessor.
Pope Gregory the Great saw a vision of St Michael the Archangel above the Mausoleum of Hadrian with a great flaming sword that he sheathed, which Pope Gregory interpreted as the wrath of God being put away. The plague ceased, and a great statue of St Michael was placed on top of the Mausoleum to commemorate the event. This is now called the Castel Sant’Angelo and forms part of our Holy Art & Architecture Tour.
The miraculous icon has been a particular favour of many popes, with Pope Francis refusing to leave Rome before having first come to the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore to pray before it.
The symbolism contained within the icon is also very interesting and will be explained by our guides on the tours mentioned below.
To see the amazingly historic Major Papal Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore for yourself, and be taken around with expert explanation of all that you see, consider booking yourself on either our Passion of Christ Tour or 4 Papal Basilicas Tour and be shown not only this fantastic Basilica, but many other Basilicas, relics and breathtaking art work to enrich your faith and your lives.
- Justin Martyr who was martyred in 165 states this in his Dialogue of Trypho 70, and Origen also says the same in about 215 in his work Against Celius I.51
- Ott, Michael (1913). “Our Lady of the Snow“. Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved 2008-12-17
- Calendarium Romanum 1969, p. 99
- Miles, Margaret R. (1993). “Santa Maria Maggiore’s Fifth-Century Mosaics: Triumphal Christianity and the Jews”. Harvard Theological Review. 86 (2): 155–172