Santa Maria Maggiore

Santa Maria Maggiore (21)

The legend tells that in 356 AD, Pope Liberius had a dream in which the Virgin ordered him to build a church wherever it snowed. This request was rather unusual since it hardly ever snowed in Rome, and much less in summer. However, one hot morning on the 5th of August it snowed on the Esquiline Hill, and the Pope ordered to be built on this very spot what would become one of the four most important basilicas in Rome.

This famous legend has meant that every August a ceremony is held commemorating the miracle of the snow. So if you have the chance, go there to be able to see how thousands of white petals fall from the ceiling of the chapel to symbolise this snowfall. 

On the other hand, the current church is a later version of the original built at the beginning of the 5th century by Pope Sixtus III.

The most famous thing about Santa Maria Maggiore is its mosaics. In the mosaic of the apse, signed by Jacopo Torriti, one can see a representation of Mary as a Byzantine princess who is being crowned by Jesus. On the 36 panels of the nave there are illustrations of scenes from the Old and New Testaments, although the fact is they are rather high up and difficult to see. 

Also of note is the nave flanked by columns, the marble floor in Cosmatesque style and the lovely ceiling that was decorated with gold from the New World presented as a gift by the Catholic Monarchs.

The confessio contains a gold and silver casket with relics, among which it is believed there are fragments of Jesus’ cot. The large statue you can also see here is a portrait of Pious IX.

The side chapels were added in the 16th and 17th centuries. The one on the left is called the Chapel of Paulina, and was built by Pope Paul V, buried in the crypt of the Borghese family which is below. The chapel on the right, just like its twin in San Pietro, the Sistine Chapel, and was commissioned by Pope Sixtus V. It has decorations with marbles and colours and also houses the tomb of the abovementioned Pontiff.

If your trip to Rome coincides with Christmas, you should be aware that there is an underground crypt, open only at this time of the year and on the Epiphany, and which contains a medieval nativity scene made by Arnolfo di Cambio.

Close to this particular Sistine Chapel, on the ground, you can see a marble tile that marks the spot of the tomb of the sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini. You can also see another tomb in this basilica: that of Cardinal Rodríguez, in Gothic style and with magnificent marbles. 

Two things to note on the outside of the basilica: the first is the bell tower, dating from the 14th century, considered the tallest in Rome. And secondly, look carefully at the column in the square. It is an old marble column to which in 1615 a Virgin and Infant in bronze were added. It originally came from the basilica of Constantine in the Forum.

Finally, we recommend you make a night-time visit to the square where the basilica is so that you can appreciate the lighting over the mosaics. 

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