While the pilgrimage stop today to St. Mary Major was cancelled due to the snow on the ground, perhaps this unexpected twist still lends us an opportunity to learn about the holy place. In fact one of the best unverified stories about Roman churches surrounds Santa Maria Maggiore. Let’s again stressed “unverified” because the tale — while interesting — has mysterious origins, with no real documentation to back it up. Take it as you will… but (as we know we’ve got a religion history reading the blog) don’t go using this post as historical fact.
Legend has it — according to a synthesis of ever-reliable resources on the Web — that during the time of Pope Liberius, who was pope from 352 to 366, an aristocrat named John and his wife grew a special devotion to the Blessed Mother. The couple was without heirs, and they vowed to donate their properties and possessions to Mary. Unsure of how to put their property to use for the Blessed Mother, they prayed for an answer. Then, one year on August 5 — note that while snow is uncommon in Rome at any time, it’s especially so in August, as August there is generally warmer than our Augusts in Michigan — during the night, snow fell on their property, on the summit of Esquiline Hill. But it only fell on certain areas. After having a vision that same night which instructed them what to do, John and his wife marked off the areas where the snow fell, and what they marked off became ground on which the large, beautiful church of St. Mary Major was built.
Once again, the story has no historical basis. Actually, the story didn’t even seem to materialize until hundreds of years after the basilica was constructed.
Anyhow, for some real history of the Blessed Mother’s major Roman basilica, we go to the Vatican website account:
“Among the Patriarchal Basilicas of Rome, St. Mary Major is the only one to have kept its original structure, though it has been enhanced over the course of years. Special details within the church render it unique including the fifth century mosaics of the central nave, the triumphal arch dating back to the pontificate of Pope Sixtus III (432-440) and the apsidal mosaic executed by the Franciscan friar Jacopo Torriti at the order of Pope Nicholas IV (1288-1292). Other gems of the church include the Cosmatesque pavement donated by the Roman nobleman Scoto Paparone and his son in 1288, Arnolfo di Cambio’s Nativity scene from the thirteenth century and the coffered ceiling in gilt wood designed by Giuliano Sangallo in 1450. The numerous chapels, from the most ornate to the most humble, constructed by popes, cardinals and pious confraternities, the high altar begun by Ferdinando Fuga and later enriched by the genius of Valadier, the Baptistery and finally the relic of the Holy Crib complete the array of splendors contained within these walls. Every column, painting, sculpture and ornament of this basilica resonates with history and pious sentiment.
“From the devout pilgrim absorbed in prayer to the studious art-lover, every visitor to St. Mary Major finds both spiritual and visual fulfillment in this holy place. A visit to the Liberian basilica, as it is also called in honor of Pope Liberius, enriches both the mind and soul. Indeed, it is not uncommon to see visitors rapt in admiration before the spellbinding beauty of the artwork nor, at the same time, to observe the devotion of all those engrossed in prayer in search of comfort and assistance before the image of Mary, who is venerated here under the beloved title of Salus Populi Romani.
“Every August 5th, a solemn celebration recalls the Miracle of the Snows. Before the amazed eyes of the congregation, a cascade of white petals descends from the coffered ceiling, blanketing the hypogeum. From the very beginning of his pontificate, Pope John Paul II requested that an oil lamp burn day and night under the icon of the Salus Populi Romani, as witness to his great devotion to the Madonna.”
Don’t forget to check out the Vatican website’s virtual tour of the amazing basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore.