The ancient Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore is home to some of the most beautiful mosaics in Rome.
The mosaics in the nave and on the triumphal arch were created during the reign of Pope Sixtus III (r. 432-40).
In the nave, only 27 of the original 42 mosaics survive. The mosaics recount stories from the Old Testament, taken mostly from the Books of Exodus and Joshua.
The mosaics on the triumphal arch focus on scenes from the New Testament, starting in the upper left with the Annunciation. Mary dressed like a Roman princess, holds a spindle as she weaves a purple veil for the Temple where she serves. The story continues with the Annunciation to Joseph, the Adoration of the Magi and the Massacre of the Innocents. In the last scene, there is a woman in a blue robe facing away from the other women. This is St Elizabeth, fleeing with her son John the Baptist in her arms.
Events continue in the upper right with the Presentation in the Temple, the Flight into Egypt and the Three Magi Before Herod. At the base of the arch are two cities, Bethlehem on the left and Jerusalem on the right.
In the centre of the arch is an empty throne, which is flanked by St Peter and St Paul. Together they will form the church of which Peter is the leader, and Sixtus III his successor. In his role as EPISCOPUS PLEBI DEI, the Pope's duty is to guide the people of God towards the heavenly Jerusalem. The empty throne, known as the Etimasia, awaits the second coming of Christ.
Towards the end of the thirteenth century, Nicholas IV (r. 1288-92), the first Franciscan pope, decided to destroy the old apse and construct the present one, placing it several metres back so as to create a space for the choir. The decoration of the new apse was executed by the Franciscan Jacopo Torriti, and the work paid for by Cardinals Giacomo and Pietro Colonna.
Torriti's mosaics are divided into two parts. The central medallion depicts the Coronation of the Virgin, while the lower band illustrates the most important events in Mary's life.
My name is David Lown and I am an art historian from Cambridge, England. Since 2001 I have lived in Italy, where I run private and
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