The Confessio, or reliquary crypt, which lies before the main altar of Santa Maria Maggiore, was designed by the architect Virginio Vespignani (1808-82), at the behest of Pope Pius IX (r. 1846-78), to house the sacred relics of the Holy Crib.
The crystal reliquary contains pieces of ancient wood, which the faithful hold to be part of the manger where Jesus was laid. The statue of Pius IX, kneeling in prayer, is the work of the Roman sculptor Ignazio Jacometti (1819-83). It was placed in the crypt by Pope Leo XIII (r. 1878-1903).
The celebration of the Holy Crib originated in 432 when Pope Sixtus III (r. 432-440) created, within the newly-built Basilica, a "cave of the Nativity" similar to that in Bethlehem. Numerous pilgrims, returning to Rome from the Holy Land, brought back fragments of the Holy Crib (cunambulum), which were housed in the Basilica.
In 1288 when Pope Nicolas IV (r. 1288-92) commissioned Arnolfo di Cambio to create a sculpture of the scene of the Nativity for the 'cave'.
Three centuries later, when Pope Sixtus V (r. 1585-1590) wished to erect the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament, better known as the Cappella Sistina, he ordered the architect Domenico Fontana to dismantle the 'cave', but to preserve Arnolfo di Cambio's sculpture.
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 walking tours of Rome.
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