The church of Santa Maria Maggiore, which is one of Rome's four papal basilicas (the others are San Giovanni in Laterano, San Paolo fuori le Mura and San Pietro in Vaticano), was built during the reign of Pope Sixtus III (r. 432-40), immediately after the Council of Ephesus (431) had declared Mary to be the mother of God.
The church is often referred to as Santa Maria della Neve (St Mary of the Snow), on account of a curious story relating to its origin. According to legend, in 358, a Roman couple, who were childless, decided to leave their worldly goods to the Virgin Mary. The couple were visited in their sleep by the Virgin Mary, who told them to build a church in her honour on a spot marked by snow. As this was in August, the hottest month of the year in Rome, the couple were, not to say, a little confused. They approached Pope Liberius (r. 352-66) only to discover that he’d had an identical dream. The pope accompanied the pair to their property on the Esquiline Hill only to find a large patch of snow. The basilica that was built during the reign of Liberius may have stood nearby, but it is not the church of Santa Maria Maggiore, which was built almost a century later. However, the legend is still marked here each year on August 5th.
One enters the church through a portico, which was added by the Florentine architect Ferdinando Fuga (1699-1782) in the middle of the 18th century. Thankfully, its creation didn’t destroy the beautiful medieval mosaics which adorn the façade. The mosaics, which date back to the end of the 13th century, are signed by Filippo Rusuti (c.1255- c.1325) and recount the legendary story of the summer snowfall.
The nave is divided from the two aisles by 36 ionic columns, which support architraves rather than arches.
The sumptuously gilded, coffered wooden ceiling was created (c. 1498) for the Spanish pope, Alexander VI (r. 1492-1503), by Giuliano da Sangallo (c.1443-1516) and funded by the Spanish monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella. Here we can see the heraldic bull of the infamous Borgia family, of which the pope was a member.
The lower part of the nave walls are decorated with a series of small mosaics from the 5th century, some of the oldest in Rome. They recount four episodes of sacred history featuring Abraham, Jacob, Moses and Joshua. The cycle, which does not proceed in chronological order, starts on the left wall with the sacrifice of Melchizedek.
The triumphal arch is decorated with mosaics which depict scenes from the New Testament. The arch was originally the apsidal arch until Pope Nicholas IV (1288-92) destroyed the old apse and built the present one, which he placed several metres back so as to create a space for the choir. However, the mosaics date back to the papacy of Sixtus III (r. 432-40), as an inscription in the centre makes clear, XYSTVS EPISCOPVS PLEBIDEI (Sixtus Bishop to the People of God). The mosaics contain some of the oldest representations of the Virgin Mary in Christian art.
The mosaics in the apse, the work of Jacopo Torriti, were created at the end of the 13th century and are divided into two distinct parts. The central medallion depicts the Coronation of the Virgin Mary, while the lower band illustrates important events from her life. In the centre of the medallion we see Jesus and Mary seated on a large, oriental throne. In placing a jewelled crown on Mary’s head, Christ makes his mother the Queen of Heaven. The star-filled medallion represents the universe, with images of the sun and moon beneath their feet. To the far left we see St Peter, St Paul, St Francis and the smaller figure of Pope Nicolas IV genuflecting. To the right we see St John the Baptist, St John the Evangelist, St Anthony and the diminutive kneeling figure of the donor, Cardinal Colonna.
The scene of the Dormition of the Virgin is situated directly below that of her Coronation. Mary is depicted reclining on a bed, while Jesus cradles her pure white soul before carrying her off to heaven.
The mosaics are partly obscured by the giant porphyry and bronze baldacchino, which was built over the high altar on the occasion of the Jubilee of 1750. Its designer was Ferdinando Fuga.
The Confessio, which lies before the high altar, was constructed at the behest of Pope Pius IX (r. 1846-78) to house the relic of the Holy Crib. The silver reliquary holds fragments of wood believed to come from the Santa Culla, the Holy Manger in which the infant Jesus was laid. The relics of the crib (presepio in Italian) have also led the church to be called Santa Maria ad Praesepem. The statue of Pope Pius IX was placed in the crypt by his successor, Pope Leo XIII (r. 1878-1903).
Unbeknown to most people, there are two Sistine Chapels in Rome. One, as everyone knows, is in Vatican City, and is named after Pope Sixtus IV (r. 1471-83), while the other can be found in Santa Maria Maggiore and is named after Pope Sixtus V (1585-90). The chapel, which lies off the right aisle, is also known as the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament. Designed and built by Domenico Fontana (1543-1607) between 1587 and 1589, the central space is dominated by a large tabernacle, which takes the form of the chapel itself.
The tabernacle is held aloft by four gilded angels. The stairs lead down to the crypt, whose design reproduces that of the holy cave in Bethlehem, above which now stands the Church of the Nativity. Here we find the remains of St Jerome, one of the original four Fathers of the Church, who translated the Bible into Latin. As St Jerome lived as a hermit next to the holy cave, it was thought fitting to preserve his relics here. The Sistine Chapel also contains the tombs of its namesake and his early patron, Pope Pius V (r. 1559-65).
On the opposite side of the church, off the left aisle, stands the Pauline Chapel, which was made for and named after Camillo Borghese, who, in 1605, was elected Pope Paul V (r. 1605-21). The chapel was ostensibly built to house the Maria Salus Populi Romanus, a sacred image of the Madonna and Child believed by the faithful to have been partly painted by St Luke. The icon is at least a thousand years old and derives its name, Mary Salvation of the Roman People, from the assistance it once provided in keeping the plague away from the city. The chapel took six years to complete (1606-12) and its designer was Flaminio Ponzio. The low-relief on the high altar, the work of Stefano Maderno, depicts Pope Liberius tracing the perimeter of his basilica in the snow.
Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680), the man who did so much to create the image of Baroque Rome, is buried (with members of his family) in a vault to the right of the high altar.
Rising to a height of 75 metres (250 feet), the 14th century bell tower of Santa Maria Maggiore is the tallest in Rome.