The ancient church of Santa Maria Maggiore (St Mary Major) is home to some of the oldest and 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.
The Etimasia with St Peter and St Paul
In the centre of the triumphal 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 one of his successors. In his role as the EPISCOPVS PLEBI DEI (Bishop of God's people), 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.
Pope 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 painter and mosaicist Jacopo Torriti and financed by Cardinals Giacomo and Pietro Colonna.
Torriti's mosaics are divided into two parts. In the centre of the upper, and much larger section, Christ sits with the Virgin Mary. They share a royal throne and sit on a scarlet cushion, their feet resting on two footstools. Christ is in the act of crowning Mary with a jewelled crown. In his left hand he holds an open book which reads: VENI ELECTA MEA ET PONAM IN TE THRONVM MEVM(Come, my chosen one, and I will put you on my throne). The starry orb surrounding them represents the universe, with the sun and moon at the bottom. It is flanked by hosts of angels.
Coronation of the Virgin Mary
The inscription in the centre of the mosaic declares: MARIA · VIRGO · ASSV[M]PTA · E[ST] · AD ETHEREV[M] · THALAMV[M] · IN · QVO · REX · REGV[M] · STELLATO · SEDET · SOLIO / EXALTATA EST · SANCTA DEI GENETRIX · SVPER CHOROS ANGELORVM · AD CELESTIA REGNA (The Virgin Mary has been taken up to the heavenly bridal chamber in which the King of Kings is seated upon a starry throne. The holy Mother of God has been raised up above the choirs of angels to the Kingdom of Heaven).
Inscription by Jacopo Torriti
Against a golden background, stand six named saints: St Francis, St Paul and St Peter (left), St John the Baptist, St John the Evangelist and St Anthony of Padua (right). The two kneeling figures are Pope Nicholas IV and Cardinal Giacomo Colonna. The mosaic is signed in the left hand hand corner: IACOBVS TORRITI PICTOR HOC OPVS MOSAICVM FECIT (Jacopo Torriti the painter made this mosaic).
The composition is framed by two huge scrolling plants, which are home to a variety of flowers and creatures. At the base, spring four rivers, which merge into one large river. It is animated with scenes of waterfowl and people in boats and at either end is a pagan river god.
The spandrels of the apsidal arch depict the twenty-four elders of the Book of Revelation, above which are the symbols of the four Evangelists. The archivolt bears two vine-scrolls, which contain flowers, birds and little putti. The tondo on the keystone displays the Lamb of God, flanked by the Seven Candlesticks of the Apocalypse.
The Annunciation by Jacopo Torriti
The lower part of the apse depicts five scenes from the life of Mary: Annunciation, Nativity, Dormition, Adoration of the Magi, Presentation of Christ. The Dormition is the most important image, hence its position in the centre, breaking the chronology of the events. The Virgin Mary lies on her bier, asleep rather then dead. Christ is standing within a rainbow cradling her soul. According to one tradition, Mary was not dead but only sleeping for the three days before her assumption.
Mosaic by Filippo Rusuti
The mosaics (1294-1308), which decorate the back wall of what is now the Benediction Loggia, at the front of the church, are (in part) the work of Filippo Rusuti, a pupil of Jacopo Torriti. There are two registers, the upper one being signed by Rusuti; there are, however, doubts about the lower register, on the grounds of style and the quality of the workmanship.
In the centre of the upper register is an image of Christ the Pantocrator. Sitting on a scarlet cushion, on a richly decorated throne, Christ holds an open book, which displays the text: EGO SVM LVX MVNDI QVI (I am the light of the world, who), a quotation from the Gospel of St John (8:12). At the bottom of the band around the tondo is Rusuti's signature: PHILIPP RVSVTI FECIT HOC OPVS (Filippo Rusuti made this work). The tondo is flanked by four angels, two of which hold candlesticks. By the feet of these two angels are two small figures, Cardinals Pietro and Jacopo Colonna.
The mosaics in the lower register illustrate an ancient legend relating to the foundation of Santa Maria Maggiore. On the night of August 4th, 352, the Virgin Mary appeared to Pope Liberius (r. 352-366) and John, a patrician of Rome. She told them that in the morning they would find a patch of snow covering the spot where they were to build a church. The prediction was fulfilled and the new church was called Santa Maria della Neve (St Mary of the Snow).