We return today to the basilica of Saint Mary Major. This is our second of three visits to Our Lady of the Snows.
Let’s begin outside. The bell tower, built by Gregory XI is the tallest in Rome. The façade is from 1749. What’s interesting about this façade is that it covers a fourteenth century mosaic. The mosaic looks much like the kind one finds inside a church. It shows Christ surrounded by Mary, Apostles and saints. The lower part of the mosaic tells the history of the foundation of this church, which we covered the last time we were here. A small group can sometimes get permission from the sacristan to view this mosaic from the loggia, it’s not open to the public.
On my pilgrimages, people often tell me this is their favorite church, and moving inside, it’s easy to see why. Lots of light streams in from the windows, making the mosaics glimmer. The church is big, but not as overwhelming as Saint Peter’s can be. The space feels open and warm.
Columns of Athenian marble separate the nave from the side aisles. Above the columns, the oldest mosaics in Christian Rome tell the story of Abraham, Jacob, Joshua and Moses. Most of them date back to the fifth century.
The thirteenth century apse mosaic shows the Coronation of Mary. Christ is seated beside His Mother. The mosaics shows that Mary is not only the Mother of Jesus, but also Mother of the Church.
This basilica was constructed based on Vitruvius’ (think, Vitruvian Man) assertion that a structure must exhibit three qualities. A structure must be durable, useful and beautiful. Firmitas, utilitas, venustas. This structure certainly excels in all three categories, save for one very out of place rose window that was placed here in 1995.
Of the four Papal Basilicas, they are no longer called Patriarchal Basilicas, only Saint Mary Major has retained it’s original structure. Though it has been enhanced over the last 1600 years, this is still very much Pope Liberius’ church.
Looking up, one sees a beautiful gilded coffered ceiling with a connection to America. The gold used here was the first brought back from the New World by Columbus. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella gave the gold to Alexander VI.
There is still a lot to see inside Santa Maria Maggiore. We’ll be back on Easter Sunday to explore the very important relics and see who’s buried here.