Situated on the summit of the Esquiline Hill, St. Mary Major is the only
patriarchal basilica of the four in Rome to have retained its paleo-Christian structures.
Tradition has it that the Virgin Mary herself inspired the choice of the Esquiline Hill for the church's
construction. Appearing in a dream to both the Patrician John and Pope Liberius, she asked that a church be built in her honor
on a site she would miraculously indicate.
The morning of August 5th, the Esquiline Hill was covered with a blanket of snow. The pope traced
out the perimeter of the basilica in the snow, and John financed the construction of the new church.
Nothing remains of this church but a few lines in the Liber Pontificalis affirming that Pope Liberius
"Fecit basilicam nomini suo iuxta Macellum Liviae." Recent excavations underneath the present church
have not brought to light any remains of this ancient structure.
However, many important archeological monuments such as the stupendous calendar from the second or third century AD and remains of Roman walls
have been discovered.
The Romanesque bell tower, built by Gregory XI after his return from Avignon, rises 75 meters high and is the tallest in Rome. The belfry contains five bells, one of which,
"La Sperduta," or "the lost one," rings every evening at nine with its distinctive sound to call the faithful to prayer.
To the right upon entering the portico stands a statue of King Phillip IV of Spain,
one of the Basilica's benefactors. The clay model for this sculpture was created by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in the seventeenth century, though Girolamo Lucenti carved the finished work. The central door is made of bronze and
was cast by Ludovico Pogliaghi in 1949, displaying episodes from the life of Mary framed by images of Prophets, Evangelists and the four women of the Old Testament who prefigure the Blessed Virgin. To
the left stands the new Holy Door, blessed by John Paul II on December 8, 2001.
It was completed by the sculptor Luigi Mattei and donated to the basilica by the Order of the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
The right panel of the Holy Door shows the Resurrected Christ modelled after the image on the Shroud of Turin, who appears
to Mary, represented here as Salus Populi Romani. In the upper left corner
lies a representation of the Annunciation at the Well, a story drawn from apocryphal Gospels, while on the right there is an image of Pentecost. The lower corners
display on the left, the Council of Ephesus which proclaimed Mary as
THEOTOKOS, Mother of God and on the right, the Second Vatican Council which declared Mary
Mater Ecclesiae or Mother of the Church. The Papal coat-of-arms of John Paul II,
as well as his motto Totus Tuus, lies above the door, while the two emblems further down are those of Cardinal Carlo Furno, archpriest of the Basilica in 2001, and of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre.
The present Basilica dates back to the fifth century AD.
Its construction was tied to the Council of Ephesus
of 431 AD, which proclaimed Mary Theotokos,
Mother of God. Sixtus III commissioned and financed
the project as Bishop of Rome. Crossing the threshold, one is overwhelmed by the vision of vast space, splendid marbles, and marvelous decoration. The monumental effect is due to the structure of the basilica and the harmony that reigns among the principal architectural elements. Constructed according to Vitruvius' canon of rhythmic elegance, the basilica is divided into a nave and two side aisles by two rows of precious columns. Above these columns runs the skillfully wrought entablature, interrupted at the transept by the grand arches erected for the building of the Sistine and Pauline chapels. The area between the columns and the ceiling was once punctuated by large windows, half of which still remain, while the other half have been
covered over by a wall. Over the walled windows, today one can admire frescos showing
stories from the life of the Virgin. Above the window and frescos, a wooden frieze adorned with an exquisite inlay of
cupid-like figures riding bulls unites the cornice with the ceiling. The bulls are the symbol of the Borgia family; and the
coat of arms of Callixtus III and Alexander VI, the Borgia popes, stand out at the center of the ceiling. It is not clear what contribution Callixtus III made to this work, but it is certain that Alexander VI carried out the project while he was still archpriest of the Basilica. The coffered ceiling was designed by Giuliano Sangallo and later completed by his brother Antonio. Tradition has it
that the first gold brought from the New World,
which Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain offered to
Alexander VI, was utilized for the ceiling's
gilding. The pavement of intricately inlaid stones extends before us like a splendid carpet. Designed by the marble masters of the Cosmati family in the thirteenth century, it was donated by the Roman nobleman Scotus Paparoni and his son Giovanni. The unique quality of St. Mary Major however, comes from the fifth century mosaics, commissioned by Sixtus III, that run along the nave and across the triumphal arch. The nave mosaics recount four cycles of Sacred History featuring Abraham, Jacob, Moses and Joshua; seen together, they are meant to testify to God's promise of a land for the Jewish people and His assistance as they strive to reach it.
The story, which does not proceed in chronological order, starts on the left-hand wall near the triumphal arch with the Sacrifice of the Priest-King Melchisedek. This panel shows clear Roman iconographic influence. Melchisedek is seen using the customary gesture of offering, while Abraham, wearing a Roman toga, is reminiscent of the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius. The next scenes illustrate earlier episodes from the life of Abraham. For a long time, scholars thought that each mosaic was independent of the others, but upon further study it appears that the decoration was planned and organized to hold special meaning. The Melchisedek panel ties the nave images together with those of the triumphal arch which recount the infancy of Christ, King and Priest. Then begins the narrative of Abraham, the most important personage of the Old Testament, to whom God promised a great and powerful nation. The stories continue with Jacob, with whom God renews the promise made to Abraham, Moses, who liberates his people from the slavery in which they were born, making them the chosen people, and finally Joshua, who will lead them to the Promised Land. The journey concludes with two final panels,
frescoed at the time of the restoration commissioned
by Cardinal Pinelli, which show David leading the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem and the Temple of Jerusalem built by Solomon. Jesus was born from the line
of David, and thus Christ's childhood, as narrated in apocryphal Gospels, is illustrated in the triumphal arch.
In 1995, a new, rose window in stained glass was created for the main façade by Giovanni Hajnal. It reaffirms the declaration of the Second Vatican Council that Mary, the exalted daughter of Zion, is the link that unites the Church to the Old Testament. To symbolize the Old Testament, Hajnal used the seven-branched candlestick, for the New Testament, the chalice of the Eucharist.
The triumphal arch is composed of four
images. The first, in the upper left, shows the Annunciation, with Mary robed like a Roman princess. She 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 this last scene, there is a woman in a blue robe facing away from the other women; she is St. Elizabeth, fleeing with her son John the Baptist in her arms.
The upper right illustrates the Presentation in the Temple, the Flight
into Egypt and the encounter between the Holy Family and Aphrodisius, governor of Sotine.
The Apocryphal Gospels recount that when Jesus took refuge in Sotine in Egypt, the 365 idols of the capitol fell down. Awed by this prodigy, Aphrodisius, remembered the fate of Pharaoh and hastened with his army to adore the Child Jesus, recognizing His Divinity. The last scene represents the Magi before Herod. At the bottom of the arch lie two cities, Bethlehem on the left and Jerusalem on the right. Bethlehem is the place where Jesus was born and where the Epiphany took place, while Jerusalem is where He died and rose again. The obvious connection between these scenes and the theme of the Apocalypse, the Second Coming at the end of time, can be seen in the empty throne in the center of the arch, flanked by St. Peter, who was called by Christ to spread the Good News among the Jews, and St. Paul,
who was entrusted to evangelize the Gentiles. Together they will form the church of which Peter is the leader, and Sixtus III is his successor. In his role of Episcopus plebi Dei the Pope's duty is to guide the people of God towards the
heavenly Jeruselem. In the thirteenth century, Nicholas IV, the first Franciscan pope, decided to destroy the old apse and construct the present one, placing it several meters back so as to create a transept for the choir between the arch and the apse. The decoration of the apse was executed by the Franciscan Jacopo Torriti, and the work was paid for by Cardinals Giacomo and Pietro Colonna.
Torriti's mosaic is divided into two distinct parts. The central medallion of the apse shows the Coronation of the Virgin while the lower band illustrates the most important moments of her life. In the center of the medallion, enclosed by concentric circles, Jesus and Mary are seated on a large oriental throne. The Son is placing a jeweled crown on Mary's
head. In this mosaic, Mary is not only seen as
mother but as Mother Church, bride of her Son. The
sun, the moon and a choir of adoring angels are arranged around their feet, while St. Peter, St. Paul, and St. Francis of Assisi along with Pope Nicholas IV flank them on the left. On the right, Torriti portrayed St. John the Baptist, St. John the Evangelist, St. Anthony and the donor, Cardinal Colonna.
The rest of the apse decoration is composed of two acanthus trees placed at the extreme left and right of the mosaic, whose branches curl and blossom around the gold background. In the lower apse, mosaic scenes showing the life of the Madonna are arranged to the left and right of the central panel, which represents the Dormition of the Virgin
and is situated directly below the image of the Coronation.
This way of describing the death of Mary is typical
of Byzantine iconography, but was also widely
diffused in the West after the Crusades.
Mary is represented lying on a bed, as angels prepare to transport her body to Heaven under the eyes of the astonished apostles. Jesus
takes her pure white soul into his arms, about to carry
her off to Paradise. Torriti embellished the scene with two little Franciscan figures and a layman wearing a thirteenth century cap. Below the Dormition Pope Benedict XIV placed the splendid painting of the Nativity of Christ by Francesco Mancini. Between the ionic pilasters arranged under the mosaics, Ferdinando Fuga placed a series of low-relief panels by Mino del Reame representing the Nativity, the Miracle of the Snows and the Foundation of the Basilica under Pope Liberius, the Assumption of the Virgin and the Adoration of the Magi. Fuga also designed the graceful canopy that rises over the central altar.
The Confession, or reliquary crypt, lies before the main altar, and was constructed by Virginio Vespignani at the behest of Pope Pius IX to contain the sacred relic of the Holy Crib. The crystal reliquary, shaped like a crib, contains pieces of ancient wood which tradition holds to be part of the manger where
the Baby Jesus was laid. The Ambassadress of Portugal donated the reliquary which was designed by Giuseppe Valadier. The statue of Pius IX, the Pope of the Immaculate Conception, was sculpted by Ignazio Jacometti and placed in the crypt by Leo XIII.
The Holy Crib
In the crypt under the high altar lies the celebrated relic known as the Holy Crib. A statue of Pope Pius IX kneeling before the ancient wooden pieces of the manger serves as an example to the faithful who come to see the first humble crib of the Savior. Pius IX's devotion to the Holy Crib led him to commission the crypt chapel, and his coat of arms is visible above the altar. The precious crystal urn trimmed in silver, through which the faithful can venerate the relic, was designed by Giuseppe Valadier.
Arnolfo di Cambio's "Crib"
The spiritual and sentimental image of the reconstruction of
the "Crib" in remembrance of the venerated
event of Christ's birth, originated in 432 when Pope Sixtus
III (432-440) created, within the primitive
Basilica, a "cave of the Nativity" similar to
that in Bethlehem. Numerous pilgrims returning to Rome from the Holy Land, brought
back precious fragments of the Holy Crib (cunambulum), which
are now kept in the golden Confessional shrine.
During the following centuries several popes took care of Sixtus
III's Holy Cave, until Pope Nicolò IV in 1288
commissioned a sculpture of the "Nativity"
by Arnolfo di Cambio.
Many changes and reconstructions took place in the basilica. When Pope Sixtus
V (1585-1590) wished to erect the large Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament or Sistina in the right nave,
he ordered the architect Domenico Fontana to transfer,
without dismantling, the ancient "cave of the Nativity" with
its surviving elements of Arnolfo di Cambio's
The three Magi,
dressed in elegant vestments and shoes in a rough
gothic style, and Saint Joseph admire with a sense
of wonder and reverence the miracle of the Baby in the Virgin Mary's arms (of P. Olivieri) warmed by the ox and the donkey.