SAINT MARY MAJOR – Mary and the snow

– Anastasios

The Basilica of Saint Mary Major (one of the four major Basilicas) stands on the Esquiline Hill, one of the seven hills of Rome. If you visit this Basilica you will see some differences between this Basilica and the others. It is not only because this is the only major Basilica dedicated to the Virgin Mary but it has a very peculiar history.

This is how the Vatican website presents to us the history of Saint Mary Major Basilica: “The Patriarchal Basilica of St Mary Major reigns as an authentic jewel in the crown of Roman churches. Its beautiful treasures are of inestimable value and represent the Church’s role as the cradle of Christian artistic civilization in Rome. For nearly sixteen centuries, St Mary Major has held its position as a Marian shrine par excellence and has been a magnet for pilgrims from all over the world who have come to the Eternal City to experience the beauty, grandeur, and holiness of the basilica. Among the Patriarchal Basilicas of Rome, St Mary Major is the only one to have retained its original structure, though it has been enhanced over the years. Special details within the church render it unique including the fifth-century mosaics of the central nave, the triumphal arch dating back to the pontificate of Pope Sixtus III (432-440) and the apsidal mosaic executed by the Franciscan friar Jacopo Torriti at the order of Pope Nicholas IV (1288-1292). Other gems of the church include the Cosmatesque pavement donated by the Roman nobleman Scoto Paparone and his son in 1288, Arnolfo di Cambio’s Nativity scene from the thirteenth century and the coffered ceiling in giltwood designed by Giuliano Sangallo in 1450. The numerous chapels, from the most ornate to the most humble, constructed by popes, cardinals and pious confraternities, the high altar begun by Ferdinando Fuga and later enriched by the genius of Valadier, the Baptistery and finally the relic of the Holy Crib complete the array of splendors contained within these walls. Every column, painting, sculpture and ornament of this basilica resonates with history and pious sentiment.” There are really authentic treasures inside the Basilica, as the Borghese chapel or a very popular image of Mary under the name Salus Populi Romani.

The dedication feast of this Basilica is celebrated on August 5, a feast also called Saint Mary ad nives (of the snow). Why the snow? “The name of the Liberian Basilica was given it, because it was founded in the time of Pope Liberius, in the fourth century; it was consecrated under the title of the Virgin Mary, by Sixtus III., about the year 435.  It is also called St Mary ad Nives, or at the snow, from a popular tradition, that the Mother of God chose this place for a church under her invocation by a miraculous snow that fell upon this spot in summer, and by a vision in which she appeared to a patrician named John, who munificently founded and endowed this church in the pontificate of Liberius. The same Basilica has sometimes been known by the name of St Mary ad Præsepe, from the holy crib or manger of Bethlehem, in which Christ was laid at his birth. It resembles an ordinary manger, is kept in a case of massy silver, and in it lies an image of a little child,  also of silver. The holy manger is taken out of the case and exposed on Christmas-day. It is kept in a sumptuous subterraneous chapel in this church. It is well known how much this holy relic excited the devotion of St Jerome, St Paula, and others when it remained yet at Bethlehem” (from The Lives of the Saints by Alban Butler, 1866). And indeed, the feast of the dedication is also very popular today, despite it being celebrated in August. On that day, during the Mass and Vespers, there is a rain of petals in the church, to remember the miraculous event that led to the foundation of the church. Not only that, but in the late evening outside the Basilica, the snow is recreated with special machinery, for the enjoyment of tourists and pilgrims that usually attend the celebration in considerable numbers.