Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore

The Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore is one of Rome’s four papal basilicas, the basilicas of highest rank in the hierarchy of religious buildings, which enjoy special privileges and host within them the papal throne. Built in the mid-fifth century by Pope Sixtus III, it was consecrated to the Virgin Mary. The sources relate that it was built above an earlier place of worship, the Liberian Basilica, built by Pope Liberius in the mid-fourth century in response to a specific request from Our Lady. She appeared to him in a dream and ordered him to dedicate a church at the place that she herself would indicate: the next morning, 5 August, a miraculous snowfall whitened the hill on which Pope Liberius immediately started work. Though the structures belonging to this early church have not yet been found, every year a striking celebration commemorates the miracle of “Our Lady of the Snow”. The basilica built by Pope Sixtus III, with three halls, was decorated with beautiful mosaics depicting scenes from the Old Testament, partially preserved in the central nave and the triumphal arch in front of the apse. The choice of episodes reflects a desire to affirm the divinity of Christ incarnate in the Virgin stated by the Council of Ephesus, which had recently ended. The style is an example of that “visual theology” that aimed to narrate stories and concepts of the faith through images.

The Basilica that we see today is the result of centuries of alterations and reconstructions, creating a genuine treasure trove of valuable art works, executed over the centuries by the most talented artists of each period. Dating back to the mid-twelfth century are the precious Cosmatesque floors, which we now see in Fuga’s eighteenth-century renovation; the decoration of the apse is the late thirteenth-century work of the Franciscan friar Jacopo Torriti who replaced that of the fifth century. The famous Giuliano da Sangallo was responsible for the magnificent coffered ceiling in gilded wood, executed on the orders of Pope Alexander VI Borgia in 1450. Over time, numerous chapels were added to the main body of the church; among them, we should remember the Sistine Chapel commissioned by Pope Sixtus V as the site of his own tomb and that of his family members. Sixtus V, the true architect of the urban transformation of Rome and the Esquiline in the sixteenth century, commissioned its construction from the famous Domenico Fontana, who made widespread use of marbles from ancient Roman monuments in the decorations. The current appearance of the façade, characterized by a large portico surmounted by the loggia for blessings, was designed by Ferdinando Fuga, responsible in the middle years of the eighteenth century for the last major architectural projects carried out on the Basilica. Some fragments belonging to the older phases of the basilica’s decoration destroyed as a result of subsequent renovations, including parts of the Chapel of the Nativity built by Arnolfo di Cambio in the fourteenth century, have been patiently collected in the Basilica Museum, opened in 2001.