The record breaking snowfall in New England – measured now in feet rather than inches – has made international news. Here in the Eternal City, we have certainly not had weather like that this Winter. However, we did recently visit a place in Rome where it snowed in August!
According to a medieval legend, the Basilica of St. Mary Major was actually built because the Virgin Mary appeared to Pope Liberius (352-366AD) in a dream and told him to build a church dedicated to her where the snow would fall that night. The snow Mary promised did appear on the Esquiline hill on August 5th, which is now the liturgical feast of our “Lady of the Snows”. As the legend goes, the Pope drew in the snow with his staff where the basilica would stand.
After a lecture on the Gospel of Luke, we toured the basilica which is dedicated to Mary, the Mother of God. Luke’s theology of Mary in his Gospel is highly developed, casting her as a model of discipleship. Actually built in the 5th century, in honor of the title “Mother of God”, conferred on Mary at the Council of Ephesus in 431AD, this church is the oldest one dedicated to Mary in the West.
“In the 5th century, the declaration at the Council of Ephesus stated that the Virgin was the Mother of God (Theotokos). This pivotal moment in Christian history started the movement to create churches to honor Mary, who is both the Mother of God and of all Christian people.” – Madeleine Veith
“The site visit to the Basilica of Saint Mary Major fits perfectly with the theme of Luke’s Gospel. This basilica was built in honor of Mary, the Mother of God, and is a testimony to the essential role of Mary in God’s plan of salvation history.” – EJ Sheehan
Since medieval times, Romans have believed that the relics of the Manger of Bethlehem or even the whole Grotto itself was transferred into this basilica. The relics are kept under the main altar. On Christmas morning, a procession of the Santa Culla, the Holy Crib, is held in the basilica.
“Beneath the most sacred part of the Basilica is what is believed to be wooden remnants of the actual crib of Jesus. One might look at this as the womb of the Basilica, which holds a piece of the sacrality of baby Jesus; as one would think of Mary’s own womb holding baby Jesus for nine months.” – Kadene Pitter
“Another attention grabber in the basilica is what some like to believe to be a part of the Holy Crib, or manger, of Jesus. This is interesting, because Luke’s Gospel has a Birth Christology, so Jesus would become the Messiah at his manger.” – Tim O’Connor
The walls of the central nave and the triumphal arch at the end of this nave are decorated with mosaics from the time of Sixtus III (432-440AD), making them the oldest mosaic cycle in Rome.
This mosaic salvation history cycle is completed by the scenes of the Incarnation and the infancy of Christ on the triumphal arch.
The apse is decorated with the central scene of the “Coronation of the Virgin”. She shares the throne with Christ who crowns her as queen of the cosmos.
“The Basilica of St. Mary Major is itself a testament to Mary’s great faith. In the apse mosaic, in which Mary is seated with Jesus on the same throne, she gestures with her hands towards Jesus, signifying that He is the “main attraction” and that it’s not about her.” – Stephen Beck
St. Mary Major also contains an ancient icon of Mary known as the Salus populi Romani, which hangs in a side chapel built by Pope Paul V. This Byzantine-style icon is from the ninth century, but pious Medieval Romans believed it was painted by the evangelist St. Luke. Mary is represented holding Jesus, who is dressed in a golden tunic and holds a scroll. The hands of Mary are crossed in front of her child. One hand exposes two fingers, which is a sign of the two natures of the person of Christ, who is both human and divine.
Pope Francis has a special devotion to this image of Mary who is the “help and salvation of the Roman people”. The morning after his election as Pope, he made a special visit to pray in this chapel. And now every time he travels, he prays there beforehand to ask her intercession on his journey. Upon his return to Rome, he goes to thank her and usually leaves flowers from the place he has been.