This week’s Blog is devoted to our recent visit to the basilica of St. Mary Major. 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.
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 a testimony to the essential role of Mary in God’s plan of salvation history.
“When looking at the Basilica of Saint Mary Major it is important to note that it is not just an architectural wonder, but also a theological lesson. By understanding the artwork of Mary in conjunction with Luke’s gospel, many parallels can be drawn…” Tim Evans
According to the medieval legend, the first church dedicated to Mary was on the Esquiline hill, built by Pope Liberius (352-366AD) on the site of an ancient market place.
“The Basilica of St. Mary Major was actually built because Mary appeared to Pope Liberius in a dream and told him to dedicate and build a church where the snow falls that night. The snow Mary promised did appear on the Esquiline hill on August 5th, which is now the feast of our ‘Lady of the Snows’.” Riley Dowd
Since medieval times Romans have believed that the relics of the Manger of Bethlehem or even the whole Grotto itself was transferred into the Basilica of St. Mary Major. For these relics the Oratory of the Crib, the Oratorium ad Presepe was built. Since ancient times, on Christmas morning, a procession of the Santa Culla, the Holy Crib, is held in the basilica.
“The church is magnificent in size, and beneath the high altar lies what is known as the Holy Crib, containing wood from the original manger that held Jesus. This emphasizes the Birth Christology of Luke…” Katie Melkonian
“In the front of the altar is the Confessio, which holds the relics of Christ’s Manger. These relics are believed to have been brought from Bethlehem at the same time as the body of St. Jerome. The relics serve an important purpose because they provide a tangible reality to a faith that is based mostly on the intangible.” Bryn Roeder
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 .
“When on the site visit, the main area of the basilica had stories on left and right side that traced back to the Old Testament. On the left hand side there were stories of Abraham and Jacob and on the right hand side there were stories of Joshua and Moses. These stories connect us back to the Old Testament and show that the Christian religion has been developing throughout time.This idea of rooting Christianity to the past can also be seen in Luke’s Gospel when he explains Jesus’ genealogy.” Francesca Coughlin
“One of the mosaic images in the basilica is the six sheep, which gather at the gate of Bethlehem, symbolize Christians of Gentile descent. Together with the other six lambs standing at the gate of Jerusalem, they represent the whole Church. As you can see, Luke’s Gospel and the basilica of St. Mary Major connect in numerous ways.” Nicole Patrina
This mosaic salvation history cycle is completed by the scenes of the Incarnation and the infancy of Christ on the triumphal arch.
The apse mosaics are not as old as the ones of the central nave and of the triumphal arch. They were created during the pontificate of Pope Nicholas IV (1288-1292AD). The apse is decorated with stories of Mary’s life that are below the central scene of the Coronation of the Virgin. The most important one of this cycle is in the center. The Dormition or the Transitus is the traditional representation of the firm belief that Mary, after her earthly life, is now with her Son. This tradition is common to both the Eastern and the Western Church.
“Another piece of art where we can see that Mary is a special woman is the scene of her death. We see her reclining of her deathbed surrounded by the apostles. Jesus is mothering Mary into resurrection and she is assumed bodily into heaven. We know this because there are no relics of Mary. She was afforded with this privilege because she held God in her body.” Meaghan Mahoney
“Seeing the beauty of the basilica, we recognized the beauty of Mary and that her body was sacred all along, as it had held God inside. I suddenly realized what my grandma’s passion and obsession with Mother Mary was all for, as she truly was a “walking tabernacle”.” Nathan Rosadini
“This coronation is interesting in that Mary is only sitting with Jesus because he has invited her to, not because she is of the same status or worth. Though she is not divine like Christ, the Catholic Church venerates Mary, and this apse is the culminating point of all the mosaics in the church, commemorating the declaration at the Council of Ephesus that the Virgin was the Mother of God.” Jacqueline Condon
“While the Church was dedicated to Mary, there are no relics there, in fact, there are no relics of the Virgin Mary anywhere. This is because Mary doesn’t decay, her body is resurrected immediately, this is her exaltation, she is the greatest creature ever…” Dan DeFilippo
Pope Paul V built the chapel for the most venerated image of Virgin Mary, the Salus populi Romani. This icon of the Byzantine style 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 the book. 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.
“The image of “Madonna and Child with Crossed Hands” shows Mary with the baby Jesus, and above her head are three stars. These three stars represent one of the most significant beliefs in Christianity, that Mary was a virgin before, during, and after Christ’s birth.” Leo Latz
“Mary is often referred to as the archetype of the church. Mary carries the body of Christ during her pregnancy. Thus, Mary carries the flesh of God with her. This is also symbolic of the presence of God through communion and the Eucharist. In other words, God is present in the church through the Eucharist. Thus, Mary is the archetype of the church because she is housing the presence of God, similarly the church houses the presence of God.” Alivia Thoubboron