“It is important to know that the Mariology can never stand on its own. It always starts with Christology. The focus is never on her, instead it is on her son, Christ.” Chelsea Lynch
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.
“Since Jesus is truly God and truly man, then it needs to be understood that Mary is mother of both the human and divine Jesus. Mary is given the honor by the Holy Spirit to “house” the Son of God for nine months, and by doing this she houses the very presence of God in her womb.” Connor Spatz
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.
“The Virgin Mary appeared telling Pope Liberius to build a Church on the Esquiline. The Church honors Mary and acknowledges her as the Mother of God.It is a testimony to the essential role Mary played in God’s plan for salvation history.” Aaron Giroux
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 Confessio in the basilica further emphasizes Mary’s importance in salvation history, as the birth mother of Christ. Placed in front of the altar, it contains a fragment of the crib of the Infant Jesus from Bethlehem. The relics provide a positive contribution to the study of the Gospels because these come from the material from Jesus’s lifetime.” Kathryn McDougal
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 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.
“In an almond shaped nimbus known as a mandorla…the image shows that Mary did not “ascend” into heaven but was carried by her Son, who is her Savior and the Savior of the whole human race…This is significant because Mary brought Jesus into the world, but here the roles are reversed as he brings her out of it.” Darragh Quinn
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.