Basilica of St. Mary Major


Santa Maria Maggiore is also called Basilica Liberiana or "Our Lady of the Snow" because a legend tells that Pope Liberius had it constructed on the Esquilino hill where snow had fallen in August, exactly in the shape of a basilica. This miracle is still celebrated on August 5th each year, but the basilica in reality has been built under Pope Sixtus III (432-440) on the occasion of the Council of Ephesos in 431, in which the veneration of St. Mary as Theotokos (Virgin Mother of God) was sanctioned.

Probably Sixtus III intended the Marian basilica as a manifestation in favor of the new cult of the Madonna which was very much discussed at that time. The early Christian basilica and especially its facade have been redesigned in the Baroque period. The beautiful Campanile (bell tower) is what has remained from the medieval times.

The nave with its two side aisles has maintained the form of the early Christian basilica, but has been broken up by various Baroque side chapels. The heavy coffered ceiling attributed to Giuliano da Sangallo has been layered with the first gold that Columbus brought from America. The mosaic floor in the Cosmati style is originally preserved from the mediaeval church, like the apse mosaic by Jacopo Torriti on the coronation of the Virgin, which dates back to 1295 and can be considered the main work of the last culmination of Roman mosaic art. The almost narrative mosaics of the triumphal arch are approximately 700 years older, while the mosaics in the nave above the pillars even come from the very first basilica, from the 4th century.

On the right and left side of the main altar are the two most important Baroque lateral chapels: on the right side the Chapel of the Sacrament or Cappella Sistina (named after Pope Sixtus V) and on the left the Borghese Chapel or Cappella Paolina with the icon of the Madonna Salus populi romani (Health of the Roman people) which is particularly venerated by the Romans.