Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore (Basilica of Saint Mary Major) also known as ‘Our Lady of the Snows’ is a 5th century church and a papal major basilica situated in Rome, Italy. The unusual name ‘Our Lady of the Snows’ only became a popular term during the 14th century as a legend stated that the church was built as a dedication to the Virgin Mary after an apparition. The legend proposed that during the time of Pope Liberius, the Roman patrician John and his wife, who were childless, prayed one night for guidance around how best to dispose of their property after death in honour of God. On the 5th of August, in the middle of the Roman summer, snow fell on the summit of the Esquiline Hill and the couple saw a vision of the Virgin. The church was erected on the summit that had been covered with snow and a liturgical feast was celebrated for centuries on the 5th of August, dedicated to ‘Our Lady of the Snows’. This legend was only first reported around the 11th century and there is little historical evidence of the belief prior to that.
The present church was completed in 438AD and was built under the reign of Pope Sixtus III on the site of an earlier temple to the goddess Cybele. Its interesting to note that Santa Maria Maggiore was one of the first churches built in honour of the Virgin Mary, being erected shortly after the Council of Ephesus (431AD) which proclaimed Mary the Mother of God (Theotokos). The core of the church still dates from the 5th century with some reconstruction after an earthquake in 1348, the interior is covered in mosaics depicting the old testament and the life of the Virgin. Throughout the medieval era successive Popes redecorated the church until the most sustained period of renovation between 1575 and 1630. The Athenian marble columns supporting the nave are one of the oldest parts of the building and may even predate it, taken from the pre-existing Roman temple.
The 5th century mosaics in the basilica are some of the oldest depictions of the Virgin Mary in Christian late antiquity. Under the high altar of the church is the Crypt of the Nativity or Bethlehem Crypt, with a reliquary said to contain wood from the Holy Crib, it is also the burial place of St Jerome, a 4th century saint. One of the small chapels that line each side of the church is named the Borghese Chapel and within it is kept an icon associated with the Virgin, the icon is over 1,000 years old and is revered due to a miracle where Rome was saved from the scourge of the plague. The church is also decorated with many striking memento mori, a personal favourite of mine. The Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore is an absolutely breathtaking early Christian basilica, with endless thoroughly recommend a visit.
GPS: 41.89765, 12.49834