In this Italian basilica in Rome, no less than 6 popes are buried, along with other significant personalities. It’s not situated inside the Vatican, but just like an embassy it is considered papal territory. It is one of the 4 churches that has the title of papal Basilica in Rome, along with: Saint Peter’s, the Lateran and Saint Paul. Among these, it keeps the most elements from the original architecture of a pagan basilica.

The name of this basilica is no accident. It takes us sixteen centuries back, at the dawn of Christian veneration for Virgin Mary. As it is obvious from the Gospels, Christians have always had a high regard for the one chosen for the embodiment of the Son of God. Her special place role does not stop with nativity. She urged the first miracle performed by Jesus at the wedding in Galilee, when He turned water into wine. Mary was a tragic witness to the crucifixion and than to the resurrection.

As Christianity developed into a religion, the mainstream had to be defined in reaction to heresies and Gnostic sects. Thus, under Constantine the Great, the first ecumenical councils were held at Nicea and Constantinople, defining the text of the Creed, which summarizes the dogma of the Holy Trinity. The third council, in 431, was dedicated to Mary. The Church rejected the lesser role assigned by Nestorius and proclaimed Mary as Theotokos (The Mother of God).

Santa Maria Maggiore was buit around that time, in the 5th century, but has even earlier relics. Tradition has it that Evangelist Luke was the one who painted the first icon of Mary with the Infant. A copy of this icon, probably from the 4th century is kept in this church in Rome. It looks strikingly like a Byzantine icon, like the ones that the Orthodox continue to paint to this day.

A very valuable part of this basilica are the mosaics, a technique that lasts longer than frescoes. They are also in the Byzantine style and depict the coronation of Mary by Christ. Also interestingly, there is the “Dormition of Mary”. This was another point that troubled the mind of believers. It was accepted by all that Mary was and remained a Virgin throughout her life, living an ascetic, monastic life with Joseph to an old age. But how was such a holy life to end? wondered the Christians. Tradition had the passage from this life to the eternal life in a tranquil way, likened with going to sleep: the Dormition. This is still what the Orthodox Church calls the event of 15th of August.

The Catholic Church, much later, in the 9th century and moreover after the schism developed the dogma of the Assumption. By it, Mary rose to heavens in a similar way with Jesus. As the mosaics in Santa Maria Maggiore prove, this was not what the earlier Christians used to imagine.

Today’s visitor might by tricked by the general aspect on the outside. Because a later facade was added to the 5th century basilica and other buildings was erected alongside, it’s easy to mistake it with a palace. The 75 meters campanile – the tallest in Rome – added in the 14th century, will hint you from afar.

Stepping inside, the nave is aligned with 40 marble and granite columns, which create some sort of parallel isles. We have an idea of a transition from pagan temple to Christian basilica.

The gilded ceiling has cassettes and rich decorations. It is believed that the gold comes from donations made to the Pope by Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain from the booty brought from the New World by Christopher Columbus.

There are numerous additions and redesigns from 16 and 17 century. These include the facade by Ferdinando Fuga. Another architect with important contribution was Giuliano da Sangalo. He was the favorite architect of Lorenzo the Magnificent and an artist with influence over Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael Sanzio.

Like the Vatican, Santa Maria Maggiore has a Sixtine Chapel. But named after Pope Sixtus the V, not Pope Sixtus IV, like the more famous, with Michelangelo’s work.

Along with 6 popes, here is buried Saint Jerome, which in the 4th century gave the first translation into Latin of the Bible: “Latin Vulgata”. Translated from Greek and Hebrew, this became the standard of Catholic faith.

Also in the basilica there are tombs of Pauline Bonaparte (the sister of emperor Napoleon Bonaparte) and architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who did the plaza in front of Saint Peter’s in Rome, among many things.

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