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The Papal Basilica of Saint Mary Major ( , ), is an ancient Roman Catholic Marian basilica of Rome. It is one of the four major or four papal basilicas, which, together with St. Lawrence outside the Wallsmarker, were formerly referred to as the five "patriarchal basilicas" of Rome , associated with the five ancient patriarchal sees of Christendom (see Pentarchy). The other three papal or major basilicas are St. John Lateranmarker, St. Petermarker and St. Paul outside the Wallsmarker. The Liberian Basilica (another title for the church) is one of the tituli, presided over by a patron—in this case Pope Liberius—that housed the major congregations of early Christians in Rome. Santa Maria Maggiore is the only Roman basilica that retained the core of its original structure, left intact despite several additional construction projects and damage from the earthquake of 1348marker.

The name of the church reflects two ideas of greatness ("major"), that of a major (or papal) basilica and that of the largest (major) church in Rome dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

After the Avignon papacy formally ended and the Papacy returned to Rome, the Basilica became a temporary Palace of the Popes due to the deteriorated state of the Lateran Palacemarker. The papal residence was later moved to the Palace of the Vaticanmarker in what is now Vatican Citymarker.


Pope Liberius commissioned circa 360 the construction of the Liberian Basilica on the summit of the Esquiline Hillmarker. According to the founding legend, which cannot be traced farther back than the thirteenth century, he wanted a shrine built at the site where an apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary manifested herself in identical dreams shared by a local patrician and his wife and by the pope. According to tradition, the outline of the church was physically laid out on the ground of the noble's property by Liberius himself under a miraculous but predicted snowfall that took place on the night August 4-5 352. The legendary Miracle of the Snow was depicted by Masaccio and Masolino about 1423 in a triptych commissioned by a member of the Colonna family for the Basilica, now conserved in the Museo di Capodimontemarker, Naples. In it the miracle is witnessed by a crowd of holy men and women and observed from above by Jesus and the Virgin Mary. Dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary under the title of Our Lady of the Snows, local Roman Catholics commemorate the miracle on each anniversary by dropping white rose petals from the dome during the mass of the feast.


The precise location of that first church has been lost. The present building dates from the time of Pope Sixtus III (432 - 440) and contains many ancient mosaics from this period. Its form so exactly follows the conventions of an imperial basilica it has at times been taken for one. The Athenian marble columns supporting the nave are even older, and either come from the first basilica, or from another antique Roman building; thirty-six are marble and four granite, pared down, or shortened to make them identical by Ferdinando Fuga, who provided them with identical gilt-bronze capitals. The fourteenth century campanile, or bell tower, is the highest in Rome, at 240 feet, (about 75 m.). The basilica's 16th-century coffered ceiling, to a design by Giuliano da Sangallo, is said to be gilded with Inca gold presented by Ferdinand and Isabella to the Spanish pope Alexander VI (something which factually is erroneous, since the Inca empire was conquered during the reign of Charles V). The apse mosaic, the Coronation of the Virgin, is from 1295, signed by the Franciscan friar, Jacopo Torriti. The Basilica also contains frescoes by Giovanni Baglione, in the Cappella Borghese.
The Piazza dell'Esquilino with the apse area of Santa Maria Maggiore.
The Borghese (or Pauline) Chapel

The 12th-century façade has been masked by a reconstruction, with a screening loggia, that were added by Pope Benedict XIV in 1743, to designs by Ferdinando Fuga that did not damage the mosaics of the façade. The wing of the canonica (sacristy to its left and a matching wing to the right (designed by Flaminio Ponzio) give the basilica's front the aspect of a palace facing Piazza Santa Maria Maggiore. To the right of the Basilica's façade is a memorial representing a column in the form of an up-ended cannon barrel topped with a cross: it was erected by Pope Clement VIII immediately after the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre of Protestants, though today it is reputed to celebrate the end of the French Wars of Religion [67419].

The Marian column erected in 1614, to designs of Carlo Maderno is the model for numerous Marian columns erected in Catholic countries in thanksgiving for remission of the plague during the Baroque era. (An example is the Holy Trinity Column in Olomoucmarker, the Czech Republic). The column itself is the sole remaining from Constantine's Basilica of Maxentius and Constantinemarker in Campo Vaccinomarker, as the Roman Forum was called until the 18th century[67420]; Maderno's fountain at the base combines the armorial eagles and dragons of Paul V.


In the centuries that have passed, the weather has been Santa Maria Maggiore's biggest rival. The pollution of a modern city combined with humidity puts at risk the old churches and the artwork they hold. Centuries before the first vehicle spewed exhaust into the city, during the late sixteenth century, a number of the Vatican's churches were renovated and redecorated. The basilica itself was restored and extended by various popes, including Eugene III (1145-1153), Nicholas IV (1288-92), Clement X (1670-76), and Benedict XIV (1740-58), who in the 1740s commissioned Ferdinando Fuga to build the present façade and to modify the interior. The interior of the Santa Maria Maggiore underwent a broad renovation encompassing all of its altars between the years 1575 and 1630.


List of major works of art in the basilica

The Capella Sistina and the Crypt of the Nativity

Below the sanctuary of Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore is the Crypt of the Nativity or the Bethlehem Crypt, which is the burial place for prominent Catholics, including Saint Jerome, the 4th century Doctor of the Church who translated the Bible into the Latin language (the Vulgate); popes; and Gianlorenzo Bernini. Saint Ignatius of Loyola presided over his first mass as a priest on this altar on December 25, 1538 (previously below the central main altar).

The decoration of the Sistine chapel of Santa Maria Maggiore, which should not be confused with the more famous Sistine chapelmarker of the Vaticanmarker, was commissioned by the administration of Pope Sixtus V. The architect Domenico Fontana was called to design the chapel to house the presumptive relics of the Nativity crib. The original Nativity Oratory, with the presepe built in the XIII century by Arnolfo di Cambio, is below the chapel. The chapel contains the tombs of Sixtus V and his early patron Pius V (design by Fontana and statue by Leonardo Sarzana). The statue of Sixtus V was sculpted by Giovanni Antonio Paracca, called il Valsoldo. The main altar in the Chapel has four gilded bronze angels by Sebastiano Torregiani, along the ciborium.

The Mannerist interior decoration was completed (1587-9) by a large team of artists, directed by Cesare Nebbia and Giovanni Guerra. While the art biographer, Giovanni Baglione allocates specific works to individual artists, recent scholarship finds that the hand of Nebbia drew preliminary sketches for many, if not all, of the frescoes. Baglione also concedes the roles of Nebbia and Guerra could be summarized as "Nebbia drew, and Guerra supervised the teams".

Painter Work
Giovanni Battista Pozzo Angelic Glory, Visitation, Annunciation, Joseph’s dream, St. Paul & John Evangelist, St. Peter enters Rome,& Massacre of infants
Lattanzio Mainardi Tamar, Fares, Zara, Solomon, & Boaz
Hendrick van den Broeck (Arrigo Fiammingo) Esrom, Aram, Aminabad & Naassom
Paris Nogari Ruth, Jesse, David, Solomon & Roboam; & the Holy Family
Giacomo Stella Jehoshaphat & Jehoram, Jacob, Judah & his brothers, Sacrifice of Isacc
Angiolo Nebbia Ozias & Jonathan, Abiud and Eliacim, Manassah and Amon, Josiah and Jechonia, Salatiele & Zorobabel
Salvatore Fontana Jacob, Eli, Eliezer and Nathan, Herod orders massacre of the innocents, Annunciation
Cesare Nebbia Chaziel & Ezekias, Sadoch, Achim, Amoz
Ercole from Bologna Flight from Egypt" and "Mary visits Elisabeth's house
Andrea Lilio Magi before Herod

Others include Ferdinando Sermei, Giacomo Stella, Paul Bril, and Ferraù Fenzoni.


Salus Populi Romani

The column in the Piazza Santa Maria Maggiore celebrates the famous icon of the Virgin Mary in the Borghese or Pauline Chapel of the Basilica. It is known as Salus Populi Romani, or Health of the Roman People, due to a miracle in which the icon helped keep plague from the city. The icon is at least a thousand years old, and tradition holds that it was painted from life by St Luke the Evangelist. (According to published material at the Basilica, radiocarbon dating establishes the age of the icon to be approximately 2,000 years, thus reinforcing its sacred tradition.)

The Salus Populi Romani has been a favorite of several Popes and acted as a key Mariological symbol. Roman born Pope Pius XII (Eugenio Pacelli) celebrated his first Holy Mass there on April 1, 1899. In 1953, the icon was carried through Rome to initiate the first Marian year in Church history. In 1954, the icon was crowned by Pope Pius XII as he introduced a new Marian feast Queenship of Mary. Pope Paul VI, Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI all honoroured the Salus Populi Romani with personal visits and liturgical celebrations.

Papal basilica

As papal basilica, Santa Maria Maggiore is often personally used by the pope. Most notably, the pope presides over the annual Feast of the Assumption of Mary, celebrated each August 15 at the basilica. The canopied high altar is used by the pope alone — except for a choice few priests including the archpriest. The pope gives charge of Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore to an archpriest, usually an archbishop made cardinal in consistory. The archpriest was formerly the titular Latin Patriarch of Antioch, a title abolished in 1964.

The current archpriest of the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore is Cardinal Bernard Francis Law; John Paul II assigned Law to this position after his resignation as Archbishop of Boston on December 13, 2002, in an act that elicited much criticism, given the fact that Law was arguably one of the most controversial Church officials in the United Statesmarker. It was in his archdiocese that the 2002 scandal initially erupted.

In addition to the archpriest and his servant priests, a chapter of canons are resident in Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore. In addition, Redemptorist and Dominican priests serve the church daily — hearing confessions and administering other sacraments.

Archpriests of the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore since 1127

List of archpriests of the Liberian Basilica since 1127. Initially not all archpriests were cardinals

  • Rainiero (attested 1127-1130)
  • Matteo (attested 1153)
  • Paolo Scolari (attested 1176–1187)
  • Rolando (attested 1189-1193)
  • Pietro Sasso (attested 1212)
  • Romano (attested 1222)
  • Astor (attested 1244)
  • Pietro Capocci (?) (named in 1245?)
  • Romano (attested 1258)
  • Ottobono Fieschi (1262-1276)
  • Giacomo Colonna (1288-1297)
  • Francesco Napoleone Orsini (1297-1312)
  • Giacomo Colonna (again) (1312-1318)
  • Pietro Colonna (1318-1326)
  • Nicola Capocci (ca.1350-1368)
  • Pierre Roger de Beaufort (1368-1370)
  • Marino Giudice (ca.1383-1385)
  • Marino Bulcani (1385-1394)
  • Stefano Palosio (1394-1396)
  • Enrico Minutoli (1396-1412)
  • Rinaldo Brancaccio (1412-1427)
  • Francesco Lando (1427)
  • Jean de la Rochetaille (1428-1437)
  • Antonio Casini (1437-1439)
  • Giovanni Viteleschi (1439-1440)
  • Nicola Albergati (1440-1443)
  • Guillaume d'Estouteville (1443-1483)
  • Rodrigo Borgia (1483-1492)
  • Giovanni Battista Savelli (1492-1498)
  • Giovanni Battista Orsini (1498-1503)
  • Giuliano Cesarini iuniore (1503-1510)
  • Pedro Luis Borja Lanzol de Romani (1510-1511)
  • Robert Guibe (1511)
  • Francisco de Remolins (1511-1518)
  • Leonardo Grosso della Rovere (1518-1520)
  • Andrea della Valle (1520-1534)
  • Paolo Emilio Cesi (1534-1537)
  • Alessandro Farnese (1537-1543)
  • Guido Ascanio Sforza (1543-1564)

See also


  1. Major Basilica of St. Mary Major, St. Mary Major Basilica, Dedication of St. Mary Major Basilica, Boston Magazine. Other names in the Italian language are Basilica di Santa Maria della Neve and Basilica Liberiana, in English Our Lady of the Snow and the Liberian Basilica. In Latin it is called Basilica Sanctae Mariae or Mariae Majoris or ad Neves, that is the Basilica of Saint Mary or of Mary Major or of the Snows.
  2. Basilicas
  3. The Benedict XVI’s theological act of renouncing the title of "Patriarch of the West" has a consequence that the basilica changed its name to become the Papal basilica of Saint Mary Major, as its official websites states.
  4. Margaret R. Miles, "Santa Maria Maggiore's Fifth-Century Mosaics: Triumphal Christianity and the Jews" The Harvard Theological Review 86.2 (April 1993:155-175), "Santa Maria Maggiore and its legend", pp 157-59
  5. Or 358 (Miles 1993:157).
  6. Paul Joannides, "The Colonna Triptych by Masolino and Masaccio," Arte Cristiana no 728 (1988:339-46).
  7. Miles 1993:158.
  8. Roloff Beny and Peter Gunn, The Churches of Rome (New York) 1981:106.
  9. Rhoda Eitel-Porter, "Artistic Co-Operation in Late Sixteenth-Century Rome: Sistine Chapel in S. Maria Maggiore and the Scala Santa" The Burlington Magazine (1997). 452-462.
  10. Sources: Gaetano Moroni, Dizionario di erudizione storico-ecclesiastica da S. Pietro sino ai nostri giorni, vol. XII, Tipografia Emiliana, Venezia, 1840 - 1861, p. 129-135; the respective biogrphical entries on Essay of a General List of Cardinals by Salvador Miranda; and G. Ferri, Le carte dell'Archivio Liberiano dal secolo X al XV, Archivio della Societa Romana di storia patria, vol. 27 (1904), p. 147-202 and 441-459; vol.28 (1905), p. 23-39; vol. 30 (1907), p. 119-168
  11. Archpriest Pietro Sasso is commonly identified with contemporary cardinal Pietro Sasso of S. Pudenziana (1206-1218/19). However, this identification remains uncertain because the only document which mentions this archpriest (dated July 3, 1212) makes no reference to his cardinalate, cf. Ferri in ASRSP, vol. 28, p. 24
  12. Cardinal Pietro Capocci (died 1259) is mentioned in the majority of the catalogs of archpriests of Liberian Basilica but the documents from the archive of the Basilica, published by Ferri in ASRSP, vol. 27, p. 34-39 and vol. 30, p. 119, give no support for this affirmation. Document dated March 19, 1244 mentions Astor (or Aston) as archpriest, documents between February 13, 1247 and October 1, 1255 mention archpriest without mentioning his name but also without indicating his cardinalate, and on May 28, 1258 Romano was archpriest of the Basilica; the latest document mentions also cardinal Pietro Capocci but makes no reference to his occupation of that post. If he was really an archpriest under Innocent IV, he must have later resigned, but it seems more likely that this statement resulted from a confusion.

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