Rome, Italy: Papal Basilica of Saint Mary Major: Central Nave Overview

Thumbnail Image
Sheppard, Beth M.
Issue Date
May 19, 2017
Italy , Rome , Basilica Papale di Santa Maria Maggiore , Papal Basilica of Saint Mary Major , Santa Maria Della Neve , Saint Mary of the Snow , Saint Mary of the Crib , Mary Churches , Pilgrim Churches , Papal Basilicas , Naves , Ionic Columns , Coffered Ceilings , Gilded Ceilings , Giuliano da Sangallo , Pope Alexander VI , Ferdinand and Isabella , Borgia Family
Research Projects
Organizational Units
Journal Issue
Alternative Title
The Papal Basilica of Saint Mary Major (Basilica Papale di Santa Maria Maggiore; Santa Maria della Neve; St. Mary of the Snow; St. Mary of the Crib) is the largest of the 80 Mary churches in Rome; it is also one of the seven pilgrim churches and one of four papal basilicas in Rome. The church was built in 432 CE at the behest of Pope Sixtus III, immediately after the Council of Ephesus declared that the Virgin Mary was the mother of God. The basilica sits on Esquiline Hill, where the Virgin Mary appeared in a dream of Pope Liberius a century earlier. The legend behind the church dates back to about 358 CE when a childless Roman couple decided to leave their estate to the Virgin Mary. She visited them in their sleep that hot summer night and told them to build a church in her honor on a spot marked by snow. The puzzled couple told Pope Liberius about their dream, only to discover that he had the same dream. The pope accompanied the couple to their property on Esquiline Hill, where they discovered it was covered in snow. Today this is commemorated annually on August 5 with white flower petals dropped from the ceiling of the basilica. Many of the church's mosaics were part of the original building, whereas its large marble columns probably came from an ancient Roman structure. The church is particularly known for its gilded, coffered ceiling, which was built using the first of the gold brought back from America by Columbus, and for containing a relic of Jesus' manger (hence, "St. Mary of the Crib"). The photograph shows the central nave of the church, with 36 granite Ionic columns supporting architraves instead of arches. Two aisles flank the central nave. The ceiling was created by Giuliano da Sangallo for the Spanish pope, Alexander VI, and was funded by Ferdinand and Isabella. The heraldic bull of the infamous Borgias can be seen in the ceiling; the pope was a member of the family.
PubMed ID