Basilica of S. Maria Maggiore

Basilica of S. Maria Maggiore


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This is one of the four major patriarchal basilicas in Rome.

Its history begins from a little church built by pope St.Liberius in the middle of the 4. According to a 13 legend, the Virgin Mary appeared to the pope telling him to build a church on the Esquiline hill on the site where they would find in the morning of August 5, 356 a patch of snow covering the exact area to be built over. So it was, and originally the church had been dedicated to Santa Maria della Neve (of snow), and was often called Basilica Liberiana after the pope who founded it. But in reality the basilica in its present aspect and forms was built by pope St.Sixtus III in the 5 to celebrate the conclusions obtained at the Ephesus Council in 431 which proclaimed Mary mother of God. Nicolas IV added the polygonal apse and transepts in the end of the 13, Clement X rebuilt the apse in the second half of the 17, and Benedict XIV had F. Fuga to carry out further transformation and to add the main facade.

Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore had also another two names (apart from S. Maria della Neve and Basilica Liberiana): Basilica Sicinni (after anti – pope Ursicino who reigned for a short period in 366) and Santa Maria del Presepe (after a precious relic of the Crib of the Infant Jesus).

Excavations of 1967-1972 beneath the nave revealed a large Roman building with remains of frescoes including a remarkable rural calendar with illustrations for each month.

Two important ceremonies are held in the basilica annually. On August 5 the legend of miraculous fall of snow is commemorated in a pontifical Mass in the Cappella Borghese. On Christmas morning there is a procession in honour of the Santa Culla, or Holy Crib of the Infant Jesus, which culminates in the exposure of the relic on the high altar.

Exterior. The fine campanile is the highest in Rome with its 75m, and is the last Romanesque bell – tower in the city as it was given its present form late, only in 1377; in 1445-1483 it was reconstructed by Guiglielmo di Estoutevill. The apsidal facade on Piazza dell’Esquilino was completed in 1673.The right – hand section with the dome is by F. Ponzio; the central and left sections by C. Rainaldi; the left – hand dome by D. Fontana. the main facade, masking one of the 12, was designed by F. Fuga in 1743.

The portico is surmounted by a loggia of three arches, above which are statues. In the portico is a bronze statue of Philip IV of Spain, on a model by G.L. Bernini. A monumental staircase leads to the upper loggia past a bronze statue of Paul V by Paolo Sanquirico (1605). From here could be seen the mosaics on the earlier facade, dating from the time of Nicholas IV. The upper part is depicted by F. Rusuti.The four 18 statues of angels by P. Bracci were originally over the high altar of the church.

Interior. The vast well – proportioned interior is 76m long and 32m wide. It still preserves its basilican form. It is divided into nave and aisles by 36 columns of shining Hymettian marble and four of granite all rearranged by F. Fuga. Over the triumphal arch and in the nave are 47 panels with mosaics dating from the time of St.Sixtus III (the 5), the most important mosaic cycle in Rome of this period. The caisson ceiling, attributed to G.da Sangallo, was traditionally thought to have beengilded with the first gold brought from America by C. Columbus,presented to Alexander VI Borgia by King Ferdinand of Aragon and his wife Isabella I. The Borgia emblems are prominent. The fine Cosmatesque pavement dates from 1150. To the right of the entrance is a monument to Clement IX (1671) by C. Rainaldi, D. Guidi, C. Fancelli and E. Ferrata. To the left of the entrance is a tomb of Nicholas IV (1575) with sculptures by Leonardo Sormani, designed by D. Fontana.

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