August 5th is the feast of the Dedication of the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome (Santa Maria Maggiore), also known as Our Lady of the Snows. It is one of four major (papal) basilicas, and Rome’s largest and most important church dedicated to Saint Mary.
It is already a major tourist destination, but now even more so as Pope Francis has on quite a few occasions prayed there before an icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the most important and precious image of Mary for the people or Rome, just as he did following his election and before his trip to the Holy Land.
This icon of Mary is said to have been painted by St. Luke himself.
This church also carries another precious treasure—a relic of the crib or manger of the Nativity of the Baby Jesus. Tradition holds that the wood on which the Son of God slept was brought to the church in the 7th century.
Since I visited Rome earlier this summer and got a few snapshots and video with my smart phone, I thought I’d share!
Saint Mary Major
St. Mary Major is one of the first churches built in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It was was built in the 5th century following the Council of Ephesus which dogmatically proclaimed Mary the Mother of God. This project was a restoration of a previous church built on the site, Rome’s Esquiline Hill.
The first church here was founded in the 350’s by Pope Liberius and financed by a Roman patrician and his wife. Legend has it they were a childless couple that decided to leave their fortune to the Blessed Virgin. Our Lady appeared to them in a dream and told them to build a church in her honor on this hill.
Legend has it that the plan of the church was outlined by a miraculous snowfall in the scorching summer heat of August (possibly in the year 358 A.D.). The legend is commemorated every year on August 5th, the feast day of the dedication of the basilica, when white rose petals are dropped from the dome of the church during the Mass.
Pope Sixtus III had the church restored/rebuilt to commemorate the declaration of St Mary’s Divine Motherhood by the Council of Ephesus in 431.
Here is how the ancient church looks from the outside [this photo Wikimedia commons]
The view when you walk in.
The main altar up close. You can see the apse in the background and the main altar in the foreground. Underneath is the relic of Jesus’ crib behind a lower altar.
Close up view underneath the main altar where the relic of the Christ’s crib is located.
Here is video to give you a sense of the space:
To the left of the main altar you can see the side chapel where Pope Francis often prays, as shown in the first photo above.
To the right of the high altar is the domed Blessed Sacrament Chapel. The tabernacle dates from 1599. It is enormous and held aloft by four bronze angels.
Here is video of the beautiful Tabernacle:
St. Mary Major is one of the most important churches of the Catholic Church and a jewel of our faith heritage. To see more, the Vatican has a great virtual tour which you can see here.