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Bill Thayer

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S. Maria Maggiore

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This 18c façade conceals the smaller ancient church:
still one of the largest in Rome.

The column partly seen to the right, which is perfectly vertical despite the camera effect, is one of the few surviving remnants of the Basilica of Maxentius in the Roman Forum.

Somewhere near the piazza you see above, in 375 B.C., a temple was built in honor of the Roman goddess Juno, the protector of women giving birth. This temple of Juno Lucina became one of the more important in Rome, serving as a place of worship for 800 years — and also, according to the Greek historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus (IV.15.5) quoting Lucius Piso, a Roman annalist of the 2c B.C., as a registry of births in the city. In the middle of the 4c A.D., Pope Liberius (whose other chief claim to fame is that he is the first Pope not to be recognized as a saint by the Catholic Church, which has always made me wonder what he could have done) built a church in the same general area, honoring the Blessed Virgin Mary. About eighty years later Pope St. Sixtus III built the church that, with many modifications over the centuries, still stands today: it too was dedicated to Mary, and was either a totally new church on the same site or a mere restoration of Liberius' church.

That these three buildings are related, no one denies: all on the Esquiline hill, each of them honoring a mother-figure and the miracle of birth; but exactly how they relate is a matter of obscurity and disagreement, and a shadowy Basilica Sicinini of uncertain etymology is also brought into the various theories, dragging with it even more controversy. A simple unifying view, held by many experts, is that S. Maria Maggiore is the ancient basilica built by Liberius as a sort of antidote to the pagan temple: consensus is not unanimity, however — nor is unanimity of opinion truth, but that's a different matter — and the question should be considered open.

At any rate the Christian church, lavishly built right from the start, quickly became as important as the pagan temple had been, and continued to be enriched with countless works of art and encrusted with layers of history. Yet the basic framework of St. Mary Major, one of the largest churches in Rome, remains that of a Late Antique basilica: a rectangular hall with two rows of ancient columns dividing it into a central nave and two side-aisles. You shouldn't be fooled, however, by the homogenous classical appearance: the columns, though they are said to have been elements of the temple of Juno, don't really match and were trimmed and adjusted by Ferdinando Fuga, the 18c architect to whom we also owe not only the façade you see here, but the entire baroque shell that now encases the older church.

The great glory of S. Maria Maggiore, certainly at first glance, is without a doubt the vast ensemble of mosaics that process down the nave far above the antique columns, and that cover both the triumphal arch framing the main altar and the apse behind it. The earliest, resplendent in gold, date back to the foundation of the church, the latest (except for a very few modern replicas) belong to the 13c, and they are all beautiful. Unfortunately, they are for the most part at a terrific distance from the camera lens of any normal tourist. Some more wonderful mosaics, of the 14c, were originally part of the front of the church, but now can only be glimpsed thru the three upper arches in the center of Fuga's façade: they can sometimes be visited — tickets for sale in the sacristy — and photography, I was told, strictly forbidden. For a good summary of the mosaics on both nave and triumphal arch, see the article by W. W. Bishop.

Another marvel to be seen here, if the visitor is lucky and the crypt containing it is open, is a large, elaborate Nativity crèche by Arnolfo di Cambio, one of Italy's finest medieval sculptors. To quote Georgina Masson, The Companion Guide to Rome, 1965:

Unfortunately when Sixtus V (1585‑90) commissioned Domenico Fontana to build the Sistine chapel (which forms the transept to the right of the nave) he also ordered him to transfer the oratory of the presepio to a new site beneath it. The result was a disaster, in spite of Fontana's elaborate plans (of which accounts and drawings still exist), and his having encased the entire oratory in a wooden scaffolding, it collapsed. The mosaic ceiling and marble pavement were reduced to fragments; only the walls, altar and some of the sculptures were saved.

A fuller website will be forthcoming, by and by, although the mosaics will have to wait until I manage another trip to Rome, armed with a more powerful telephoto lens and a better understanding of photography. Right now:

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[ 2/17/02: 1 page, 1 photo ]

Typically, my first page, rather than covering one of the many more famous sights in the church, looks into a very curious sidelight: a monument erected by Charles d'Anisson to commemorate the abjuration of Protestantism by the French king Henri IV. The history is fascinating.

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For the more studious, some 8000 words of good topographical and art history information: Christian Hülsen's notice on this church in Le Chiese di Roma nel Medio Evo, linked to 2 further important texts — Armellini's Le Chiese di Roma and the church's entry in the 1763 edition of Filippo Titi's guidebook.

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Site updated: 2 Dec 17