Santa Maria Maggiore, one of the four patriarchal basilicas of Rome

 The Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, situated on the Esquiline Hill is one of the four patriarchal basilicas of Rome and is the only one to have retained its paleo-Christian structures. The tradition tells that it was the Virgin Mary herself inspired the construction of the Esquiline Hill, appearing in a dream to both the Patrician John and Pope Liberius, asked to build a church in her honor, in a place that she would miraculously indicate . On the morning of 5 August, the Esquiline Hill was covered with snow. The pope traced the perimeter of the new church and John provident in its funding. Of this church we just have nothing if not a step of the Liber Pontificalis, which states that Pope Liberius “Fecit basilicam appoint its juxta Macellum Liviae”.

The splendor of the marbles and the richness of the decorations

 present Basilica dates back to the fifth century d.C .. Its construction is related to the Council of Ephesus in 431 A.D. that proclaimed Mary Theotokos, Mother of God, and it was commissioned and financed by Sixtus III as Bishop of Rome. Entering it, one is overwhelmed at seeing its vastness, the splendor of its marbles and the richness of the decoration; The monumental effect is mainly due to the shape of the structure of the basilica and the harmony that reigns among the principal elements of its architecture. Built according to the canons of the “elegant” pace of Vitruvius, the basilica is divided into three naves by two rows of precious columns on which runs the skillfully wrought entablature, interrupted at the apse of two arches erected for the construction of the Sistine Chapel and Pauline . Between the columns and the ceiling, the walls were punctuated by large windows of which still remain, having been walled up the other half.

The Santa Maria Maggiore uniqueness, however, is due to the splendid mosaics of the fifth century, by Sixtus III, that run along the nave and on the triumphal arch. The nave mosaics recount four cycles of Sacred History featuring Abraham, Jacob, Moses and Joshua, and together, they want to bear witness to God’s promise to the Jewish people of a land and its help to reach it. The story, which does not follow a chronological order, starting on the left wall near the triumphal arch with the Sacrifice of Melchizedek, king-priest. This panel shows clear Roman iconographic influence. Melchizedek, represented in the customary gesture of offering, and Abraham, wearing a Roman toga, is reminiscent of the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius. Subsequent panels depicting scenes from the life of Abraham prior to the first pane. This has long believed that each panel was an end in itself until, deepening the study of the mosaics, it is understood that the decoration was planned and organized. The Melchisedek panel ties the nave images together with those of the triumphal arch where the childhood of Christ king and priest is told.

Entering the porch, right, stands a statue of Philip IV of Spain, benefactor of the Basilica. The sketch of the work, made by Girolamo Lucenti in the thirteenth century, is by Gian Lorenzo Bernini.

At the center of the great bronze door created by Ludovico Pogliaghi in 1949, with episodes from the life of Mary, the prophets, the evangelists and the four women of the Old Testament prefigure the Blessed Virgin. To the left of the Holy Door, blessed by John Paul II on December 8, 2001, brought to completion by the sculptor Luigi Mattei and donated to the basilica by the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem.

At the center of the risen Christ, the model is the man of the shroud, which appears to Mary, represented as the Salus Populi Romani. Top left the Annunciation at the Well, a story drawn from apocryphal Gospels, right Pentecost.

Down the left side, the Council of Ephesus which Mary as Theotokos, to the right the Second Vatican Council which wanted Mater Ecclesiae.

The coat of arms of John Paul II and his motto is represented at the top, while the bottom two of Cardinal Carlo Furno, who was archpriest of the Basilica, and the Order of the Holy Sepulchre.
Entering the basilica is still admired by the uniqueness of the mosaic floor of marble workers Cosma masters called “cosmateschi” (sec. XIII).


The Chapel Sforza

Next to the entrance two plaques remind us that the chapel was built thanks to Cardinal Guido Ascanio Sforza Santafiora, archpriest of the basilica, and his brother, Cardinal Alessandro Sforza Cesarini, who oversaw the decoration done in 1573. According to Vasari, author the project was Michelangelo Buonarroti, who has left us two sketches relating to it, where the original plant is clearly visible with ellipses on the sides and a rectangular room that houses the altar. The portraits included in tombs and the altarpiece (1573) have been attributed to Jerome Siciolante from Sermoneta (1521-1580). The altar table is the square Siciolante and represents the Assumption of the Virgin whose scanning planes is well organized to move smoothly from the ground to the sky, where the figure of Mary discreet sitting in prayer.

The sacred cradle

Hypogeum over against the altar, in front of the statue of Pius IX and under his coat of arms, he is held and cherished a famous relic, commonly called “Sacred Cradle”. It offers itself to the gaze of the faithful from the precious crystal urn trimmed and silver, designed by Giuseppe Valadier.

The “Nativity” by Arnolfo di Cambio

The spiritual and sentimental image of the reconstruction of a “Crib” in memory of a revered event, has origins since 432 when Pope Sixtus III (432/40) created in the primitive Basilica, a “cave of the Nativity” similar to Bethlehem. Numerous pilgrims returning to Rome from the Holy Land, brought as a gift precious fragments of the Holy Crib (cunambulum) now kept in the golden Confessional shrine.
Holy Cave of Sixtus III was very strongly about in the following centuries several popes, until Pope Nicholas IV in 1288 commissioned Arnolfo di Cambio a sculptural depiction of the “Nativity.”
There were many renovations and changes in the church and when Pope Sixtus V (1585/90) wanted to erect a large chapel in the right aisle called the SS. Sacramento or Sistina, ordered in 1590 the architect Domenico Fontana to transfer there not demolish it, the ancient “cave of the Nativity” with the surviving sculptural elements of Arnolfo di Cambio.
The three Magi, with dresses and shoes in stylish, rude Gothic style, and St. Joseph, admire astonished and reverent the miracle of the Child in the arms of Madonna warmed by the ox and the donkey.

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