All images © by Roberto Piperno, owner of the domain. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Page revised in March 2022.
All images © by Roberto Piperno, owner of the domain. Write to email@example.com.
Page revised in March 2022.
Links to this page can be found in Book 3, Map A3, Day 2, View B8 and Rione Monti.
This page covers:
a previous page covers:
The plate by Giuseppe Vasi
S. Maria Maggiore
The Miracle of the Snow
The Loggia and its Mosaics
The Roman House
The interior of S. Maria Maggiore underwent many changes through the centuries, but overall it retains its original design which derives from that of the ancient
Roman basilicas (which were not temples, but public buildings): a long rectangular hall divided into naves by rows of columns with an apse at one end (you may wish to see Basilica Severiana at Leptis Magna).
The traveller on his entrance is instantly struck with the two magnificent colonnades that line the nave and separate it from the aisles. They are supported each by more than twenty pillars. (..) The simplicity of the plan, the correctness of the execution, the richness of the materials and the decorations of the parts, the length of the colonnaded and the elevation of the canopy, form altogether one of the noblest and most pleasing exhibitions that the eye can behold. As we advance along the ample nave we are rather pleased than astonished with the scenery around us; we easily familiarize with the calm grandeur of the place, and at the end retire with an impression, not of awe, but delight and tranquillity.
John Chetwode Eustace - A Classical Tour through Italy in 1802
I remember, of my coming uninformed and unprepared into the place of worship and of curiosity that I have named, only that I sat for half an hour on the edge of the base of one of the marble columns of the beautiful nave and enjoyed a perfect revel of - what shall I call it? - taste, intelligence, fancy, perceptive emotion?
Read more of Henry James's account of his visit to this site in 1873 or read William Dean Howells' account of his visit to S. Maria Maggiore in 1908.
Interior (2) with the entrances to Cappella Paolina (left) and Cappella Sistina (right); you may wish to see a 1909 watercolour by Yoshio Markino depicting the interior of the basilica
There is no transept, but instead of it two noble chapels open on either side. (..) These two chapels, whatever their magnificence or peculiar beauty may be, have prejudiced the external appearance of the church, and occasioned the only material deformity which even the eye of a critic can discover. I mean the break occasioned by the arcades formed on both sides, to serve as entrances to these two oratories. Eustace
In 1577 Cardinal Carlo Borromeo wrote Instructiones Fabricae et Suppelectilis Ecclesiasticae, a booklet which established precise rules about the design and decoration of churches. Borromeo stated that architects should listen to bishops and follow their recommendations to avoid being charged with heresy. The Latin cross shape was the most appropriate design for a church: round and Greek cross buildings were regarded unfavourably. In the light of these recommendations, which were supported by the Jesuits, the structures of the four main basilicas of Rome became a cause of embarrassment: they did not comply with the recommended design. For this reason the Greek cross plan for S. Pietro Nuovo was revised and in the XIXth century the apse of S. Giovanni in Laterano was enlarged and deepened to form a short fourth arm of the cross.
At S. Maria Maggiore a sort of transept was created by building two side chapels which are accessed via large arches, which, although interrupting the decoration, do not greatly impact on the overall aspect of the main nave.
Mosaics of the main nave (Vth century): panels depicting scenes from the life of Jacob; the central panel which depicted the Dream of Jacob
was replaced in 1593 by a fresco which presumably is similar to the original mosaic; you may wish to see an enlargement of the acanthus scroll
The original mosaic decoration of the nave was based on 42 small panels depicting scenes from the lives of Moses and Joshua (right side) and of Abraham and Jacob (left side). Some of these panels were destroyed by the opening made for these two chapels or were so deteriorated that they were replaced by frescoes. Viewing them requires good eyesight because their size is rather small and the scenes include many people. In essence they show an approach very different from that followed at Ravenna, e.g. in the mausoleum of Galla Placidia, in the same period.
Mosaic of the arch (Vth century)
Pope Sixtus III (432-440), the founder of the basilica, dedicated the arch mosaic (and the church) to plebi dei (the People of God). Its style is similar to that of the main nave with many complex scenes depicting episodes of Jesus' infancy. The symbols of the Four Evangelists are shown in the upper part of the mosaic, but some of the scenes depict events described in the New Testament apocrypha.
Musei Vaticani: casts of details of the mosaic of the arch: (left) Jesus among the Doctors; (right) "Hetoimasia", the Cross on the Throne, symbolizing the Divine Power (see it in a mosaic at Ravenna)
We know that the apse was decorated with similar mosaics, but it was pulled down at the end of the XIIIth century and replaced by another one which was slightly larger. Most likely this was done because the apse was about to collapse; the new apse was decorated by Jacopo Torriti in 1295 and in line with the dedication of the church it shows the Coronation of the Virgin Mary by Jesus in Majesty. It can be seen in a page on the Golden Mosaics of Rome (a detail is shown in the image used as background for this page).
(left) Ceiling with the coat of arms of Pope Alexander VI (you may wish to see a larger image); (right-above) 1750 restored "Cosmatesque" floor; the Roman numbers celebrating the restoration are rather unusual as M (1,000) and
D (500) are replaced by a combination of C and I; (right-below) an original part of the floor
The wooden ceiling of S. Maria Maggiore was designed by Giuliano da Sangallo towards the end of the XVth
century. According to tradition it was gilded with American gold presented to Pope Alexander VI by
King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile. In 1494 the Pope acted as a mediator between them and King John II of Portugal and he established
a division line between their possessions in South America. The ceiling is decorated with the coats of arms of Alexander VI and of
his uncle Pope Calixtus III.
The floor of the main nave retains parts of its XIIth century mosaic decoration. There are also some modern parts added in 1750 when the interior was restored for the Holy Year.
(left) Fresco portraying St. Luke (school of Piero della Francesca) and the coat of arms of Cardinal Guillaume d'Estouteville in the
ceiling of Cappella S. Michele (late XVth century); (right) 1610 ceiling of the Baptistery by Domenico Cresti il Passignano, see another of his paintings at S. Maria in Vallicella
During the centuries a number of chapels and other buildings were added to the main body of the church, but they did not impact on its aspect. Only two small chapels belonged to noble families and had a funerary purpose. Cappella Sistina and Cappella Paolina do house the tombs of four popes, but their construction was motivated on religious grounds.
(left) Detail of the Monument to Odoardo Santarelli by Alessandro Algardi (ca 1644); (right) Monument to Cardinal Mariano Pierbenedetti (d. 1611); you may wish to see also the monument to Antonio Emanuele Ne Vunda called il Nigrita by Francesco Caporale (1608)
Two other popes and many cardinals and high prelates are buried in S. Maria Maggiore. Most of their funerary monuments were built towards the end of the
XVIth century and during the first half of the XVIIth century. In this period S. Pietro was in the
process of being completed and decorated and S. Maria Maggiore became the most important basilica, especially after
Pope Sixtus V opened Strada Felice (1587 ca.) which allowed easy access to it.
Alessandro Algardi was with Gian Lorenzo Bernini the leading sculptor of his time, you may wish to consult a directory of Baroque Sculpture for other works by him.
Museo di Roma a Palazzo Braschi: (left) engraving showing a catafalque designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini
for the Requiem Mass which was held in S. Maria Maggiore on June 8, 1668 for the funeral of Muzio Mattei, Roman knight and general of the Church, who fell at the siege of Candia; (right) another catafalque by Bernini which was erected in 1669 for François Guiron de Ville, head of the Papal cavalry at Candia
Clement IX was one of the popes who had a predilection for S. Maria Maggiore where he chose to be buried and where he staged some very solemn funerary ceremonies. Funerals were not the only occasions for which major temporary structures (aka macchine) were erected. The ceremonies related to the coronation of a new pope, the arrival of a king/queen and the traditional gift of the Chinea were all celebrated by temporary structures, e.g. triumphal arches. Many architects, including Giuseppe Vasi, earned their living by designing them.
Museum of S. Maria Maggiore: Statues of the Crib by Arnolfo da Cambio (1292-294)
Church is adorned with forty pillars of Marble. The rich
Chappell di presepio, (so called of the cratch in which
Christ was borne, being kept here) is stately adorned with
the pavement engraved, the arched roofe guilded, pictures
Alla Mosaica as if they were engraven, the stately
sepulcher of Pope Nicholas, and his statua of white
Fynes Moryson - An Itinerary: Containing His Ten Years Travel Through .. Italy (in 1594)
On Christmas Eve we went in a large party to visit some of the principal churches, and witness the celebration of the Nativity; one of the most splendid ceremonies of the Romish Church. (..) We were told it would be much finer at the Santa Maria Maggiore; for there the real manger which had received our Saviour at his birth was deposited: and this inestimable relic was to be displayed to the eyes of the devout; and with a waxen figure laid within (called here Il Bambino), was to be carried in procession round the church, "with pomp, with music, and with triumphing." The real Cradle was a temptation not to be withstood. (..) For processions and shows I care very little, but not for any thing, not for all I suffered at the moment, would I have missed the scene which the interior of the church exhibited; for it is impossible that any description could have given me the faintest idea of it. This most noble edifice, with its perfect proportions, its elegant Ionic columns, and its majestic simplicity, appeared transformed for the time being, into the temple of some Pagan divinity. Lights and flowers, incense and music were all around: and the spacious aisles were crowded with the lowest classes of the people, the inhabitants of the neighbouring hills, and the peasantry of the Campagna, who with their wild ruffian-like figures and picturesque costumes, were lounging about, or seated at the bases of pillars, or praying before the altars. How I wished to paint some of the groups I saw! but only Rembrandt could have done them justice.
Anna Jameson - Diary of an Ennuyée - 1826
S. Maria Maggiore had a very precious relic which was associated with the Virgin Mary: parts of the Manger of Bethlehem which according to tradition were brought to Rome in the VIIth century when the Holy Land was invaded by the Arabs. In 1223 St. Francis of Assisi re-enacted a living nativity scene and almost immediately painters and sculptors followed his examples. Manger scenes or cribs (It. presepe) became a very popular way to worship Jesus and the Virgin Mary (and still are, see a page on them). Pope Nicholas IV, who promoted a major renovation of S. Maria Maggiore (he commissioned the mosaics of the façade and of the apse) had been a Franciscan friar and he asked Arnolfo da Cambio to design a chapel to house the relic of the manger.
The chapel was replaced by additions to the church, but the statues by Arnolfo were not destroyed. In the original chapel they were placed in a painted niche resembling a cave.
(left) Reliquary of the Manger by Giuseppe Valadier which replaced that stolen by the French during their occupation of Rome; (right) illustration from a XVIIth century book showing the site of the old reliquary
The Reliquary of the Manger was moved around the church many times. Eventually it was placed in the Confessione, an underground chapel before the main altar which was made in 1864. The Reliquary is now in the Treasury for greater security, after the statue of Bambin Gesù, another precious relic at S. Maria in Aracoeli, was stolen in 1994.
Museo di Palazzo Venezia: marble reliefs by Mino da Fiesole depicting scenes from the life of St. Jerome
Cardinal d'Estouteville commissioned the construction of two altars/canopies: the main one for the Reliquary of the Manger and a second one which was dedicated to St. Jerome, whose remains, according to tradition, were moved from Bethlehem to the right nave of S. Maria Maggiore in the XIIth century. The main altar was replaced by the current canopy in 1747. The altar to St. Jerome was dismantled to make room for the entrance to Cappella Sistina. Its reliefs were utilized by Pope Sixtus V to embellish his own nearby villa.
Ceiling with works of many artists who were supervised by Domenico Fontana
Pope Sixtus V was a "doer" and nothing better than this chapel shows it. He overcame the reluctance of the Canons of S. Maria Maggiore to let the Chapel of the Crib being demolished and in a few years the new chapel with its lavish and complex decoration was completed.
Some of the marbles were taken from the Septizodium and from the old Lateran Palace.
The former was completely pulled down and the latter was replaced by a new building.
The construction and decoration of Cappella Sistina was entrusted to Domenico Fontana, another "doer" who took care or moving and re-erecting four ancient obelisks. His management style displeased many of the artists who worked under his direction. He left Rome for Naples shortly after the death of Pope Sixtus V.
Monuments to Pope Sixtus V by il Valsoldo (left) and to Pope Pius V by Leonardo Sormani (right)
Pope Sixtus V wanted to be buried at S. Maria Maggiore in his chapel, but he was wary that such a decision could be criticized and therefore he arranged for the chapel to house also the tomb of Pope Pius V. In addition. because he was alive when he commissioned his statue, he decided to be portrayed on his knees, as a gesture of humility, rather than sitting on the papal throne, as some of his predecessors had been depicted. The statues of the two popes were placed at the centre of a sort of triumphal arch which was decorated with reliefs portraying events of their pontificates. The same pattern was adopted a few years later in Cappella Paolina (you can see its triumphal arches in a page on the funerary monuments to the popes).
(left) Altar with angels supporting a model of the chapel; (right) relief portraying Pope Pius V receiving Marcantonio Colonna after the Battle of Lepanto by Niccolò Pippi; see other images of the chapel in the historical section
Pope Sixtus V was portrayed sitting on his throne in bronze statues erected to him in the Marches, his homeland, at Loreto, Camerino and Fermo. Eventually some other popes were shown on their knees, e.g. Bernini did that in the Monument to Alexander VII (left) and Antonio Canova in that to Clement XIII (right) (it opens in another window).
(left) Fiddleback chasuble with the coat of arms of Cardinal Scipione Borghese; (right-above) portraits of some cardinals who were in charge of S. Maria Maggiore (that with the coat of arms is Guillaume d'Estouteville and that at the centre
is Felice Rospigliosi, nephew of Pope Clement IX); (right-below) coats of arms on chasubles worn by Pope Pius V and Pope Urban VIII
The Canons of S. Maria Maggiore reported to a Cardinal Archpriest who was usually chosen among the closest advisers to the Popes. Popes Gregory XI, Alexander VI and Leo XII were Archpriests of the Basilica at the time of their election. Some of the ceremonies which were held at S. Maria Maggiore were attended by the Popes in person.
(left) Reliquary with small bones of saints; (centre) reliquary with bones of St. Luke's arm; (right) a component of the "Macchina delle Quarant'Ore" which was used at S. Maria Maggiore
"Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam" (for the Greater Glory of God) is a motto of the Jesuit Order. The use of silver and gold objects in ceremonies was debated at the Council of Trento. Eventually it was decided that their use was meant "Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam" and not for the personal satisfaction of the priests or the public. This explains why S. Maria Maggiore and other Roman churches have so many silver and gold objects.
Return to page one.
Next plate in Book 3: S. Eusebio.
Next step in Day 2 itinerary: Chiesa di S. Prassede.
Next step in your tour of Rione Monti: Monastero della SS. Annunziata.
Excerpts from Giuseppe Vasi 1761 Itinerary related to this page:
Basilica di S. Maria Maggiore
chiesa si vedono le colonne di marmo greco tutte lustrate, e ridotte in uguale proporzione, mentre
prima erano ruvide e ineguali. A destra evvi il deposito di Niccolò IV. e a sinistra quello di Clem. IX.
Il quadro della prima cappella a destra, che rappresenta la ss. Vergine con Gio. Patrizio è opera di
Giuseppe Bastardo; entro la sagrestia, tra l'altre cose si vede la statua di Paolo V. fatta in metallo,
ed alcuni depositi, fra' quali uno dell'Ambasciatore del Re del Congo scolpito dal Bernino; quivi è il
coro per li tempi di estate, e vi sono pitture del Passignani, e sculture del mentovato Bernini.
Seguitando poi il giro delle cappelle, il quadro della ss. Famiglia è opera di Agostino Masucci, e l'altro,
che siegue, di Stefano Pozzi; la cappella del ss. Crocifisso è adorna di marmi preziosi, e vi si conservano
le reliquie, fra le quali la Culla del nostro Salvatore. Siegue dopo la cappella della ss. Nunziata dipinta da
Pompeo Battoni, e poi quella del santissimo Sagramento, eretta con sagra magnificenza da Sisto V. col
disegno di Domenico Fontana; ed è ornata di marmi, sculture, pitture, e metalli dorati.
I quattro Angioli, che si vedono sull' altare di mezzo reggere il tabernacolo di metallo dorato, e
con una mano tenere 4. torce continuamente accese, sono anch'essi di metallo dorato; e l'altare, che si
vede sotto di questo, dicesi del Presepio, perchè vi stanno le pietre e fieno sopra cui fu posato il nostro
divino Redentore quando nacque; e la statua di s. Gaetano col Canto Bambino in braccio, che si vede
nella nicchia sotto le scale, vi fu posta in memoria dell'apparizione, che esso ebbe in quel medesimo luogo
contemplando la notte di Natale un tal mistero. La cappelletta a destra è dedicata a s. Lucia, ed ha il
quadro dipinto a fresco da Paris, Nogari; quella a sinistra dedicata a s. Girolamo, il di cui corpo sta in
quella basilica, ha il quadro dipinto da Salvator Fontana. La statua di Sisto V. a destra fu scolpita
Valsoldino Lombardo, come anco la coronazione del Papa, e l'istoria della Carità in bassorilievo;
la Giustizia è di Niccolò Fiammingo, e gli altri due bassirilievi sono di Egidio Fiammingo; il s. Francesco è
di Flaminio Vacca, ed il s. Antonio di Padova dell' Olivieri. La statua di s. Pio V. è opera di Lorenzo da
Sarzana, come anco l'istoria a man destra, e l'altra a sinistra è del Cordieri; la coronazione del Papa in
bassorilievo è di Stella Milanese, e li due laterali di Egidio Fiammingo. Nell'urna di metallo dorato, che sta
sotto la statua del Santo, vi è il corpo del medesimo. La statua di s. Pietro martire è del Valsoldino, e
quella di s. Domenico di Gio. Batista della Porta. Le pitture, che sono sopra il cornicione, nella cupola,
ed in altri luoghi, sono opere ben condotte da Paris Nogari, da Gio. Batista Pozzo, da Andrea d'Ancona,
da Giacomo Bresciano, da Salvatore Fontana, e da altri. Questa cappella ha la sagrestia propria, ornata
similmente di pitture e stucchi dorati.