Built in the fifth century in honour of her title “Mother of God”, conferred upon Mary in AD 431, the Basilica of St. Mary Major. illustrates the essential role of Mary in God’s plan of salvation.
The affirmation of Mary as Theotokos (bearer of God) was made by the third ecumenical Council of Ephesus. The mosaics of the triumphal arch and the nave in Santa Maria Maggiore were the model for future representations of the Virgin Mary. The influences of these mosaics may be seen in frescoes, manuscript paintings and pavement mosaics in villas throughout Africa, Syria and Sicily during the fifth century.
The Basilica of Saint Mary Major is not merely an early architectural wonder though. It is a theological lesson in stone and mosaic. The artwork can readily be understood in conjunction with the Gospel according to St. Luke.
St. Luke’s theology of Mary in his Gospel is highly developed. She is principally cast as a model of discipleship.
The first church dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary was built on the Esquiline hill by Pope Liberius (AD 352-366) on the site of an ancient market place.
For over 1000 years Romans have maintained that the relics of the Manger of Bethlehem were transferred to the Basilica of St. Mary Major. For some of these relics the Oratory of the Crib, the Oratorium ad Presepe, was built.
For centuries the Basilica has hosted on Christmas morning a procession of the Santa Culla, the Holy Crib.
The church is massive and magnificent. The Confessio holds relics of Jesus' Manger, believed to have been brought from Bethlehem at the same time as the body of St. Jerome.
The walls of the central nave and the triumphal arch at the end of this nave are decorated with mosaics from the time of Sixtus III (AD 432-440), the oldest mosaic cycle in Rome .
One of the mosaic images in the basilica is of six sheep gathered at the gate of Bethlehem, These symbolize Gentile Christians. Together with another six lambs standing at the gate of Jerusalem, they represent the whole Church.
This mosaic cycle of salvation history is completed by the scenes of the Incarnation and the infancy of Christ on the triumphal arch.
The apse mosaics are not as old as those in the central nave and of the triumphal arch. They were created during the pontificate of Pope Nicholas IV (AD 1288-1292). The apse is decorated with stories of Mary’s life below the central scene of the Coronation of the Virgin.
This is the most important mosaic of this cycle. The Dormition or the Transitus is the representation of Mary, after her earthly life, now with her Son, a teaching common to both the Church both East and the West.
Mary's coronation depicts her sitting at the right hand of Jesus. Though not divine like Christ, the Church venerates Mary as the first amongst humanity and the first Christian.
The apse is the apex of the mosaic depictions of Church teaching commemorating the declaration at the Council of Ephesus that the Blessed Virgin is the Mother of God.The beauty of the basilica reflects the spiritual beauty of Blessed Mary. Mother Mary is all for us in prayer; she truly is the tabernacle of God.
There are, of course, no relics of Mary in the basilica. In fact, there are no relics of the Virgin Mary anywhere. This is because her body was assumed into heaven as the Queen of Creation.
Pope Paul V built the chapel for the most venerated image of Virgin Mary, the Salus populi Romani. This icon of the Byzantine style is from the ninth century.
Pious Medieval Romans believed it was painted by the evangelist St. Luke. Mary is represented holding Jesus who is dressed in a golden tunic and holds the Scriptures. The hands of Mary are crossed in front of her child. One hand exposes two fingers, a sign of the two natures, divine and human, of the one person, Jesus the Christ.
The “Madonna and Child with Crossed Hands” shows Mary with the baby Jesus. Above her head are three stars. These stars represent Mary as a virgin before, during, and after Christ’s birth.
Mary is the archetype of the church. She carried the body of Christ during her pregnancy evoking the presence of God in the Church. God is present in the Church, our mother, especially in the Eucharist, the Body of Christ.