Saint Mary Major, facade. Pen on paper. Saint Mary Major, baladequin. Pen on paper. Saint Mary Major, apse mosaic. Pen on paper. The Salus Populi icon in the Borghese chapel of Saint Mary Major. Pen on paper. The Marian column of Saint Mary Major. Pen on paper.
Saint Mary Major
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Dedication: Mary mother of Christ
Built: c.432ad
Major Restorations: 1288-96, 1743
Relics: Holy Manger, Salus Populi
Orientation: 130° east (winter solstice) Related articles:
The Art of Recycling
The Basilica of Saint Mary Major
In the early years of the church one of the most hotly debated issues was whether Christ had been born as God and man in the same person or whether the divine essence had entered the body of the man Jesus later in life. After heated arguments at the council of Ephesus in 431ad the party that held that he had been God before birth prevailed, and declared all else heresy. As a result of this now official doctrine, Mary became the mother of God and herself divine. On return from the council, Pope Sixtus III had the Basilica of Saint Mary Major built to celebrate Mary's promotion, installing the relics of Jesus' crib below the altar, as a tangible symbol of Mary's place in the divine order.
The interior of Santa Maria Maggiore is thought to be the best preserved example of a classical Roman basilica, being practically unchanged in it's structure since the 430s ad, a time when the Christian basilica was simply a reuse of a long standing architectural form. a large part of the original decorations also remain, with the cylce of 42 mosaic panels above the nave, and the mosaics of the triumphal arch which show scenes related to the birth and youth of Jesus.
Apse mosaics
The apse mosaics were created almost contemporaneously with the now semi-covered mosaics of the earlier facade. Both were commissioned by the bishop Pietro Colonna, and were made by filippo Rusuti (facade) and Giacomo Torriti (apse). On the facade, Christ sits alone on the heavenly throne at the centre of the Universe, whereas the apse mosaic shows the same throne, but here Christ's mother Mary sits beside him as he places a crown on her head. The Sun at His feet and the moon at her's reinforce the celestial context.
Salus Populi icon
The Salus Populi, healer of peoples, has long been considered one of the most powerful relics in Christendom. This portrait of the Virgin and child was purportedly painted from life by the evangelist Saint Luke shortly after the Resurrection, on a panel cut from the dining table of the Holy Family. It was considered especially effective against plague, most famously when Pope Gregory I carried it, mid-epidemic (593ad), in procession through Rome, before seeing a vision of the archangel Michael above Castel Sant'Angelo sheathing his sword, signalling the end of the divine vengeance. Pope Pius V prayed to it during the decisive battle of Lepanto. Paul V moved it to his private chapel inside Santa Maria Maggiore, and Benedict XIV had it depicted atop the present facade. Luke seems to have painted at least 52 other portraits of the Virgin, 6 of which are in Rome.
Column of the Virgin Mary
The bronze used to cast the statue of the Virgin and Child was obtained by melting down several decorative elements of a 5th century fountain which once stood in the atrium of the old Saint Peter's basilica. Other elements of the same fountain still remain in the monumental pine cone in the courtyard of the Vatican Museums, and a bronze peacock in the same museum. The column itself is from the 3rd century Basilica of Maxentius. Pope Paul V commissioned the monument shortly after the Christian defeat of the Turks at the 1571 battle of Lepanto, attributed to the intervention of the Virgin. The whole structure (like Trajan's, or Nelson's column) takes the classical form of the literal elevation of a triumphant general.
links: Where We Walked: List of icons painted by Saint Luke