Travel Review: Santa Maria Maggiore

The Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore (St. Mary Major) was the first church dedicated to The Virgin Mary and is one of Rome’s four great basilicas.

It is 1,600 years old and was first built after the Council of Ephesus; a legend states that the church was founded on its site because a miraculous snowfall appeared there one August. Pope Liberius began the construction in A.D. 358 and it was rebuilt by Pope Sixtus III from 432 to 440. It underwent a lot of renovation and decorative additions in the 18th Century and has been undergoing restoration very recently.

Many people who visit St. Mary Major’s believe the church is second in beauty only to St. Peter’s Basilica. A casual observer passing by the outside of the church would have no idea of the sheer opulence of the interior and the priceless treasures it contains.

St. Mary Major’s sacred relic is the remains of the Baby Jesus’ crib, which is kept in a jewelled golden container that somewhat resembles a Faberge egg. The crib is taken out for viewing each Christmas.

The ceiling alone is a wonder; it contains 3 tons of gold in elaborate meter-wide rosettes in gilt frames. Our tour guide told us that the gold in the ceiling was from the New World and was given by the King of Spain as a gift to the Pope.

That little tidbit of information really set my mental wheels in motion:

  1. How much gold must the King of Spain had if he gave 3 tons of it to the Pope? How much of a “gift” was it, really, and how much of it amounted to spiritual “protection” money?
  2. The churches of Rome are full of tributes to Jesus and the Christian martyrs — what about the millions of South American natives who were martyred by the Spaniards who took their gold? How many holy native relics were melted down for Spanish ingots that then became Christian shrines?
  3. Given that he used three tons of gold for a ceiling, how much gold did the Pope spend to feed and clothe the poor of the city?

If you stop to think about it, St. Mary Major is a beautiful living example of why the Protestant Reformation happened.

If you are in Rome and want to visit St. Mary Major, look for public transportation that heads to Piazza di Santa Maria Maggiore. Admission is free, and the church is open every day from 7 am to 7 pm.

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