Behold the beauty of our Faith!

As a major basilica, Santa Maria Maggiore is the most senior of the churches dedicated to the Blessed Virgin. This eBook features many photographs taken by the EWTN Vatican Bureau in Rome. Each image shows the magnificence of the Basilica of Saint Mary Major, including the ancient icon of Salus Populi Romani.

May these images inspire you and bring you a greater appreciation of the beauty found in the Catholic Church.

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Why is Saint Mary Major called Major?

The Basilica is called so since it is the principal Marian church of the Catholic world, and a papal basilica.  As Alban Butler puts it in his classic Lives of the Saints, it is “… both in antiquity and dignity, the first church in Rome among those that are dedicated to God in honor of the Virgin Mary.”

What is the story of Our Lady of the Snows?

According to an ancient account, in 358 A.D. a rich married couple was trying to decide what they should do with their enormous fortune after their death. They had no heirs, therefore, the pious couple asked the Blessed Virgin to give them a sign. 

One night, Mary appeared to both of them in their dreams, and she asked that a church would be built in the spot where snow would fall that night. The Holy Father, Pope Liberius, had the exact same dream on the same night.

The next day, August 5, it did in fact snow on the Esquiline Hill located near the center of Rome, an unprecedented event.  Thus, the basilica was built on this exact spot.

While no contemporary account exists, only one from a few hundred years later, each year the Basilica celebrates this memorial with white flower petals falling from the ceiling of the church, reminding the faithful of this miraculous snow.

“Immaculate Virgin, Salus Populi Romani, pray for us!” – Pope St. John Paul II (Address of His Holiness Pope John Paul II on a Visit to St. Mary Major, 1997)

Who is buried in Santa Maria Maggiore?

Six popes are buried in Saint Mary Major: Pope Honorius III (1150-1227), Pope Nicholas IV (1227-1292), Pope St. Pius V (1504-1572), and Pope Sixtus V (1521-1590), Pope Clement VIII (1536-1605), Pope Clement IX (1600-1669). 

Also, St. Jerome, a priest of Rome and the translator of the Scriptures into Latin, is buried in the Bethlehem Crypt at Saint Mary Major.

Why is Santa Maria Maggiore important?

As one of the important basilicas of the Church, Santa Maria Maggiore holds a significant place in Rome and in the universal Church. It is both ancient (dedicated in the 5th century), one of the oldest churches in the world dedicated to the Blessed Mother, and a personal church of the popes, or papal basilica.

Where is Santa Maria Maggiore?

Saint Mary Major is located in Rome, Italy. In 1929 the Lateran Treaty between Italy and the Holy See, recognizing territory under papal jurisdiction, determined that while the Basilica remained owned by the Holy See, and had diplomatic immunity, it remained Italian soil and not part of the Vatican City State. 

This basilica is on Esquiline Hill, one of the seven hills of Rome.

What is the image “Salus Populi Romani”?

It is an image of the Blessed Virgin Mary, under the title “Protectress of Rome.” One of several paintings attributed to St. Luke, it has been on display in St. Mary Major since 590, enshrined there for its role in an epidemic that swept Rome around that time. The tradition is that Pope Gregory I (the Great) carried it in procession through the city for the purpose of stopping the ravages of the disease. When he crossed the Tiber via the Pons Aelius he saw the Archangel Michael sheathing his sword, indicating that the epidemic would end. The bridge is called today Ponte Sant’Angelo, and the apparition site is the Castel Sant’Angelo. 

Where is “Salus Populi Romani”? 

The image of Mary under the title Salus Populi Romani (Protectress of Rome) is honored in a chapel of St. Mary Major in Rome. It is popular with the Roman people, with visitors, and a favorite of the popes. Numerous popes have prayed there for special causes, including Pope St. Pius V prior to the Battle of Lepanto, which turned back a Muslim invasion of Europe in 1571, Pope Gregory XVI during a cholera epidemic in 1837, and Pope Francis during the Covid pandemic. It has been especially popular with Pope Francis, who has visited it numerous times during his pontificate, such as before embarking on Apostolic Journeys, and in 2018 had it restored in order to repair the degradations of time.

“May [Mary], Spouse of the Holy Spirit and his perfect co-operator, teach today’s Christian community how to let themselves be guided and pervaded by the Divine Spirit, so that the bonds of charity and communion may be strengthened in them, and the message of Christ, Saviour of the world, may be credible to all.” – Pope St. John Paul II (Address of His Holiness Pope John Paul II on a Visit to St. Mary Major, 1997)

When was the Salus Populi Romani painted?

Many believe that this image was painted by St. Luke. According to legend, St. Luke painted this image of Mary as she told him the stories of Jesus’ birth. Then it is believed that St. Helena discovered this image when she was on her Holy Land pilgrimage in the 4th century, which led also to the finding of the relics of the Passion in Jerusalem.

What does Sancta Maria Salus Populi Romani mean in English?

The complete title “Sancta Maria Salus Populi Romani” means Saint Mary, Protectress of the Roman People. The image is generally referred to, however, simply as Salus Populi Romani.

Where is Jesus’ Holy Crib?

Remnants of the Holy Crib are to be found in the Basilica of Saint Mary Major, in the Crypt of the Nativity underneath the high altar. This is also the spot where Saint Jerome, who translated Sacred Scripture into Latin, is buried. 

Pope Francis gave a piece of the crib to the Church of Saint Catherine in Bethlehem in 2019. 

“Mary is a sweet and reassuring presence. In her discreet style, she gives everyone peace and hope, both in the happy and sad moments of life. In churches, chapels or on the walls of buildings there is a painting, mosaic or a statue as a reminder of the presence of the Mother, constantly watching over her children.” – Pope Benedict XVI

What makes a church a basilica?

There are two uses of the name basilica (from the Greek basileus - king). One is the honor given to a church by designation of the Pope; the other is an architectural style based on the design of the ancient Roman law courts. 

Historically, the ancient use preceded the Church’s use. The basilicas were designed to serve as the place where the emperor’s representative sat and judged. They were rectangular in shape with a central nave, at the end of which was a rounded area, the apse, in which the judge sat. Typically, there were two side aisles separated from the nave by columns. Many basilicas were given over to Church-use by Constantine, as they were suitable for the public celebration of Mass. Many of these original basilicas survive, and new churches are still made in this style.

The pope, however, is the only one who can name a basilica in the honorific sense. The title is given to churches of significance to the universal church, to a country, or even a diocese.  There are more than 1,800 basilicas in the world, with 85 in the United States.  In Rome there are four major basilicas, the only ones in the Church, and numerous minor basilicas. The four major basilicas are also called papal basilicas; and historically were called patriarchal basilicas.

Videos About St. Mary Major

What are the four major basilicas?

All of the Church’s major basilicas are in Rome:

  • St. Mary Major (Santa Maria Maggiore)
  • Archbasilica of St. John Lateran
  • St. Peter’s Basilica
  • Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls

What is the difference between a basilica and a cathedral?

A cathedral is the “cathedra” (chair) of the bishop of a diocese. The reference is to the chair or seat of apostolic authority in that place. It is therefore the principle church in a diocese.  A basilica is a church honored by the pope for some notable reason.

The Holy Father can designate a church as a basilica based on the church’s history or architecture. Once a church is named a basilica, this is a permanent title. 

A basilica may or may not be the cathedral for the diocese.

What biblical figure was the focus of the mosaics of Santa Maria Maggiore?

Saint Mary Major has many mosaics, dating back to the 5th century, that feature Old Testament figures, including Joshua, Moses, Rachel, and Abraham. There are also mosaics with Jesus and the Blessed Mother.