Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome

The 5th and 13th century mosaics in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome, c. 432–1743

 



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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:09] We’re in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, one of the great churches of this city and one of the oldest.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:11] By legend, the church was founded in the 4th century, when the Virgin Mary appeared in a dream to a pope and also a prominent wealthy citizen and his wife. The Virgin Mary said, “In the morning, I’m going to cover a site with snow, and that is the place that you should build a church in my honor.”

Dr. Zucker: [0:34] The remarkable thing is that it was August, and so the idea of snow was most improbable. The church we’re standing in is believed to have been constructed in the 5th century, so this is a very ancient space.

Dr. Harris: [0:46] One that’s been renovated, restored, and expanded many, many times.

Dr. Zucker: [0:51] This is such a broad, open, and bright space. It’s a reminder that the early Christians borrowed a type of ancient Roman building known as the basilica. Those ancient Roman structures were administrative buildings. Here, that architecture has been translated to a Christian structure.

Dr. Harris: [1:08] It was an ideal type of building for some of the first churches because it could hold large numbers of people and focus one’s attention at the altar.

Dr. Zucker: [1:17] But let’s look at some of the mosaics, some of which are among the oldest in the city. The mosaics that line the nave walls. These are stories that come from the Jewish Bible.

Dr. Harris: [1:27] This thinking of the relationship between the Old Testament and New Testament is referred to as typology — understanding the Old Testament figures as types or figures that foreshadow the figures and the stories of the New Testament.

Dr. Zucker: [1:41] Let’s take a look at one of the mosaics and see how this typology works. “Separation of Lot and Abraham” shows Abraham on the left, and Lot, his nephew, on the right.

Dr. Harris: [1:52] Abraham holds out his hand and points to his son, Issac, who has not yet been born. But both Abraham and Isaac are so critical to the Christian story that Isaac appears here anyway.

Dr. Zucker: [2:06] Isaac is a reference to Christ. He is a type. Abraham will be asked, and willing, to sacrifice his son Isaac, just as God is willing to sacrifice his son Jesus Christ.

Dr. Harris: [2:18] The mosaic makes the story so clear. Even this far below, we can read the separation between Lot and his people and Abraham and his people. We can see this empty space, with blue sky and a tree and gold, in the middle of the two groups of figures. And on the left, what looks like a basilica, similar to the one that we’re standing in, referring to the idea of the church as the legacy of Abraham and Isaac.

Dr. Zucker: [2:48] There are echoes of the ancient Roman tradition, sometimes referred to as the classical tradition, in these figures. In their clothing, but especially in the easy movement of these figures.

Dr. Harris: [2:59] There are parts of the mosaic, however, that are treated less naturalistically. We do see light and dark in the drapery of the figures, the description of their bodies underneath, even light and shadow in their faces that make them appear three-dimensional. But if we look behind them, we see heads stacked up almost like grapes, a symbolic way of indicating crowds of people.

Dr. Zucker: [3:23] We are so lucky to be able to enter into an ancient church and see remnants of its original decorative programs. But one of the most interesting parts of this church is that mosaic is used over centuries.

[3:36] Let’s take a look at the mosaics in the apse, which were added to the church many centuries later. Framed by the baldacchino, the large canopy over the high altar, is this incredible apse mosaic. This dates to the 13th century. It is spectacular, there’s just so much gold, so much reflected light.

Dr. Harris: [3:58] Here, we see a scene that was very popular, and that is the coronation of the Virgin Mary in heaven. Christ is on a throne with Mary and placing a crown on her head.

Dr. Zucker: [4:10] Crowning her queen of heaven.

Dr. Harris: [4:12] The throne that they’re sitting on is so elaborate. We see red pillows, and gold and jewels, and golden stars in a blue field, so that we know that we’re in heaven.

Dr. Zucker: [4:24] Just below them are emblems of the sun and the moon, the moon for Mary and the golden sun for Christ.

Dr. Harris: [4:31] Surrounding them in this beautiful field of gold are scrolling vines, birds, this sense of the paradise of heaven.

[4:41] Both Christ and Mary look quite substantial. We can see the folds of the drapery that describe their knees and their laps, and the forms of their arms.

[4:51] The smallest figures represent the patrons, in this case a pope and a cardinal, and then the three figures beside each of them are saints, most interestingly two saints, Saint Francis and Saint Anthony of Padua. Saint Francis, the founder of the Franciscan Order, and Saint Anthony, an important Franciscan. The reason these figures are here is that the pope at this time, Nicholas IV, was the first Franciscan pope.

Dr. Zucker: [5:20] The sun has just broken through the clouds, and it is now illuminating the mosaic with the most brilliant light.

Dr. Harris: [5:27] As the light reflects off the gold, these figures seem so palpable, so present.

Dr. Zucker: [5:32] It seems as if the light of heaven is in this church.

[5:36] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome," in Smarthistory, January 5, 2023, accessed May 23, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/basilica-of-santa-maria-maggiore-rome/.