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The Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome, Italy

October 22nd, 2006 / / Links: Google Earth, Google Maps, Yahoo! Maps, Virtual Earth / Nearest places

The Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore — also known as the Basilica di Santa Maria della Neve and Basilica Liberiana in the Italian language and Saint Mary Major Basilica or the Liberian Basilica in the English language — is an ancient Catholic basilica of Rome. It is one of the four major basilicas, and one of the five Patriarchal basilicas associated with the Pentarchy: St. John Lateran, St. Lawrence outside the Walls, St. Peter and St. Paul outside the Walls, and Santa Maria Maggiore. The Liberian Basilica is one of the tituli, presided over by a patron—in this case Pope Liberius—that housed the major congregations of early Christians in Rome. Built over the pagan temple of Cybele, Santa Maria Maggiore is the only Roman basilica that retained the core of its original structure, left intact despite several additional construction projects and damage from the earthquake of 1348.

The name of the church reflects two ideas of greatness, both that of a major basilica as opposed to a minor basilica and also that of the Blessed Virgin Mary, as the true Mother of God. In the Greek language this doctrine is called Theotokos, officially adopted at the Council of Ephesus in 431. The Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore is the largest and most important place of prayer dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

After the Avignon papacy formally ended and the Papacy returned to Rome, the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore became a temporary Palace of the Popes due to the deteriorated state of the Lateran Palace. The papal residence was later moved to the Palace of the Vatican in present-day Vatican City.

A patriarchal basilica, Santa Maria Maggiore is often personally used by the pope. Most notably, the pope presides over the annual Feast of the Assumption of Mary, celebrated each August 15 at the basilica. A high, canopied altar dedicated to the pope is used by the pope alone — except for a choice few priests including the archpriest. The pope gives charge of Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore to an archpriest, usually an archbishop made cardinal in consistory. The archpriest was formerly the titular Latin Patriarch of Antioch, a title abolished in 1964.

The current archpriest of the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore is Bernard Cardinal Law; John Paul II assigned Law to this position after his resignation as Archbishop of Boston on December 13, 2002, in an act that elicited much criticism, given the fact that Law was arguably one of the most controversial Church officials in the United States. It was in his Archdiocese that the 2002 scandal initially erupted.

In addition to the archpriest and his servant priests, a chapter of canons are resident in Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore. In addition, Redemptorist and Dominican priests serve the church daily — offering confessions and administering other sacraments.

The present building dates from the time of Pope Sixtus III (432 - 440) and contains many ancient mosaics from this period. The Athenian marble columns supporting the nave are even older, and either come from the first basilica, or from an antique Roman building. The 16th century coffered ceiling, to a design by Giuliano da Sangallo is said to be gilded with Incan gold presented by Ferdinand and Isabella to the Spanish pope Alexander VI. The medieval bell tower is the highest in Rome, at 240 feet, (about 75 m.). The apse mosaic, the Coronation of the Virgin, is from the late 13th century, by the Franciscan friar, Jacopo Torriti. The Basilica also contains frescoes by Giovanni Baglione, in the Cappella Borghese.

The façade with its screening loggia was added by Pope Benedict XIV in 1743, to designs by Ferdinando Fuga that did not damage the mosaics of the façade. The wing of the canonica (sacristy to its left and a matching wing to the right (designed by Flaminio Ponzio) give the basilica's front the aspect of a palace facing Piazza Santa Maria Maggiore. To the right of the Basilica's façade is a memorial representing a column in the form of an up-ended cannon barrel topped with a cross: it was erected by Pope Clement VIII immediately after the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre of Protestants, though today it is reputed to celebrate the end of the French Wars of Religion.

The Marian column erected in 1614, to designs of Carlo Maderno is the model for numerous Marian columns erected in Catholic countries in thanksgiving for remission of the plague during the Baroque era. (An example is the Holy Trinity Column in Olomouc, the Czech Republic). The column itself is the sole remaining from Constantine's Temple of Peace in Campo Vaccino, as the faithful called the Roman Forum as late as the 18th century; Maderno's fountain at the base combines the armorial eagles and dragons of Paul V.

The column in the Piazza celebrates the famous icon of the Virgin Mary in the Pauline chapel of the Basilica. It is known as Salus Populi Romani, or Health of the Roman People, due to a miracle in which the icon helped keep plague from the city. The icon is at least a thousand years old, and tradition holds that it was painted from life by St Luke the Evangelist. (According to published material [citation needed] at the Basilica, radiocarbon dating establishes the age of the icon to be approximately 2,000 years, thus reinforcing its sacred tradition.)

[Source: Wikipedia]

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