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  • Post published:May 26, 2019

Santa Maria Maggiore:
white flowers and blood-red gold for Virgin Mary


© By Sheila 

Rome. One of my first destinations in the Eternal City was the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. More than 1,500 years old and located on the Esquiline Hill, it is one of the few churches in Rome that has preserved an early Christian structure. And as with many historic buildings, its story began with a legend.

We go back to August 5th, 352. Pope Liberius and a patrician named Giovanni awaken from a dream, in which Virgin Mary appeared to them. Mary commanded to build a church in her honor at the spot, where they would find snow. The miracle happened: the Esquiline Hill was covered by snow and soon afterwards, the foundation for one of the most important churches in Rome was laid.

Details of the golden interior of Santa Maria Maggiore.
Details of the golden interior of Santa Maria Maggiore.

In my eyes, legend remains legend, but this one leads to my first tip for you: every year on 5thAugust it is raining white flowers from the ceiling in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, in memory of the miracle of Mary. A spectacle that I would have loved to attend and that I can only recommend to all of you. But it is May, August is still far away and so I climbed up the old staircase of the basilica with a guide. Directly to the loggia of this church, which I had previously admired from beneath.

Exploring the loggia of Santa Maria Maggiore
Exploring the loggia of Santa Maria Maggiore (full view below).

I often stand in front of the facades and roofs of historic buildings, with their sculptures and arches, gables and domes, and imagine what it would be like to wander up there. In the course of my tour, I was able to actually walk around in front of the stained-glass round window of the loggia and enjoy the view on Piazza dell’Esquilino. This Benedictine loggia was added in 1741 to the facade of the 5th century and revealed in its mosaic valuable information about the architectural past of the basilica.

The round window seen from the inside.

Santa Maria Maggiore has a heart of gold. I would like to dedicate a few words to its breathtaking interior decoration at this point. Already in the premises on the first floor, I noticed the portraits of Spanish kings and queens above the treasures displayed. And that is not by accident, as the deeply religious Queen Isabella of Castile made an inestimably contribution to the construction of this church. She donated tons of gold, imported from the in 1492 by Columbus discovered and later colonized “New World”. 

A ceiling made of pure gold in Santa Maria Maggiore
A ceiling made of pure gold inside of the basilica.

Amazed by the splendor of Santa Maria Maggiore, we must not forget the violent origin of this gold and magnificence. It is questionable whether a saint, in whose honor annually pure white flowers float from the ceiling, would have approved of the robbery of this gold and the merciless exploitation of a whole continent. This church should also remind us of the bloody tribute, that has often financed golden splendor in Europe. 

Portraits of Spanish kings and queens
Portraits of Spanish kings and queens, among them Isabella of Castile.

Key facts: the present church Santa Maria Maggiore is one of four patriarchal basilicas in Rome. It followed a preceding building, which is no longer preserved, and was consecrated in 434. In addition to its famous interior with the (purely) golden ceiling, you can find other jewels here, such as the staircase designed by the brilliant architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who was buried with his father in the basilica. Numerous other cultural treasures call for a personal visit.

Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome

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