The basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore or St. Mary Major in Rome has a fascinating history, shrouded in legend. The basilica is known to have been constructed in 358 at the behest of Pope Liberius, but a legend, which surfaced around the seventh century, gives an interesting perspective on why he chose to build the basilica on the Esquiline Hill, one of Rome’s seven hills.
The legend runs thus; an heirless Roman patrician desperately wanted to donate his fortune to a cause honoring the Blessed Virgin Mary but was unsure of what he should do, so he and his wife prayed for guidance. This was on August 4th, the middle of the hot, Roman summer. But the next morning, August 5th, a shimmering layer of snow lay on the Esquiline hill. Pope Liberius, therefore, ordered that a basilica be built on that spot.
The structure built by Pope Liberius is no longer in existence, and the building that now stands was erected by Pope Sixtus III (432-440). Santa Maria Maggiore is home to the oldest intact christian mosaics, as well as a relic of the Holy Crib, the manger in which Jesus was laid.
Click here to take a virtual tour of the Basilica via the Vatican website!