Aliens in This World

An ordinary Catholic and a science fiction and fantasy fan.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

My Patron Church

Teeeeechnically, I don't have a patron saint so much as a patron event. Yup, my birthday falls on the day when we celebrate (or don't; it's an optional memorial) the dedication of the basilica of St. Mary Major, one of the first Marian churches and still the biggest one dedicated to her in the world. It also commemorates the rather unique method of site selection: the Virgin Mary arranged with God for a snowfall in August in Rome in the year 358, to mark where she wanted the place to get built. (Thus the Marian title "Our Lady of the Snows", and the Spanish girl's name "Nieve", Snow.)

It was a daring place that was chosen -- cheek by jowl with the temple of Juno Lucina, appealed to for safe birthing by pagan Romans. You get a lot of people these days claiming that Christians built churches on or near temple sites to include pagan rituals in Christianity. The truth is that they were doing the equivalent of building a cathedral in Mecca next to the Kaaba, or putting a church dedicated to a correct understanding of the Trinity in Salt Lake City's Temple Square. Mary wasn't hiding pagans under her skirts; she was challenging the pagans on their own ground, terrible as an army with banners. She was showing up paganism's insufficiency and falsehood, and calling pagans to come to Her Son, the Truth. So it was especially fitting that this church became perhaps the first Marian pilgrimage church. (Hardly the last, though!)

Over the next century, the basilica got pretty run down. (This happened a lot with Roman era basilicas, both governmental and Christian. The places were huuuuuge and hard to maintain, especially with the troubles of the Western Empire.) But after the Council of Ephesus (held where Mary was said to have gone with St. John to live) upheld Mary as "Theotokos", Mother of God, in 431, Pope Sixtus III decided to rebuild the place. One of the unique features was a copy of the cave at Bethlehem where Christ was born, built to house a small piece of the Manger. This led to the place being nicknamed "St. Mary of the Crib". (See, there really is a tie-in to the season!)

St. Jerome, patron saint of bloggers and translator of the whoooooole Bible, is buried in this "cave" crypt. St. Matthew, the thirteenth Apostle, is buried under the high altar.

Now to get to the inspiration for my post. Zadok noted that Santa Maria Maggiore also houses the world's oldest Nativity scene extant. They were marble figures made about 1290 by Arnolfo di Cambio, who also did the big bronze St. Peter at St. Peter's. (Restoration has just been finished on the figures, hence the news story.) Another nickname for the place, therefore, is Santa Maria ad Praesepium -- St. Mary of the Stable. ("Culla" is manger, in case you were interested.)

St. Mary Major (or Santa Maria Maggiore, in Italian) also houses the plague-fighting, wonderworking Byzantine icon of Jesus and Mary known as "Salus Populus Romani" -- a pun that both means "Health of the Roman People" and "Salvation of the Roman People". St. Ignatius of Loyola spent a lot of time praying before it.

Now, it's not all that likely that I'll ever be getting to Rome (though all the bloggers there make it look mighty tempting!), but I'm pretty chuffed to have found out that my patron church is such a very nifty place.

More descriptions of the history and features of the church can be found here.

St Mary Major's page on a really awesome website dedicated to the many churches of Rome.

Pictures of architectural features, and more architecture pictures.

A virtual panorama of the church's interior, and a four panoramas of different parts of the church.

Interesting page comparing other late Roman art to the late Roman bits of Santa Maria Maggiore, like the mosaics.


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