Monday, August 5, 2013

Our Lady of the Snow

West end of Rome's St. Mary Major.
Today's feast, which has a particularly pleasant title in the depths of southern summer, marks the dedication of St. Mary Major, Rome's great church of the Virgin.  From the Middle Ages until 1969, this feast was kept under the title of Our Lady of the Snow in memory of the legend that the Virgin herself caused a snow to fall on August 5th on the site where the basilica should stand and that its outline was traced in the snow by Pope Liberius.* The Miracle of the Snow is still commemorated at the Basilica on August 5, when a shower of white rose petals falls from the basilica's coffered ceiling. 

The legend of the miraculous snow only arose several centuries after the building of the Basilica and one Church commission had recommended that it be removed from the Breviary as early as 1741, but the legend remained in place in the annual reading until 1969.  It ran as follows:

Under the pontificate of Liberius, John, a Roman patrician, and his wife who was of an equally noble race, having no children to whom they might leave their estates, vowed their whole fortune to the Blessed Virgin Mother of God, begging her most earnestly and continually to make known to them by some means in what pious work she wished them to employ the money. The Blessed Virgin Mary graciously heard their heartfelt prayers and vows, and answered them by a miracle.

On the nones of August, usually the hottest time of the year in Rome, a part of the Esquiline hill was covered with snow during the night. That same night, the Mother of God appeared in a dream to John and his wife separately, and told them to build a church on the spot they should find covered with snow, and to dedicate it to the Virgin Mary; for it was in this manner that she wished to become their heiress. John related this to Pope Liberius who said that he had dreamt the same thing.

The reliquary of the crib in the Sistine Chapel.
He went therefore with a solemn procession of priests and people to the snow-clad hill, and chose the site of a church which was built with the money of John and his wife. It was afterwards rebuilt by Sixtus III. At first it was called by different names, the Liberian Basilica, St. Mary at the Crib. But since there are many churches in Rome dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, and as this one surpasses all other basilicas in dignity and by its miraculous beginning, it is distinguished from them also by the title St. Mary Major. On account of the miraculous fall of snow, the anniversary of the dedication is celebrated by a yearly solemnity.

Aside from how pleasant it is to imagine a snowfall in August at the height of Southern summer, there is something quite appealing about the idea of something as solid as a great basilica mapped out by something as transitory as a snowfall.  We are always tracing outlines of things to be, some of which come to pass and some of which are entirely illusory.  It is also quite easy to get a bit jealous of clear instructions falling down from on high and to wish that God would precipitate all of our actions.

Alone among Rome's patriarchal basilicas, Mary Major has kept its original form, though it is now encased in several centuries of accretions. Two of Rome's greatest treasures are kept in chapels on either side of the high altar. The Borghese chapel houses the icon of Salus Populi Romani, Rome's beloved icon of the Virgin, which legend attributes to the hand of St. Luke. The Sistine Chapel contains the relics of the crib, brought from the Holy Land by Pope Theodore in the seventh century. Throughout the church, one finds fine examples of Christian art from almost every century.

There are more photos of Mary Major here from a trip a few years ago.


* The Latin is "Sancta Maria ad nives," which would literally be "Our Lady of the Snows," but in English, since we are talking about one snowfall, that seems a bit like translating "cervi" as "deers."  I will admit that is a subjective point, as translation often is.