The average high temperature during the summer month of August in Rome is 89 degrees F (32C), yet despite this warm period, tradition holds that on August 5th, 358, it snowed on the Esquiline Hill, the location of the Church of St. Mary Major (Church of Santa Maria Maggiore)! On August 5th, the Dedication of the Church of St. Mary Major is commemorated each year in the General Roman Calendar; and in this Papal Basilica, the story surrounding the Miracle of the Snows is also celebrated.
The legend goes that a childless Roman couple planned to give their estate upon death to the Mother of God. The couple was uncertain of how to execute this gift until the miraculous night of August 5th, 358 when the Blessed Mother appeared to them in a dream and instructed them to build a church in her honor on the Esquiline Hill and the location would be marked in snow. To the surprise of all, in the morning the hill was covered with snow and they, along with Pope Liberius (352-366) went to the site and the location of the church was outlined in the snowfall! Each year this event continues to be commemorated at the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore when white petals are dropped from the dome of the basilica.
The original structure was dedicated by Pope Sixtus III (432-440) in the 5th century and associated with the Council of Ephesus of 431 AD which proclaimed Mary as Theotokos, Mother of God; however, the basilica has been redesigned and updated numerous times over the years. The basic design of the structure is that of a rectangular Roman basilica with a large nave and two side aisles separated by columns, with a semicircular apse at the end of the nave. Many popes have contributed leadership and financing of additions and renovations to the archetype structure including the additions of a 246-foot (75 meters) Romanesque bell tower by Pope Gregory XI (1370-1378), and two beautiful chapels also added: the Sistine Chapel by Pope Sixtus V (1585-1590) and the Borghese (Pauline) Chapel by Pope Paul V (1605-1621). The church is also known as “St. Mary ad Praesepe” because it contains parts of the manger of the baby Jesus’ birth housed in a reliquary crypt under the high altar. The updated façade of the church was erected under the direction of Pope Benedict XIV starting in 1741.
The church is breathtakingly full of sacred art to occupy the hearts and minds of the faithful, including the exquisite icon of the Madonna and Child known as the “Salus Populi Romani”, the Protectress of the People of Rome, attributed to St. Luke which hangs in the Borghese Chapel. Of interest to lovers of painted art is the Sistine Chapel at St. Mary Major (built in 1587 by Pope Sixtus V) which is home to paintings by several artists celebrating the Blessed Virgin Mary in her capacity as Mother of God. (The Sistine Chapel at the Vatican, with the works of Michelangelo, preceded this Sistine Chapel by about 100 years.) In addition to the relics of the manger of the Nativity, the church is also the final resting place of the remains of St. Jerome (340-420), a Doctor of the Church.
Reportedly, this basilica was on the itinerary of St. Philip Neri during his pilgrim church tours of Rome in the 16th century. If one visits Rome, this ancient and lovely sacred structure should be on the tour schedule. However, if you want to get a good sense for the church sooner than that, a virtual tour is available at the website of the Papal Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore