The Seven Churches Pilgrimage: Basilica of Saint Mary Major

In this seventh episode of a special seven-part series, we take you on a spiritual journey through the Seven Pilgrim Churches of Rome to learn more about the history, art, architecture, and spiritual wealth of each of these storied places of worship, concluding with the Basilica of St. Mary Major.

By Sr. Gini George, SSpS

The final station of our pilgrimage is the Papal Basilica of Saint Mary Major, a Marian shrine and one of the four major papal basilicas.

From the earnest pilgrim captivated in prayer to the enthusiast art-lover, every visitor to St. Mary Major finds both spiritual and visual fulfillment in this holy place. 

Situated on the summit of the Esquiline Hill, the Basilica of St. Mary Major is the only papal basilica in Rome to have retained its paleo-Christian structures.

According to legend, a Roman nobleman and his wife who lived in the fourth century were without heirs.

They therefore prayed for a sign from God to show them what to do with their wealth.

The patrician, John, and Pope Liberius both dreamed that Mary wanted a church built on Esquiline Hill. On 5 August 352, snow fell on Esquiline Hill in a rectangular pattern and did not melt, despite the typically hot Roman summer.

The Church of St. Mary Major was built on the spot and completed in 354. 

Almost after a century, in 432, Pope Sixtus III demolished the structure and built a more beautified enlarged one to commemorate the Declaration of Mary’s Divine Motherhood by the Council of Ephesus.

Spiritual treasure trove

The basilica has two facades. The main façade of the basilica has five entrances, like St. Peter’s, and a balcony for papal blessings.

It has a Romanesque bell tower and a column at the top of which there is a bronze statue of the Mother and Child. At the foot of the column is a fountain, a reminder to us to drink from the Source of Grace, whose mother is Mary.

The other façade, located on Piazza Esquiline, has twin cupolas and in front of it stands an obelisk dating from the first century.

In the basilica, frescoes fill the ceilings, and looking at the fifth-century mosaics on the triumphal arch, we see that they center on the mystery of the Incarnation of Christ, portraying episodes from the birth and childhood of Jesus.

There are two especially noteworthy treasures in this basilica: The most prominent is a relic of the manger from Bethlehem in which the baby Jesus was laid. This is venerated under the High Altar of the Basilica. Facing this magnificent relic is a marble statue of Pope Pius IX, who proclaimed the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in 1854.

Salus Populi Romani

The second is an ancient Roman icon of the Blessed Mother known as the Salus Populi Romani (The Salvation of the Roman People).

Tradition attributes the icon to St. Luke. This image is said to have been brought back from the Holy Land by St. Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine.

During the pontificate of Pope St. Gregory the Great, a plague attacked the people of Rome and the Pope carried the image in procession for an end to the plague.

When the plague ended, the Pope solemnly placed crowns of gold and gems on the heads of Mary and the Child Jesus in the miraculous image.

As we conclude this classical pilgrimage, let us ponder upon the mystery of the Incarnation and the closeness of God who became flesh through Mary and dwelt among us. 

15 October 2022, 07:00