The Art of Rome: the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore and its artistic treasures

The Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore certainly is one of the most elegant and decorated church of Rome thanks to the wonderful frescoes and mosaics. Located on the square with the same name in Santa Maria Maggiore, this basilica is in the Esquilino district and it can be reached in a few minutes from Termini station.

History of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore

Its built dates back to 430-432 when work began by order of Pope Sixtus III. Historical sources and legends report the built was inspired by a dream during which the Holy Virgin suggested where to lay the foundations of the church. It is said that later on an unusual snowfall in August took place, a miraculous event, to show the exact point where the basilica was later built. The end of the construction is instead dated back to around 440.

The artistic treasures of the Basilica

This church is considered one of the richest buildings due to its great artistic heritage. The first element that will surely strike you is its great facade realized by Ferdinando Fuga. You can see the details of the portico with three openings placed on the upper lodge and five in the lower part; furthermore, it is possible to see the ancient mosaics dating back to the XIII century, part of the previous facade. Created by Filippo Rusuti, these compositions still retain all their splendour.
From the facade an harmonious balance between columns, elegantly sculpted capitals, arches, frames and statues perfectly departs. Among the most noteworthy ones, you will find the wonderful Virgin and Child, a sculpture that almost seems to come to life in front of the visitor. On the central gate, there are also two angels of extreme beauty by Maini and Bracci, representing Virginity and Humility.
In addition to the external ones, the internal architecture of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore is worth of attention: roof coffers cover gives extremely fascinating brightness. The central nave also has numerous mosaics telling stories by the Old Testament divided on two sides. It seems that there originally were forty-two squares, but currently only twenty-seven have been preserved. According to various reconstructions, it seems these representations are the real first figurative cycle in a Roman church. The brightness and the mosaics are therefore what will strike you as you walk through the doors of the Basilica because it is able to give life to a wonderful game of lights and colours.

Other priceless artistic and architectural elements are represented by the Sforza Chapel, the Cesi Chapel, and the spectacular mosaic floor dating back to the 13th century. The Cesi Chapel, commissioned by the cardinal with the same name and his brother, dates back to 1560, although the name of its author is not known yet. There are hypotheses or theories about the artist at the head of this work and it is said that it was Guidetto Guidetti, probably in cooperation with Della Porta.
The Sforza Chapel artistically stands very close to the beauty of the one described above. It was built by two Sforza brothers, both cardinals, who also took care of the decorations. In 1573, portraits were added to the funeral monuments; also the altarpiece has a very important value. However, there are three chapels in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, so it is impossible not to admire the artistic beauty of the Pauline Chapel during the visit. Paul V ordered its built to keep the icon of the Salus Popoli Romani, later moved and placed over the altar. The delicate and elegant sculpture above it represents the Pope Liberius and it is by Stefano Maderno. All the other statues follow a recurring theme and represent characters who announced Mary or played a role in her life. Among them, there are St. John, St. Joseph, David, Aaron and other characters belonging to the sacred texts. Ludovico Cardi, also known as Cigoli, realised the Immaculate Conception with the moon at her feet, depicting the woman of the Apocalypse. The moon is made in a peculiar way, something that immediately strikes the eye of an expert, because it is based on the studies of Galileo Galilei and therefore not completely spherical. Another noteworthy person who worked on the Chapel was Pietro Bernini who created two works, now in the Baptistery.

Another true treasure of the church is the apses where the triumphal arch is skillfully decorated by particular mosaics. These represent scenes of Christ childhood and some scenes from the Apocryphal Gospels. In the highest part of the arch, you can see the Throne of Etymasia with a cross whose sides are Peter and Paul, two of the most beloved saints. At the bottom, there is a Latin inscription, whereas at the corners, you can see Jerusalem and Bethlehem, the two holy cities. In addition to the splendid apses, we must also mention Bernini's tomb, on one side of the high altar and the Sacred Cradle made of silver and crystal, placed in front of the statue of Pius IX.
Finally, the Presepio by Arnolfo di Cambio is noteworthy, a work strongly desired by Pope Sixtus III. The man was so eager to make a presepio that could be in the minds of the faithful for ever so that he made a sort of Nativity cave following the description of that of Bethlehem. There, you can see the Three Wise Men, elegantly dressed, and St. Joseph admiring the miracle that is taking place. The central figures are the Madonna, the child Jesus, the ox and the donkey.

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