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New Delhi, India
September 30, 2006
Which just goes to show how impressive the Church of Saint Mary Major- or Santa Maria Maggiore- is. Bluish grey twin domes rise up on either side above a building of pale golden-beige. An obelisk stands tall in the square behind, and the wide steps leading up to the church are perfect for sitting down and resting a while. The front of the church, also with wide steps, but with the addition of a square church tower and a prettily arched façade, is equally lovely, but more crowded.
We made our way inside, from the dazzling brightness of the afternoon sun and into the soothing gloom of Santa Maria Maggiore. The church is vast (it is, in fact, Rome’s fourth largest church, and the city’s largest church dedicated to Mary), and it’s splendidly decorated.
From the main door, the nave stretches down to a beautiful altar canopy, or baldaquin, designed by a Ferdinand Fugo. Columns stretch down either side of the main pews, separating them from the many chapels along the sides. The ceiling above is divided into squares, each of which is carefully gilded and decorated. Interestingly enough, the gilt used on the ceiling was part of the first consignment of gold to be brought from America.
We spent some time just sitting in one of the pews, marvelling at the sumptuousness of the cathedral- and gaping at the ceiling till we got a crick in the neck- and then we set off on a circuit of the chapels. High windows near the ceiling let in light enough to illuminate the exquisite paintings and mosaics (some as old as the 5th century) that adorn the chapels. The chapels are, on the whole, a gloriously ornate medley (in some cases just a trifle overdone) of sculpture, paint, mosaic and gilt. In a typical chapel, a gilded statue of the Virgin stands before a frieze of carved white marble; the rest of the chapel consists about equally of gilded and painted Biblical scenes, marble columns, and angels made of stucco.
Among the highlights of Santa Maria Maggiore is a mosaic depicting a local legend- that Mary appeared to Pope Liberius in a dream in 356 AD, and instructed him to build this church for her. Other than that, the church also boasts of five pieces of the manger, enclosed in a silver urn.
It’s pretty obvious that an immense amount of work went into making this church a masterpiece of just about every form of decorative art. Do have a look- entry is free, it isn’t as crowded as San Pietro, and it’s historic.
From journal Renaissance Rome
New York, New York
June 28, 2004
From its majestic Romanesque bell tower to its twin domes built in the Baroque period, Santa Maria Maggiore is host to a wealth of different architectural styles. Among its most striking features is the Renaissance ceiling, a gift of the Spanish monarchy, gilded with the first gold Columbus brought back from the New World. Another stunning asset is the baldacchino crafted sometime in the mid-1700s. With its rich, red columns and delicate bronze ornamentation, Ferdinando Fuga’s masterpiece seems a heavenly place to celebrate mass. The most magnificent and famous treasures in all this church, however, are found looming above in the nave. Santa Maria Maggiore houses some of the world’s oldest, most beautiful and best preserved early Christian mosaics. Bright, colorful and realistic, these fifth century mosaics were about 1,000 years ahead of their time. Just one look proves that they alone are worth a visit here.
The basilica has a lovely gift shop on site that carries a nice assortment of religious and Roman souvenirs. Anything from colorful magnets and hand painted ceramics to rosary beads and landmark figurines can be found here. Prices average about two dollars less than what vendors charge on the street. The church is open from 7am to 8pm daily. No admission fee is charged, but donations are appreciated.
From journal Rome: A Lifetime Is Not Enough