An exploration of Santa Maria Maggiore

Written by Paul Laverty

Fifth year Seminarian for the Diocese of Paisley

March 29, 2023

One question that Seminarians get when we are back home is, “Do you have a favourite Church?”

Indeed, living in Rome we are spoiled for choice for churches and often you can’t just name one. But over my nearly five years spent in studying here in Rome I do have a clear favourite. It’s not just because there is the chance for confession in English throughout the day every day, or that it is easy to get to from the College. But, for me there are two main features that make Santa Maria Maggiore my favourite Church in Rome.

The first is the Apse behind the main altar and above the choir seats. It was added in the thirteenth century by Pope Nicholas IV, the first Franciscan pope. He decided to destroy the old apse and construct the present one. The design of the apse was completed by the Franciscan Jacopo Torriti. It shows in the centre of the medallion, enclosed by concentric circle, Jesus and Mary seated on a large oriental throne and Jesus is crowning Mary as Queen of Heaven. And they are flanked on either side by –  St. Peter, St. Paul, St. Francis of Assisi, and Pope Nicholas IV on the left. And on the right – St. John the Baptist, St. John the Evangelist, St. Anthony and the donor, Cardinal Colonna.

The beauty of the apse is so stunning that my eyes are drawn to it every time that I enter the Basilica and I begin to meditate on our Heavenly Mother. This obviously helps build and strengthen my devotion to Mary, Mother of God and it is a place where I go to take time out of a busy day and relax in her company.

Pope Paul V ordered the Borghese chapel (left of the main altar) to be built for one reason, to house the image of the Madonna Salus Populi Romani. It is known as Salus Populi Romani, or Salvation of the Roman People, due to a miracle in which the icon is said to have helped keep the plague from the city.

The image is understood to have arrived from Crete in the year 590 AD during the Pontificate of Pope Gregory the Great, who welcomed the image in person on its arrival borne on a floral boat from the Tiber River.

The image is believed to have been painted from real life by Saint Luke himself on a thick cedar panel which according to the legend was the top of a table which Jesus built, and Mary took with her when she moved into the house of St John. According to the legend:

“After the Crucifixion, when Our Lady moved to the home of John the Apostle, she took with her a few personal belongings – among which was a table built by the Redeemer in the workshop of Saint Joseph. When pious virgins of Jerusalem prevailed upon St. Luke to paint a portrait of the Mother of God, it was the top of this table that was used to memorialise her image. While applying his brush and paints, St. Luke listened carefully as the Mother of Jesus spoke of the life of her son, facts which the Evangelist later recorded in his Gospel. Legend also tells us that the painting remained in and around Jerusalem until it was discovered by Saint Helena in the 4th century.”

Many of us will have images in our homes of Jesus, Mary or other Saints that we have a devotion to and having these helps us to pray. This is no different for me with the Salus Populi Romani, but having this legend that attached to it makes it have a deeper meaning for me that the wood was touched by Jesus himself and painted as Mary herself was speaking about Jesus. It is a physical representation of our Mother and helps in my conversation with her and the Lord, just as if they are there in front of me.

These are the two main features of Santa Maria Maggiore that makes this Basilica my favourite church in Rome. Obviously, there is many other features that I could pick but they are the first two that always come to mind.