The Legend of The Miracle of Our Lady of the Snows
So what do you do when Mary tells you to build a church?
According to legend, a Roman nobleman and his wife who lived in the fourth century were without heirs so they prayed for a sign from God showing them what to do with their wealth. Both the patrician, named John, and Pope Liberius dreamed that Mary wanted a church built on the Esquiline Hill.
On August 5th, 352, snow fell on the Esquiline Hill in a rectangular pattern and didn’t melt, in spite of the typically hot Roman summer. The Church of Santa Maria Maggiore was built on the spot and completed in 354. Because of this pope, the church has been called Santa Maria Liberiana.
The Miracle of Our Lady of the Snows wasn’t mentioned until almost 1000 years after the church was built but the legend was so popular that dozens of churches have been named in commemoration of the event.
Within 100 years, Pope Sixtus III razed the church to build a new, larger church in response to the Council of Ephesus declaring Mary the Mother of God.
The interior structure of the church, with its long, rectangular nave, maintains the original look of an imperial basilica even though renovations and additions in more recent centuries have hidden the original look behind a Baroque facade.
The Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore is home to many ancient relics. One of the oldest is the Salus Populi Romani icon. Tradition holds that this icon was originally painted by Saint Luke on the wood from the table in the Holy Family’s home. The icon is part of the altar piece in the Borghese Chapel. If you bring binoculars you can see it buried in Baroque magnificence.
Under the high altar is the Crypt of the Nativity. The splendid reliquary holds wood believed to be from Christ’s crib. St. Jerome is also buried here.
The mosaics that adorn the sanctuary are from the late 5th century – some of the oldest known artistic representations of Mary. These icons cover the triumphal arch over the sanctuary, the dome of the sanctuary and flank the nave.
Even though the feast celebrated on August 5th is no longer officially called the Miracle of the Snows, the church still releases white rose petals from the ceiling following Mass and artificial snow is rained onto the square outside the basilica to commemorate the legend.
And just because it is one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever composed and it was sung in Santa Maria Maggiore the day before our choir, the Collegium Cantorum arrived to sing, enjoy the Miserere Mei Deus by Alegri.
He lives with his lovely wife and eleven kids in northern Colorado.