Our Lady, a basilica and a painting by St. Luke

by Reverend Matthew R. Mauriello –

The most important church in the city of Rome dedicated to Our Lady is the Basilica of Saint Mary Major, erected around the year 352, during the reign of Pope Liberius. (352-366) According to legend, a member of an aristocratic family, John, and his wife were childless and prayed that the Blessed Mother might designate an heir to bequeath their wealth. They were favored with a dream in which Our Lady appeared to them on the night of August 4-5. She requested that they build a church in her honor on the Esquiline hill and the sign to accompany this dream is that the exact location would be marked out in snow.

During that hot summer evening, a miraculous snowfall traced the form of the basilica on the hill. Our Lady also appeared to Pope Liberius in a dream that same night so that he too could arrive at the location to see the miraculous snowfall. Many people gathered to see the unusual event of snow glistening in the August sun. Upon awakening, John and his wife rushed to the site and Pope Liberius arrived in solemn procession.

Realizing that the snow marked the exact location of the church, the people staked off the area before the snow melted. The basilica was completed within two years and consecrated by Pope Liberius; that is why it is sometimes referred to as the Basilica Liberiana, after the pope who consecrated it.

When the Council of Ephesus defined Mary as Theotokos, the God-bearer, in 431 A.D., Pope Sixtus III (432-440) rebuilt and embellished the basilica. From the seventh century onward, it was referred to as St. Mary the Great or Major. The basilica has also been called Our Lady of the Snows in commemoration of the miraculous snowfall. The imposing facade was built by Pope Eugene III (1145-1153).

An image by St. Luke

Painting by St. Luke

Among its great treasures is a painting of the Madonna and Child known as the Salus Populi Romani, the Protectress of the People of Rome, which is attributed to St. Luke. This image had been brought back from the Holy Land by St. Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, who also located the true Cross and other relics of the Passion in Jerusalem. The venerable picture hung in the private chapel of Pope Liberius, and he ordered that it be brought to the Basilica for public veneration by the faithful.

Throughout the centuries, there has been a special devotion to this famous picture of Our Lady. During the pontificate of Pope St. Gregory the Great (590-604) a plague attacked the people of Rome and the pope carried the image in procession to pray to their Protectress for an end to the plague. In 1837, Pope Gregory XVI (1830-1846) also carried the image in procession throughout Rome to ask Our Lady for an end to an epidemic of cholera. When it soon ended, the pontiff solemnly placed crowns of gold and gems on the heads of Mary and the child Jesus on the miraculous image.

Pope Paul V (1605-1621) arranged that a magnificent chapel be built for the veneration of the image. On January 27, 1613, it was removed from the high altar and placed in the new chapel. The manger from the stable of Bethlehem is venerated under the high altar of the basilica.

The liturgical feast of the Dedication of the Basilica of St. Mary Major is celebrated each year on fifth of August. On that day, a beautiful custom is kept each year to commemorate the miraculous snowfall. At the conclusion of the Solemn Mass a shower of white rose petals falls from the dome of the Chapel of Our Lady.

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3 Comments
  1. please pray for me as I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis and enzymes missing in my pancreas. Return my children to the C Church. The medicine is very expensive and I need an alternative. My daughter and family live in San Diego and I pray she o to this but she is one of the fallen-away Catholics. Thank you very much. Blessings Bernie from Erie, PA

  2. The painting by st Luke of Mary in the Badiica in Rome is so diol Sr to the Mother of Perpetual help icon. I was wondering which one came first. I would assume st Luke’s painting was first. Was the other copied from that one? St Luke didn’t know Mary did he?
    Thank you!

    • We are assuming St. Luke’s painting came before the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help, which was written in the 15th century, but legend has it, the icon was based on another painting of St. Luke’s picture of the Holy Family, which explains their likeness. St. Luke very possibly could have known Our Lady, as he was the one who wrote the Acts of the Apostles and a Gospel in which he gave the most details about her. Perhaps he visited her to learn from her, or or learned of her from the very first Apostles.

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