Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Wednesday, First Week of Lent: Mary, Major Basilica

This first week of Lent always saw the observance of the spring Ember days.  These ember days occuring on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, were instituted for the purpose of consecrating to God the new season, and to pray and fast for those who were to receive Holy Orders on Saturday. Although, they are not observed now, it is good to pray for priests during this week.

Today's Station Church is the greatest and most illustrious of all the Roman Churches consecrated to Mary, the Basilica of St. Mary Major.

Tradition has it that the Virgin Mary herself inspired the choice of the Esquiline Hill for the church's construction. Appearing in a dream to both the Patrician John and Pope Liberius, she asked that a church be built in her honor on a site she would miraculously indicate.

The morning of August 5th, the Esquiline Hill was covered with a blanket of snow. The pope traced out the perimeter of the basilica in the snow, and John financed the construction of the new church.


The present Basilica dates back to the fifth century AD. Its construction was tied to the Council of Ephesus of 431 AD, which proclaimed Mary Theotokos, Mother of God. Sixtus III commissioned and financed the project as Bishop of Rome. The unique quality of St. Mary Major comes from the fifth century mosaics, commissioned by Sixtus III, that run along the nave and across the triumphal arch. The nave mosaics recount four cycles of Sacred History featuring Abraham, Jacob, Moses and Joshua; seen together, they are meant to testify to God's promise of a land for the Jewish people and His assistance as they strive to reach it.

The triumphal arch is composed of four images. The first, in the upper left, shows the Annunciation, with Mary robed like a Roman princess. She holds a spindle as she weaves a purple veil for the Temple where she serves. The story continues with the Annunciation to Joseph, the Adoration of the Magi and the Massacre of the Innocents. In this last scene, there is a woman in a blue robe facing away from the other women; she is St. Elizabeth, fleeing with her son John the Baptist in her arms. The upper right illustrates the Presentation in the Temple, and the Flight into Egypt.

The central medallion of the apse shows the Coronation of the Virgin while the lower band illustrates the most important moments of her life.

In this mosaic, Mary is not only seen as mother but as Mother Church, bride of her Son. The sun, the moon and a choir of adoring angels are arranged around their feet, while St. Peter, St. Paul, and St. Francis of Assisi along with Pope Nicholas IV flank them on the left. On the right, Torriti portrayed St. John the Baptist, St. John the Evangelist, St. Anthony and the donor, Cardinal Colonna.

In the lower apse, mosaic scenes showing the life of the Madonna are arranged to the left and right of the central panel, which represents the Dormition of the Virgin and is situated directly below the image of the Coronation. This way of describing the death of Mary is typical of Byzantine iconography, but was also widely diffused in the West after the Crusades.
The Confession, or reliquary crypt, lies before the main altar, and was constructed at the behest of Pope Pius IX to contain the sacred relic of the Holy Crib. The crystal reliquary, shaped like a crib, contains pieces of ancient wood which tradition holds to be part of the manger where the Baby Jesus was laid. A statue of Pope Pius IX kneeling before the ancient wooden pieces of the manger serves as an example to the faithful who come to see the first humble crib of the Savior.

The Pauline chapel, built by Pope Paul V in the 1600's, holds the icon of the Salus Populi Romani. Believed to be painted by St. Luke, She is also called by the title, Our Lady of the Snows.

Let us pray to God that we may be strengthened in mind by the fruit of good works, while we mortify our bodies through prayer and fasting.  Mary, Mother of God, and Mother of Sorrows, intercede for us to your Son, Jesus Christ.

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