Rome Travel Guide

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Thursday, May 27, 2021

The loggia of Santa Maria Maggiore - its almost hidden mosaics

If Church Lady were in Rome... she would direct you to the loggia of Santa Maria Maggiore, one of only four papal basilicas in Rome. The 13th-century mosaics here are magnificent. They were originally on the facade of the church, but were made more difficult to see from the street when, in the 18th century, a new portico was created, along with the loggia where the mosaics now seem almost hidden.

The top half of the mosaics are traditional depictions. For example, the Christ figure in Byzantine style in the upper half of the mosaic wall. That wall also curves slightly, apparently so that the mosaics were not foreshortened for someone viewing them from the outside (when they were originally the outside facade).

Other mosaics elaborate on the founding of the church - these stories are always fun. The photo at right show mosaics depicting a Pope and a patrician, John, dreaming.

The basic legend of the church is that it was founded on the spot of an August snowfall, a miracle if there ever was one. Mary predicted this snowfall in John's dream, and the patch of snow was found the next morning. So, of course, childless John and his wife then needed to fund the building of the church. This is a 4th century event that was first recorded in the 1200s.

Another mosaic (below) shows the snowfall. The snowfall continues to be celebrated each August 5 with the dropping of white rose petals from the basilica's dome, which we - who avoid the heat of Rome in August (although we might make an exception this year if Italy would get Covid under control and let us in) - have never seen.

One might wonder about the rather odd angel at the side of the photo at left. There are four angels in the loggia by Pietro Bracci. They date from the 18th century and were moved from their positions inside the church where apparently they blocked the view of the apse (another photo of them below). It's almost as though the church decided to use the loggia as a storage place for surplus artworks.

Another oddity from the original positioning of the back wall of the loggia as the outside wall of the church is the "oculus" or round window - that would have been a window on the facade of the church. Bill took the photo below that shows the column topped by the Virgin in the piazza in front of the church - a reflection in the oculus.

The column itself is, like most of Rome's columns, an ancient one from the Forum, moved here in 1614 and then crowned with the statue of Mary and Child. It's also known as the Column of Peace, and it's an archetype for Marian columns around the world. In the photo, there's a mosaic of a column as well, meaning the Colonna family must have been involved in the church's funding at some point.

One can only see these mosaics and the other features of the loggia with a paid tour, which costs very little. Euro 5 a few years ago. Our tour guide was excellent. As a bonus, he took us into the Papal "back rooms" where almost everything has Pope Paul V's (1605-21) name on it. (Photos at end of post.)

A final bonus from the guide was the great sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini's burial site in the church, a modest floor plaque here:

There is much, much more to see in the basilica. This post focuses almost solely on the loggia, itself a taste of what's inside, and a reminder of the richness of art and culture in the hundreds of churches in Rome, or... part of what we miss in Rome.

Dianne (aka, Church Lady)

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