Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Friday, 5 August 2011

Our Lady of the Snows

Today is the feast of Our Lady of the Snows, the feast of the dedication of the Papal Basilica of Sta Maria Maggiore. The following piece is slightly adapted and edited from John Dillon's post on 'Saints of the day ' on the Medieval Religion discussion group:

The Dedication of the Basilica of St. Mary Major (Santa Maria Maggiore) in Rome (ca. 435). In 431 the Council of Ephesus in the course of its condemnation of Nestorianism asserted the Blessed Virgin Mary's role as Theotokos ('Mother of God'). This newly enunciated title was underscored shortly thereafter by Pope St. Sixtus III (432-40), who built and dedicated to Mary the Roman basilica now known as Santa Maria Maggiore. Since at least the time of Francesco Maria Fiorentini's Vetustius occidentalis ecclesiae martyrologium (1668), this has been considered the first church in the West to be dedicated to Mary.

The Clever Boy would add to that the claim made for the Old Church at Glastonbury, the building of which which some indeed ascribe to Our Lord whilst visiting Britain with Joseph of Aramethea ... but to return to John Dillon:

The feast is entered for today in the (pseudo-)Hieronymian Martyrology with an entry that reads as follows: Romae dedicatio basilicae sanctae Mariae. Santa Maria Maggiore was either a replacement for or a rebuilding of an earlier basilica erected on the same spot by Pope Liberius (352-66). In later legend it was claimed that Mary had appeared to Liberius and to others in a dream on the night of 4th-5th August saying that she would mark out in snow the outline of a space where a church should be built in her honour. On the following day the outline was discovered on the Esquiline and there Liberius built his basilica, which in this account was then already dedicated to Our Lady close to a century before Sixtus' creation of Santa Maria Maggiore.

In accordance with the legend, Santa Maria Maggiore came also to be called Santa Maria ad Nives ('Our Lady of the Snows') and in the general Roman Calendar from 1568 until its revision of 1969 the feast was called this as well. As, in Italian, at least, it still is at the Basilica itself.

Modified several times over the centuries, Rome's Santa Maria Maggiore retains much of its original basilican form and indeed some of its late antique decoration. The English-language version of the basilica's illustrated website is here, and a page of expandable views is here.

In this view of the interior, note the columns, capitals, and the mosaic panels above them,which are all early, and here is another view, showing the triumphal arch as well and a portion of the apse mosaic. There are more views from Paradoxplace; Sacred Destinations here, here and here.

There are also some expandable views of sculpture surviving from Arnolfo di Cambio's late thirteenth-century crèche for the Basilica:

Our Lady and the Christ Child above the Miracle of the Snow as depicted in a late fourteenth-century missal for the Use of Saint-Didier at Avignon (Avignon, Bibliothèque-Médiathèque Municipale Ceccano, ms. 138, fol. 254r) can be seen here.

Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary appear above Pope Liberius breaking ground for Santa Maria Maggiore as depicted in an early fifteenth-century panel painting (1420s) by Masolino da Panicale, now in Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples.

The Virgin and the construction of Santa Maria Maggiore as depicted in an early fifteenth-century Franciscan breviary (Chambéry, Bibliothèque municipale, ms. 4, fol. 556v) can be viewed here.

Pope Liberius breaking ground for Santa Maria Maggiore as depicted by Matthias Grünewald in an earlier sixteenth-century panel painting (1517-1519) on a wing of his altar for the Maria-Schnee-Kapelle in the Stiftskirche (now Stiftsbasilika) St. Peter und Alexander in Aschaffenburg (painting now in the Städtische Museen, Freiburg im Breisgau) can be seen here and here, with details here, here and here.

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