During the month of August, one of the most striking Roman traditions takes place in the Basilica of Saint Mary Major, the Feast of our Lady of Snows which is interlinked with the foundation of the Basilica itself, Sancta Maria ad Nives. The great church dedicated to the Virgin Mary and whose foundation is lost in history and that only faith can try to explain. Its story goes back over a millennium.
According to early Christian authors, on the night of 4 August 352 a Roman patrician named John and his wife who could not have heirs and who made a vow to donate their possessions to the Virgin Mary, had a dream in which Our Lady indicated them to build a Basilica in her honour. The following day John informed Pope Liberius of his dream who confessed to have had the same vision. That night, snow fell on the Esquiline Hill and according to legend, the Pope himself traced the shape of the Basilica and as promised the patrician couple took care of the expenses. The new, grand church was dedicated to Our Lady of Snows, Sancta Maria ad Nives, often also called Liberian Basilica, after the Pope. Under Pope Sixtus III the church was enlarged after the Council of Ephesus, when the Divine Motherhood of Mary became dogma, the Theotokos.
"Foundation of St. Mary Major" - Masolino da Panicale - 1423/28 (?) - Tempera on Wood - Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples.
The Liber Pontificalis, the historical account of the lives of the popes, reports this legend shortly after year 1000 in the biography of Pope Liberius who built the basilica in his own name near the Macellum of Livia. The feast became quite an important celebratory event in late Medieval and Renaissance Rome, a famous painting by Masolino da Panicale shows the prevalence of this devotion, from at least the early 14th century it was celebrated in the Basilica itself and in all the churches of the city of Rome, and the Dedicatio Sanctae Mariae was finally inserted into the Roman Calendar at this time, in 1568 ad Nives was added to its name. To this day the feast is commemorated several days around 5 August, culminating with a glorious celebration of the Second Vespers, when a breathtaking shower of white petals, representing Our Lady of Snows, falls above the altar from the Renaissance ceiling during the singing of Magnificat, the real trademark of this feast, it is certainly astonishing to witness it as it is a wonderful example of Baroque theatricality and seeing the "miracolous snow" lost in a cloud of incense and glowing before the gilded Medieval mosaics representing the Coronation of the Virgin during the notes of Magnificat is a transcendental experience. It is truly worth seeing and it is yet another form of devotion to the Virgin Mary in true Roman (as in "from the city of Rome) spirituality, it is also an example of how history meets religion and popular devotion as well as the highest hierarchies of the Church meet together to celebrate the mystic foundation of the greatest of churches dedicated to the Mother of God.
Concede nos famulos tuos, quaesumus, Domine Deus, perpetua mentis et corporis sanitate gaudere: et, gloriosa beatae Mariae semper Vírginis intercessione, a praesenti liberari tristitia et aeterna perfrui laetitia. Amen.
Grant us Thy servants, we beseech Thee, O Lord God, to enjoy perpetual health of mind and body; and by the glorious intercession of blessed Mary ever Virgin, to be delivered from present sorrows and to enjoy everlasting gladness. Amen.
Solemnity of the Dedication of the Papal Basilica of Saint Mary Major
Feast of Our Lady of Snows
Saturday, 5 August, 2017, Events
10,00: Solemn Pontifical Mass, celebrated by Cardinal Stanislaw Rylko, Archpriest of the Basilica
(with "miracle of the snow" during the Gloria)
17,00: Second Solemn Vespers, celebrated by Monsignor Francesco Canalini
(with "miracle of the snow" during the Magnificat)
18,00: Solemn Pontifical Mass, celebrated by Monsignor Giuseppe Mani with the choir of the Basilica.