Aug 15, 2000

St. Mary Major, St. Lawrence Outside-the-Walls

Online Edition Vol. VI, No. 5: August 2000
Jubilee Rome, Part IV
St. Mary Major, St. Lawrence Outside-the-Walls, Santa Croce in Gerusalemme and St. Sebastian

(Part IV of V)


by Sheila Gribben Liaugminas

Santa Maria Maggiore

Legend has it that on the night of August 4, 352, both Pope Liberius and a Roman patrician named Giovanni had a dream in which the Blessed Virgin told them to build a church on the site where they would find snow the following morning. In the heat of the Roman summer, the snow appeared that next morning on the Esquiline Hill, and Liberius outlined the church in it and commissioned Giovanni to build this first Marian church in the West. This miracle inaugurated the tradition of Our Lady of the Snows, a feast celebrated on August 5 throughout the universal Church. During that celebration at this basilica, white flower petals drift like snowfall from the rooftop, both inside and out, to commemorate the miracle.

Sant Maria Maggiore is called the greatest of all Marian churches. The original church built by Liberius was replaced at the end of the Council of Ephesus, which issued the dogma proclaiming Mary the "Theotokos," the Mother of God. This church, built by Pope Sixtus III in 432, was the oldest, largest and most important dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, and thus became known as St. Mary Major. It is filled with art depicting the life of the Virgin, from the center bronze door panels to the frescoes between the high windows, to the mosaics decorating the triumphal arch over the high altar, all the way to the magnificent apse mosaic. This central mosaic elaborately renders the event of Mary’s Dormition and Assumption into heaven, where she is crowned by her son. Interestingly, this mosaic was in place from the time of the first Holy Year in 1300, but the dogma of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary was not declared dogma until the Holy Year of 1950. This reveals how established the conviction of this doctrine was, especially in Rome, long before it was formally proclaimed.

The triumphal arch, with scenes from the Book of Revelation across the top, dates back to the 4th century. It also portrays events in the preaching of Sts. Jerome and Matthew, since the bodies of both saints were brought to this basilica from the East. The exact location of St. Jerome’s remains here is unknown, although a small chapel right off the Sistine Chapel (named for Pope Sixtus V) in the right transept is dedicated to him. The remains of St. Matthew are contained in the gilded bronze urn beneath the main altar.

Manger inspired art

In front of the altar in the confessio is a gold and silver reliquary case which holds pieces of wood from the manger that held the infant Jesus in Bethlehem. Before it is a statue of Pius IX kneeling in prayer. The presence of this great treasure prompted sculptor Arnolfo di Cambio to create a nativity scene to surround it, which it originally did, in the Oratory of the Manger. That oratory is now part of the Sistine Chapel which still displays the nativity figures.

The last chapel in the left transept is the Borghese chapel, named after Pope Paul V Borghese, and it houses a beloved and miraculous image of the Blessed Virgin, the Salus Populi Romani, or Salvation of the Roman People. The Romans traditionally believed that this Byzantine-style icon was painted by St. Luke while Mary was still with the Apostles (though others believe it came from a later time). It has been revered by pilgrims, carried in processions for special occasions, and prayed to by the Roman people in times of persecutions, plagues and war.

The gold coffered ceiling of the basilica was made with gold brought from the New World by Christopher Columbus and given to Pope Alexander VI by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, the devout Catholic rulers of Spain. It was completed for the Holy Year of 1500.

Unbroken tradition
This basilica, along with St. Paul- Outside-the-Walls, is believed to be the finest example of the early Christian basilica in Rome. Santa Maria Maggiore, however, was spared damage and rebuilding ordeals, and is believed to be the only church in the city where Mass has been celebrated every day without fail since the 5th century. Thus, it is both significant and symbolic that this church, dedicated to Mary, with a relic of the manger in which she laid the infant Jesus, and with the daily celebration of his Eucharistic presence for so many unbroken centuries, represents the history of the Church.

The joy of the Jubilee would not be complete if our gaze did not turn to her who in full obedience to the Father gave birth to the Son of God in the flesh for our sake. For Mary ‘the time to give birth’ came to pass in Bethlehem (Lk 2:6), and filled with the Spirit she brought forth the Firstborn of the new creation. Called to be the Mother of God, from the day of the virginal conception Mary lived the fullness of her motherhood, crowning it on Calvary at the foot of the cross. There, by the wondrous gift of Christ, she also became the Mother of the Church, and showed to everyone the way that leads to the Son.

– Pope John Paul II,
The Mystery of the Incarnation (Bull of Indiction of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000)

The Holy Year of 1575, at the beginning of the Counter-Reformation, and at a time of renewed fervor and strength in the Roman Catholic Church, has been considered by some to be the most pious of jubilees. Pope Gregory XIII had introduced the new Gregorian calendar, founded the papal Osservatory and the Gregorian University, and set about restoring Rome.

Also, he increased the Patriarchal Basilicas from the traditional four to the sacred number of seven. The pilgrims of 1575 embodied a new zeal for their faith and Catholic convictions, and there would be three more pilgrimage churches to fulfill that quest and enrich the Rome experience. They were St. Lawrence-Outside-the Walls, Santa Croce in Gerusalemme (Holy Cross in Jerusalem) and St. Sebastian.

St. Lawrence-Outside-the-Walls

St. Lawrence-Outside-the-Walls is actually two churches joined in the middle, built in stages and layers over time. In the year 330, Emperor Constantine built a church over an existing ancient oratory to the martyr on this site where St. Lawrence is buried. It was rebuilt in 578 by Pelagius II and stands as the older part of today’s basilica. The newer side was built by Honorius III and attached to the older church in the 13th century.

Over the next six centuries, it underwent numerous renovations, and then was severely damaged by bombing in World War II. After extensive repairs, it reopened in 1949.

It is dedicated to St. Lawrence, patron of deacons, who suffered a terrible persecution under Emperor Valerian in the third century. He took great care of the poor, even selling church possessions to acquire more money for their care. At one point, the prefect of Rome demanded that Lawrence hand over the Church’s treasures for the emperor. Lawrence asked for three days to collect those treasures, and then presented the rulers with the poor, the blind, the crippled and the orphans, telling the prefect that these were, indeed, the Church’s treasures. The enraged prefect ordered Lawrence to be burned alive over a blazing grill. The legend says that after some time of this excruciating torture, Lawrence called for the executioner to turn him over, that he was broiled enough on one side. His witness for the faith led to a great conversion throughout Rome and began the end of paganism. St. Lawrence was always one of the most revered of the early Christian martyrs in Rome.

This basilica displays an overwhelming array of ornate mosaics, many depicting scenes from the lives of St. Lawrence, St. Stephen and St. Justin, whose remains are buried here. Their relics are contained in the confessio in a large sarcophagus bearing the inscription: "Here, under the vault, lie the bodies of Blessed Stephen, protomartyr, Blessed Lawrence, deacon, and Justin, presbyter and martyr". St. Justin is believed to be the first Christian apologist to have written at length about the faith. His writings sought to reconcile the debate between faith and reason, an issue which John Paul II has studied extensively and written about most recently in Fides et Ratio (October 1998). When Justin was ordered by the Roman prefect to offer sacrifice to the pagan gods, he refused, and was scourged and beheaded.

The relics of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr who was stoned to death in Jerusalem, were brought here by Pope Pelagius and placed together with those of Lawrence and Justin.

Santa Croce in Gerusalemme

The name, Holy Cross in Jerusalem, literally represents what this church holds. Here, you will stand on Calvary. This is the church with the relics of the Passion of Jesus Christ, where you can face the alarming reality of it all. You can get closer than you ever imagined to objects that came together on Good Friday at the Crucifixion, the same way you can view any ancient relics in an historical museum. For here, in a chapel built to house this reliquary of stunning significance, rests wood from the Cross of Christ, the sign which hung on it over his head, thorns from the crown pressed into his head, and stones from the column at which he was scourged. Together with other important relics, it all rests on a layer of soil spread after being brought here from Mount Calvary.

These relics are preserved here because of the great fortitude of St. Helen, the mother of Constantine who spared no effort to recover the church’s greatest treasures from the Holy Land. This site used to be Empress Helen’s own palace, and she converted part of it into a church to hold the holy relics brought here in 326. It became known as Sancta Hierusalem.

During the 12th century, Pope Lucius II remodeled the church and added the portico and campanile, or bell tower. Pope Benedict XIV had the Basilica rebuilt in 1743 in the baroque style of that period, dramatically transforming it into the present church. During this time the statues of the Evangelists were added across the top of the façade, also St. Helen holding a cross, and Constantine. Underneath, the inscription reads: "Pope Benedict XIV, in Honor of the Holy Cross, in the Fourth Year of His Pontificate".

Inside, the sacred treasures which have drawn pilgrims here from the early centuries of the Church are displayed in a modern Chapel of the Relics built for them in 1930 by Florestano Di Fausto. Beyond a doorway in the upper left aisle of the Basilica, the approach to the Chapel leads first past a glass case holding a large piece of the cross of the Good Thief which stood next to Christ’s on Calvary. Along that hall the walls bear bronze stations of the cross.

Within the glass case are the awesome witnesses to the brutal torture and death of Jesus Christ. The ornate cross in the top center holds three pieces of wood from the True Cross of Christ. Beside it is a sizeable remnant of the board that hung over his head, bearing the title given him by his persecutors. In three languages ­ Hebrew, Greek and Latin ­ it reads: "Jesus of Nazareth, King" with the rest of the title torn away. Two thorns from the crown which pierced his head are encased here, together with a nail from the Cross. Stone fragments from the Bethlehem crib, the column of flagellation and the Holy Sepulchre are contained here as well. And a finger from the Apostle Thomas is preserved in this case as a relic and a reminder of the proof Christ provided of his suffering and resurrection, similar somehow to the proof we have here in this reliquary.

The Basilica apse mosaic, "Finding and Triumph of the Cross", recalls and celebrates the great treasures stored here. It depicts a series of stories: the discovery of the three crosses in Jerusalem; the miracle that occurred when a dead youth was placed on the True Cross and was brought back to life; St. Helen holding up the Cross for adoration; and a conquering Persian king (Chosroes) carrying the Cross away from Jerusalem (in 615), followed by emperor Heraclitus conquering the Persians and returning the Cross to Jerusalem (in 628).

During the Middle Ages many popes celebrated the Good Friday liturgy in the Chapel of St. Helen on the lower level, which was built on soil from Calvary. The statue in it was originally an early Roman statue to the goddess Juno, which was found in Ostia and brought here. Artists replaced the head and arms, gave her a cross to hold and turned the pagan statue into St. Helen.

St. Sebastian and the Catacombs

The Christian faith first arrived in Rome along the Via Appia Antica, the ancient Appian Way, the oldest paved highway in Rome. And it is here that the catacombs and this basilica were formed by those earliest Christians as they struggled to practice their faith and follow Roman law for their burial outside the city walls. The soft, volcanic ground here was easily hollowed out for the tunnels and many levels of underground graves necessary to provide the dead with an honorable resting place.

When emperor Valerian forbade the Christians to hold any religious assembly in Rome (in 257), where they had been used to meeting at the tombs of Sts. Peter and Paul, the faithful secretly retrieved the Apostles’ bodies and brought them to this more remote burial ground. Here, Christians could more safely and easily assemble and pray. After emperor Constantine legalized Christianity, the bodies of the Apostles were returned to their shrines in Rome, where Constantine erected great basilicas in their honor.

Another basilica was built on this site in honor of Sts. Peter and Paul, and other Christian martyrs. It was named ‘Basilica Apostolorum’ in devotion to the Apostles and the sacred memory of their presence here. The names of Peter and Paul were etched into the walls here in the early centuries by Christians along with prayer petitions.

In the fourth century, Pope Damasus placed an inscription in the area where the bodies of the Apostles had once rested. It reads: "You, who are looking for the names of Peter and Paul, should know that at one time these saints were here". You can see a copy of this inscription over the baptismal font in the church.

St. Sebastian became associated with this sacred ground in the Middle Ages. Sebastian had been a Christian officer in Emperor Diocletian’s Praetorian Guard, but was denounced for his faith and sentenced to death. Diocletian ordered his archers to kill their former member, but Sebasatian survived the assault and eventually recovered. The emperor then had him clubbed to death, and Sebastian was buried on this site.

During the dreaded plague of 680, Sebastian was urgently invoked by the frightened Romans, because he had survived the attacks of arrows, and from pagan times, Romans believed that the plague descended on them on the tips of Apollo’s arrows. The prayer was successful and Sebastian became the very popular patron who protected Rome from the plague. Grateful followers renamed this church the ‘Basilica of the Apostles and of St. Sebastian.’ Two centuries later, it was commonly known only as the Basilica of San Sebastiano.

This has long been a favorite site for pilgrims. St. Jerome came here often to pray at the catacombs, as did St. Brigid of Sweden and St. Philip Neri.

Their reverence for this site inspired various artists, whose paintings hang near the baptismal font to the right of the entrance. Just beyond that is the Chapel of Relics, which houses an arrow that wounded St. Sebastian and the column to which he was bound by the Praetorian Guard.

This chapel also contains what are believed to be Christ’s own footprints, made when he encountered Peter on the road leading out of Rome, fleeing persecution. The famous account says that when he saw Jesus, Peter asked "Lord, where are you going?" (Domine, quo vadis?) Jesus replied "I go to be crucified a second time". Hearing that, Peter turned around and returned to Rome, and to his own martyrdom.

Along the right wall of the nave is the Albani Chapel, built by Pope Clement XI to honor Pope St. Fabian, who had been martyred in 250 during the persecution of Decius. St. Fabian was once honored as patron of this church, along with St. Sebastian. St. Fabian’s body lies under the pavement in the center of this church, and his head is in a reliquary behind the altar. The relics of St. Sebastian lie in the altar on the left side of the nave, near the entrance to the church. It sits just over the spot where he was originally buried after his martyrdom. Sts. Sebastian and Fabian share the same feast day, January 20.

The catacombs of St. Sebastian are the best known of the Christian underground burial sites in Rome. Near the space which once held the bodies of the Apostles is the ‘triclia,’ the meeting room of the early Christians, who scratched numerous prayer petitions and invocations to Peter and Paul into the walls. Early Christian artwork, mostly symbols that represented Jesus, also cover the walls as witness to their faith and zeal even during the persecutions. Pope St. Damasus I sought out and honored the tombs of the martyrs at these and other burial sites, and he composed many poetic epitaphs for them. So great was his veneration of these earliest saints, that he had over fifty of these epigrams engraved by his calligrapher on marble slabs as memorials to them, to the benefit of future pilgrims.

Pope John Paul II points us in that same direction, to learn from our earliest brothers and sisters the meaning and reality of the Christian witness, as he reveals in this address he made to the Vatican Archeological Commission in June 1996:

Along with the great Roman basilicas, the catacombs should become a compulsory destination for Holy Year pilgrims… Penetrating the galleries of these holy places, visitors will sense the atmosphere of the Gospels’ first conversions; they can meditate before the tombs of those earliest witnesses to Christ and his message of salvation…Visiting these monuments, we come into contact with evocative traces of Christianity in its earliest centuries. It is as if we can touch, with our very hands, the faith which inspired the earliest Christian communities.


Go to Sheila Gribben Liaugminas’ page on the Women for Faith and Family website



Sheila Gribben Liaugminas