Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

Our Lady of the Snows

by Zsolt Aradi


This article gives a brief description of Our Lady of the Snows.

Larger Work

Shrines to Our Lady



Publisher & Date

Farrar, Straus and Young, 1954

It is impossible to give here more than a fleeting glimpse of the long history of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore and its major shrine, the Salus Populi Romani, the Protectress of Rome. The history of the city of Rome, the history of the Papacy and the Church are living memories within the walls of this great monument. Popes, kings, prelates, millions of the faithful and many an enemy have all contributed to its atmosphere; wherever you step, you step on history. It is possible, of course, to approach Santa Maria Maggiore with the air of the believer who nevertheless wishes to separate legend from reality. But such an attitude is difficult to sustain at a place like Santa Maria Maggiore where the basic facts are not legendary. True, there are the embellishments of the centuries upon the history of an image or a crib. But these innocent diversions do not alter the fundamental importance of this holy place, nor the underlying truth it represents.

The facts are these: the major Basilica of the Blessed Virgin was built about 350 during the Pontificate of St. Liberius, and therefore is also called Basilica Liberiana. The original name was Santa Maria ad Nives, "Our Lady of the Snows," because according to the legend, a wealthy and pious Roman was told in a dream to build a church in honor of Our Lady. One midsummer day he found a part of the Esquiline hill covered with snow. The miraculous snow indicated the site and shape of the Basilica. Ever since Pope Liberius erected the Basilica, its greatest treasure has been an image of the Madonna with the child Jesus, attributed to St. Luke. The image of the Madonna is supposed to have been brought to Rome by St. Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great, who visited the Holy Land in the third century and tried to save the remnants of the holy places. There is no doubt that this wondrous image shows the Madonna in Greek style and, according to the historians of art, it is certainly 1500 years old. The title of Salus Populi Romani was given to the image because the people of Rome went to it in order to invoke the intercession of Mary whenever the danger to the city was grave.

There are many churches dedicated to Mary in Rome, but this one has always been the last refuge of the city when it seeks divine intercession. Pope Gregory the Great led the first procession with this image of the Madonna from Santa Maria Maggiore to the Church of St. Peter in 597. At that time, the black plague was decimating the population of Rome. And according to legend, at the end of the prayers, the figure of St. Michael the Archangel appeared suddenly over the Mausoleum of Hadrian (the present Castel Sant' Angelo), indicating that the pestilence was ended. Innumerable were the processions in which the image was carried through the streets of Rome, and equally innumerable are the miracles tested and verified.

The last time the image was carried in procession was in 1837 when Pope Gregory XVI led an alarmed city to pray for the cessation of the cholera epidemic. Pope Pius IX made secret midnight pilgrimages barefoot to the miraculous image. As a young priest Eugenio Pacelli, the future Pope Pius XII, said his first Mass in 1899 before the altar Shrine of Mary, and in 1939, one of his first acts after his elevation was to pontificate at a Thanksgiving Mass at the Shrine of Santa Maria Maggiore. No other church, with the exception of St. Peter's was so thronged with the faithful during the years of World War II, particularly when the suburbs of Rome were bombarded day and night and the roar of the battle of Anzio, about twenty miles away, sounded throughout the city.

The present architecture of the Basilica dates back to the Council of Ephesus in the fifth century, which declared that the Holy Virgin is truly the Mother of God. Pope Sixtus III then rebuilt the Basilica. At this time, another title was added to the name of the Basilica of "Our Lady of the Snows"; it became also "Santa Maria ad Praesepe" (St. Mary of the Crib) because, according to tradition, it possessed the manger from the stable at Bethlehem. Thus the church became doubly important, containing the most authentic picture of the Holy Virgin, and also the crib where the Word made Flesh rested.

However, the importance of the Basilica rests primarily on its relationship to Our Lady. No other shrine dedicated to her can match the historical and spiritual splendor of this church, where "Mary, greatest of Maries," is venerated.

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