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Our Lady of the Snows, Mosaics

I’ve looked at the Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows over in Belleville twice over the years, first in 2014, when I looked at the Mary Chapel, and then again in 2015, when I looked at the Christ the King Chapel. I also wrote a short article about it for St. Louis Magazine. But as I’ve mentioned before, the name comes from the miraculous snowfall that fell on the Esquiline Hill in Rome on August 5th during the pontificate of Liberius. The basilica church of Santa Maria Maggiore is quite the edifice, having been built over the course of centuries, starting in the Late Roman Empire. Its columns were actually spolia from older pagan temples.

The original Paleo-Christian basilica is in there, surrounded by Baroque additions, but I did not take any pictures as there were services going on at the time. Most churches in Rome are deserted nowadays, but Santa Maria Maggiore is very crowded in the morning when I visited with priests, nuns and other people religious, as it is the primary Marian church in Rome. You can see the interior here; churches in St. Louis such as Our Lady of Sorrows and Epiphany are based off of the original design of early Roman basilicas such as this.

The campanile is from the 1300s, and is typical of many Roman churches, where you have a Medieval bell tower sticking up above a much later façade! It’s what makes visiting Rome so much fun–seeing the different layers of history poking out from each other.

The ancient past is hiding behind the more elaborate Baroque additions…

…and if you look closely below, you can see the ancient mosaics glistening in the morning light.

Right there, protected from the weather, is a giant depiction of Christ Pantocrater, looking out as he has for probably over a millennium.

Heading back to the Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows, which commemorates the miraculous snow on the Esquiline at the site of Santa Maria Maggiore, I decided to make a visit to see what was open. I never see anyone when I’m there, but when I stepped out of my car at the base of the steep hill to go in the shrine, a gentle snow began to fall. I tried the doors to the chapels, but they were all locked. I decided to focus on ten outdoor chapels, each with their own gilded mosaics primarily focusing on Marian iconography. I went from south to north, but I’m not sure what the correct order is, if there is one at all; they all have inscriptions to the left explaining their purpose. The first five are Mary’s role as mother of Christ.

First up is the Annunciation, a common subject matter in Roman Catholic art, which is accompanied with the phrase, “Hail, Full of Grace,” or as is often said in Latin, Ave Maria, gratia plena, which is in Luke 1:28.

The Visitation is accompanied with the words, “Blessed art Thou Among Women,” from Luke 1:42, when Elizabeth, pregnant with St. John the Baptist, meets the Virgin Mary, also pregnant with Christ. The phrase reference Judges 5:24 from the Old Testament. Note the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove coming down from Heaven towards Mary.

“A Savior has been born” is from Luke 2:11, and is the announcement of the angel gives to the shepherds, but instead of showing that scene, the moment is shown in the manger with the Virgin Mary and Christ child.

The next chapel references Luke 2:30 when the holy man Simeon states upon seeing Christ, “My eyes have seen thy salvation,” which he had been promised he would witness before his death.

The final one says, “I must be about my father’s business,” from Luke 2:49, where Christ confounds scholars at the Great Temple in Jerusalem. His parents find him there after thinking he had already gone home.

Passing over the entrance to the Christ the King Chapel are the other five, which pertain to attributes of the Virgin Mary in relation to typology, which is the relationship of the New Testament’s fulfillment of the Old Testament’s prophecies.

“All Generations Shall Call Me Blessed…” comes from Luke 1:48, and shows Mary being crowned by the Holy Trinity of God the Father, Christ and the Holy Spirit.

“All Glorious is the King’s Daughter [within: her clothing is of wrought gold,]” comes from Psalms 45:13, and is clearly a typological reference to the Virgin Mary, where early Christian scholars looked for predictions of the Virgin Mary in the Old Testament. This one might be my favorite mosaic of the ten.

“They Were All Filled with the Holy Spirit” comes both Acts 2:4 and 4:31. 2:4 is the basis for Pentecost, which means “fifty” in ancient Greek, the time between Easter and the eponymous holiday.

Next to last the inscription says, “Behold, I am with You All Days,” which comes from Matthew 28:20 is a reference to the Holy Spirit being on Earth after Christ’s Ascension, depicted below.

It seems like it is out of order, but the final chapel has the inscription, “He is Not Here, But Has Risen,” which is correct translation of Matthew 28:6 from the Vulgate, which is in Latin. It is an incorrect translation from Latin to say “he is risen.” The Latin surrexit is an active, not a passive voice, intransitive verb meaning “he arose,” or less properly, “he has risen.” This of course shows Christ emerging from the tomb below.

2 Comments

  1. Our Lady of the Snows: The two chapels and the mosaics have always been special to me since I first laid eyes on them as a kid in the 1960’s all the colors in the art and stained glass fascinated me.especially the Lucite chunk windows, the door into the Mary chapel used to be the same colored Lucite as the windows but I assume it was broken years ago and they never replaced it. The color filtering in through the door and windows was awesome. Usually during the week it is a quiet place of introspection.Very peaceful, usually the chapel doors are open, probably locked due to the pandemic unless they changed policy.. It always transports me back to memories of the 1960’s. The drive through stations of the cross were so unique back then. As a kid every trip there felt like a trip to Disneyland. Thanks Chris!

    • Wow, those original doors must have really been amazing!

      And yes, I assumed the chapels were locked on a Saturday due to the pandemic.

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