Honors in Rome - Summer 2006
Santa Maria Maggiore
Standing proudly on the crest of Esquiline Hill is the church of Santa Maria Maggiore—the focus of Roman praise to the Virgin Mary. The church of Santa Maria Maggiore is one of five major patriarchal basilicas in Rome—the other four being St. Lawrence Outside the Walls, St. John Lateran, St. Peter’s and St. Paul Outside the Walls. Of these five churches, Santa Maria Maggiore has to the greatest extent maintained its original foundation and overall form over the centuries, despite its continual reinvention at the hands of noblemen and popes. The result is an awe-inspiring cornucopia of artistic and architectural styles spanning some 1,500 years. Yet despite the changing face of the church, Santa Maria maintained her position as the embodiment of the church, and to this day Santa Maria Maggiore remains a major destination for Roman citizens, pilgrims and tourists alike.
Santa Maria Maggiore is not only the major church of Marian worship in Rome but more importantly was the first one founded. This is of great consequence because prior to this point Mary had not been considered holy and worthy of being worshipped. The founding of the church is explained by the myth that the Virgin Mary created a miraculous snow in the middle of August of the year 352 AD. Pope Liberius, surrounded by other church elders and laymen, traced into the snow the outline of the church and construction began immediately according to this plan. Originally in the form of a traditional basilica, Santa Maria Maggiore has undergone numerous renovations and transformations to become the enlarged and richly decorated church we see today. Among its most impressive features are a series of fifth century mosaics lining the upper part of the nave with images from the Old Testament, above which Renaissance frescoes depict the life of Mary. The Portico also boasts an impressive mosaic showing the divine founding of the church, and the central apse displays its own fifth century mosaics, again focused on the life, death and ascension of Mary. With the creation of a church dedicated to her worship Mary was elevated to the level of Jesus Christ. To early Christians she became known as the embodiment of the physical church, while Jesus maintained his role as the invisible church. This relationship between mother and son serves as a portion of a hierarchy, in which Mary is just slightly less holy than Jesus and is therefore a level closer to the people. This concept of hierarchy and the heaven-to-earth, man-to-God continuum prevails in the church, and is evident in nearly all of the artwork.
Santa Maria Maggiore is located on a major axis running from Piazza del Popolo to the Piazza di San Giovanni in Laterano. During his papacy from1585 to 1590 , Sixtus V (Felice Peretti) undertook a massive redesign of much of Rome, focusing in particular on the pilgrimage routes. He paid special attention to the area of Santa Maria Maggiore, the church where he would later be entombed. He not only revised the street system to make the church the focus of the whole area, but he erected ancient Egyptian obelisks at Santa Maria Maggiore, Santa Maria del Popolo and the Lateran Palace. To the apex of each forty ton obelisk was added a cross and the symbols of Sixtus V. The inscriptions are also directed toward glorifying himself as a combined Christ-Augustus-Constantine figure.
The whole reorganization of Rome was based on the concept of Rome being the ‘New Jeruselum,’ a concept promoted by Sixtus V’s 1586 bull requiring Romans (especially the curia) to make certain pilgrimages and attend at least thirty masses each year. To aid in the flow of pilgrims he widened roads and made Santa Maria Maggiore the hub of his religious wheel. Along a straight pathway to the northeast he placed another ancient obelisk marking Piazza del Popolo and its church, Santa Maria del Popolo. To the southwest, the route again terminated at an ancient obelisk, this one in front of the Lateran Palace. Sixtus also had his funerary chapel built in Santa Maria Maggiore—the Cappella Sistina—on the right side of the nave, near the central apse. He also meant the chapel as a monument and final resting place for his predecessor, Pope Pius V (1566–1572). Pius the V played an important role in the worship of the icon of Mary, because it was he who agreed to allow the icon to be copied at the request of Francis Borgia, general of the Jesuit Order. These copies found their way not only to other Roman churches, but were sent as gifts to important foreign ambassadors as well. The images gained their power and authority not from the ‘authenticity’ of the image, but because it was connected to the original, which was supposedly linked to Luke the apostle and to Mary and Jesus themselves. This played an important role during the Counter-Reformation because it served to strengthen the authority of the Roman Catholic Church and to legitimate its power.
The Borghese Family and Cappella Paolina
A powerful and influential family from Siena, the Borghese rise to social, political and religious power began when Marcantonio I (1504-74) made a name for himself through both church and social networking. First, he was Siena’s ambassador to the Pope and therefore had strong ties to Rome, and second, he married into a very wealthy and powerful family by taking Flaminia Astalli as his wife. Together they had two sons—Camillo (1552-1621) and Orazio (1553-90). Orazio did not further the Borghese name—or fortune—to any significant extent, but with a dash of good luck Paul succeeded where he failed. In 1605, following the twenty six day papacy of Pope Leo XI de’ Medici, Camillo Borghese won the papal crown as a compromise candidate. He immediately began a number of construction projects around Rome, following in the footsteps of Sixtus V.
Paul was not much for nepotism; rather than appoint family to prestigious posts, he created new focuses for praise by canonising two saints, and beatanising another seven important figures. If anything this promoted himself as a consequential religious figure, but it did not guarantee long lasting prestige for his family name. Paul V did promote his family by making his nephew, Marcantonia II (1601-58), the prince of Sulmona, an important secular post, and his other nephew, Scipione Caffarelli Borghese (1576-1633) a cardinal. Unlike so man popes before him, his nepotism stopped there—he had other matters to focus on, but always managed to glorify his family by other means.
Paul V was a firm supporter of Catholic orthodoxy, leading the church with a firm grip. He was so strict that when Venice passed two laws limiting the power of clergy, Paul responded by placing Venice under an interdict, followed by excommunication. At a time when the papacy needed to show strength and unity, Paul took action that created further disharmony and threatened respect for papal authority—he had taken his by-the-books style of ruling a little too far. The primary representative for Venice, Paolo Sarpi, was eventually assassinated, presumably on the command of Paul V. Fortunately for all, Venice stayed classy and the debacle came to a close before anyone else lost their life. Meanwhile in Rome Paul and his cardinal nephew were getting major construction underway on a number of urban works, nearly all of which were eerily reminiscent of Sixtus V’s works. Paul was not only building upon the work of his predecessor, but attempting also to outdo him in every way possible.
In nearly all of his works Paul V Borghese sought to outdo Sixtus V—or rather just out-build him. The Borghese pope witnessed not only the completion of the new Saint Peter’s basilica, but also a number of other works of his own design. He constructed an aqueduct he called the Acqua Paola, to rival Sixtus V’s namesake the Acqua Felice. Not only did he create a new source of water for the city and call upon the prestige of the ancient Romans in doing so, but he added a magnificent fountainhead at the end which looks suspiciously similar to the one built by Sixtus V—the Fontana Felice. The Fontana Paola, however, sits atop of the hill in Trastevere, overlooking the whole city of Rome The reverse is also true—Romans can view it from nearly every rooftop—and it thus serves also as a constant reminder of the greatness of Paul V and the Borghese family. The grand scale of the fountain, its prime location and the plethora of Borghese emblems that cover it serve to validate and promote the rule of Paul V. He also used his papal powers to reinvent and improve upon of the papal summer palace in Quiranal—the palace built by Sixtus V. As pope, Paul possessed an almost compulsory drive to either improve the actual works of his predecessor, or simply build a newer and better version himself.
The works performed by a living pope are important to remembering his papacy, but it is his eternal resting place that receives the greatest care and investment. For his funerary chapel Paul V chose the prime location at Santa Maria Maggiore, directly across the nave from the Cappella Sistina where Sixtus V was entombed. The shape, size and general style of the chapel reflects those of Cappella Sistina, however, the Borghese pope ensured that his chapel would be more magnificent and religiously significant.
Though the Colonna family brought about a great deal of Medieval remodeling and restoration to Santa Maria Maggiore, including the mosaics of the apse and façade, it first became the papal focus with Sixtus V’s addition of the Cappella Sistina, followed by construction of the Cappella Paolina by Paul V in 1605. While Sixtus had planned out the roads surrounding Santa Maria Maggiore, it was Paul the V who really focused his attentions on the church, bringing the ancient Roman column from the basilica of Maxentius (Constantine) in the Roman Forum, and placing it in front of the church. He also added a statue of the Virgin to the top, and an inscription, which mistakenly attributes the column to Vespasian’s Temple of Peace, built after quelling the Jewish revolt. Despite the inscription’s claims that the column represents Rome’s praise and dedication to Mary, Paul’s name is even more prominent than the Virgin’s, and the whole base and fountain are covered with the Borghese eagle and dragon. Paul also placed inscriptions on the outside of the church, one behind the alter of the Cappella Paolina declaring his humble worship of the Blessed Virgin. Another on the right side of the front façade announces his addition of an administrative building to the right side of the church. For symmetry reasons, a palace was added to the left side a century later by Benedict XIV.
The Cappella Paolina is on the left-hand side of the nave, just before one reaches the central apse. It directly mirrors the funerary chapel of Sixtus V across the nave on the right-hand side. It is considered one of the richest papal chapels in all of Rome, and contains significant quantities of gold and rare stone. The pendentives of the dome and the lunette over the alter were painted by Cavalier d’Arpino (1568-1640). The pendentives show four prophets, and the frescoes below them send a clear message that those who accept the Virgin Mary as a saint will be “rewarded” and those who do not will be punished. Within the imagery, Leo IV is shown at death for his destruction of images of Mary, as the Byzantine emperor Constantine IV is also shown dying for similar crimes. Guido Reni (1575-1642), who was primarily inspired by the Bolognese school of Carracci, painted the frescoes on the side vaults and lunettes.
Overall, the chapel’s focus is Paul V’s bull of 1617, insisting that the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin must not be taught by saying Mary was conceived with original sin. Ludovico Cardi “Il Cigoli” (1559-1613), a fairly well known Tuscan artist, frescoed the Assumption of the Immaculate Virgin (1612) on the dome. His depiction of Mary follows the traditionally accepted guidelines, including placing her feet upon a crescent moon with a crown with twelve stars on her head. She is by far the largest figure and has a divine glow about her. The dome also shows concentric circles opening into the heavens, with angels, cherubs, and saints amongst the clouds. The overall appearance is like gazing into Heaven, following the Baroque tradition of allowing the viewer to gaze infinitely into the sky, as the messengers of God seemingly bustle about. The entire chapel displays the hierarchy ranging from the Heavens in the dome to the saints and apostles high on the walls, to the popes nearly at ground level, and finally to the viewer at the bottom of the totem pole. To enter the chapel one must also ascend a few steps, placing the ground level of the chapel that much above the floor of the Cappella Sistina. Figuratively and literally this places Paul V closer to Heaven and to God than Sixtus V—a final one-up for the afterlife.
In the chapel there are also significant amounts of sculpture and relief work to compliment the frescoes. Amongst the statues one can pick out St. Joseph, Mary’s husband; St. John the Evangelist, who is linked to Mary by Jesus’ words from the cross “Mother, this is your son”; Aaron, the sidekick of Moses is also shown, considered a distant relative of Mary; King David, representing the royalty in Mary’s ancestry; St. Dionysus the Areaopagite, witnessed the death of the Virgin; and St. Bernard, who composed “Salve Regina,” one of the principal hymns dedicated to Mary. The reliefs around the figures show important events from their lives. Since the chapels of Sixtus V and Paul V came at the very end of the Renaissance, they demonstrate a blending of styles as artists and architects transitioned into the Baroque. The posture of the statues—praying humbly—was characteristic of the Renaissance; whereas other features, such as the dome frescoes, are unique to the Baroque period. The chapel also includes the Borghese family emblems nearly every place they would fit, reaffirming the strength and wealth of the family, the members of which would in the future be entombed within the chapel of their pope. Paul also emulated Sixtus V’s roads by creating his Via Paolina—another spoke on the Santa Maria Maggiore wheel—beginning just behind the alter of the Cappella Paolina and leading off into the city. On the outer wall just behind the alter Paul inscribed his dedication and humble worship of the Virgin Mary for all of Rome to see.
Back inside the chapel, the alter is supposedly one of the wealthiest in Rome—covered with semi-precious stones—the background of the image of Mary is made of lapis lazuli, and the columns to either side are Sicilian jasper. The frame around the icon is made of gilded bronze with agate and amethyst studs. The primary icon of Mary, originally the focus of the central apse of Santa Maria Maggiore, is thought by scholars to have been painted in the 5th century AD. At some point it was seriously damaged by a fire, and has also undergone so many touch-ups and repairs that it is nearly impossible to date accurately, and thus it may not have actually been painted until as late as the thirteenth century. This leaves room for the belief amongst the faithful that it is a real-life image of the Virgin and the baby Jesus, painted by the hand of Luke the Apostle. This account gives the image even more credit as a holy relic, for not only is it supposedly a live image of Santa Maria, but is it was laid down by holy hands. The image is also held responsible for numerous miracles, including putting a halt to a bout of plague in the year 1527, which is how it earned the title Salus Populi Romani, the Salvation of the Roman People. For these reasons, the icon is placed in a box-like encasement, more like a holy relic than a painting. Above the alter a bronze statue stands as a reminder of the myth behind the founding of the church—Pope Liberius etches into the snow using a stick, as a bishop holds his robes back and other clergy look on.
The icon is so sacred there is an annual pilgrimage centered upon it. Since its founding, Santa Maria Maggiore has been a major destination of pilgrims, and as a major patriarchal basilica, it also receives the Pope at least once annually—August 15—for the Feast of the Assumption of Mary. This festival marks the mythological founding of the church and celebrates the assumption of Mary into Heaven. The ceremony revolves around the icon of Mary, and draws great attention to its housing—the Cappella Paolina—with its other inhabitant, Paul V. Placing the icon in his funerary chapel guaranteed the Borghese pope that he would be visited at least once a year by the current pope as well as all the pilgrims—Sixtus would most certainly be jealous. During Medieval times The Feast of the Assumption even involved taking the icon on a pilgrimage to meet up with a sacred image of Jesus from the Lateran Palace, but this does not occur now.
The left and the right sides of the Cappella Paolina contain the tombs of Paul V Borghese and Clement VIII Aldobrandini, respectively. They were designed by Flamino Ponzio, the architect for the entire Santa Maria Maggiore project, but required a whole crew of sculptors to complete. Clement VIII was the pope that made Paul cardinal in 1596, and by placing his tomb in the same chapel Paul made a gesture of thanks as well as displayed for the whole world that he was supported by another pope. Having friends in high places does not pay only when one is alive—it keeps giving for as long as the monuments stand. On the whole the Cappella Paolina is very similar to the Cappella Sistina of Sixtus V, but the details do make a difference. Unlike Sixtus V, Paul is shown kneeling in prayer to the sacred image of Mary. To be eternally linked to such a powerful icon certainly takes the funerary chapel to a level not attained by Sixtus—Paul successfully outdid his predecessor. Of course the personal story ends the same way for both popes—with death—however, the Borghese family would go on to further greatness, eventually becoming the wealthiest in all of Italy.
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