The most important church in the city of Rome dedicated to Our Lady is the Basilica of Saint Mary Major, erected around the year 352, during the reign of Pope Liberius. ( 352-366 ) According to legend, a member of an aristocratic family, John and his wife were childless and prayed that the Blessed Mother might designate an heir to bequeath their wealth. They were favored with a dream in which Our Lady appeared to them on the night of August 4-5. She requested that they build a church in her honor on the Esquiline hill and the sign to accompany this dream is that the exact location would be marked out in snow.
During that hot summer evening, a miraculous snowfall traced the form of the basilica on the hill. Our Lady also appeared to Pope Liberius in a dream that same night so that he too could arrive at the location to see the miraculous snowfall. Many people gathered to see the unusual event of snow glistening in the August sun. Upon awakening, John and his wife rushed to the site and Pope Liberius arrived in solemn procession. Realizing that the snow marked the exact location of the church, the people staked off the area before the snow melted. The basilica was completed within two years and consecrated by Pope Liberius.
The following basic features of the Roman Basilica were adopted in the new Christian halls: a rectangular plan based on a long nave with side aisles (usually colonnaded); a clerestory with windows on the upper walls of the nave, either side; a timber roof; a semi-circular apse at one end.
Originally the church was called Santa Maria ad Nives (St. Mary of the Snows). Later known as Santa Maria Liberiana and then as Santa Maria ad Praesepe, because relics of the manger of Bethlehem had been brought to the church, the basilica eventually became known as Santa Maria Maggiore (St. Mary Major) because it is the largest of all the churches in Rome dedicated to the Blessed Mother. Construction on the current church structure began in the 5th century. Pope Sixtus III wished to build a church to honor the Blessed Virgin Mary after the Council of Ephesus (AD 431) had solemnly declared her to be the Theotokos, the Mother of God.
The basilica contains the Salus Populi Romani (Protectress of the Roman People) an ancient miraculous image of the Madonna and Infant Jesus composed in the Byzantine style.
The present-day church is one of the largest basilicas in the world and its Patronal Festival is held on August 5 in remembrance of the miracle of the snow. During this celebration hundreds of white blossoms are showered from the dome of the chapel. Not to be missed are the thirteenth-century mosaics on biblical themes and the frescoes by Reni and Della Porta. There is an imposing Romanesque belltower erected in 1377. Santa Maria Maggiore has a further claim to fame. In the seventh century a relic was brought from Bethlehem and traditionally venerated as the manger in which the Christ Child was laid at the first Christmas. And so another name for the great basilica is St. Mary of the Crib.
One of the most spectacular sights which meets today's pilgrim is the triumphal arch which extends to almost 66 feet. It is decorated in four horizontal sections. In the middle at the top God's throne is set in a circle,with St. Peter and St. Paul on either side. Above this mosaic are the symbols of the four Gospel writers.