To be Catholic is to be Roman. In the design of providence Christ was born and died in a land under Roman rule, and every pre-Christian era Roman relic and ruin is a reminder that Rome as caput mundi of the pagan world was ordained to become capital of the Christian world. It is in the Eternal City’s most ancient Christian sanctuaries where one can readily apprehend the Church’s Roman identity. Thus the Easter Triduum celebrated today in the city of Rome resonates with distant memories of Imperial Rome’s political and cultural legacy. As the end of Lent draws near, let us consider the churches of Rome where the major celebrations occur and call the faithful together—on Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday. These are the patriarchal basilicas of St. John Lateran, Holy Cross in Jerusalem, and St. Mary Major; in these hallowed churches, passages from the history of Imperial Rome, presage of Christian Rome, can still be read.
The Lateran Basilica: The Emperor’s Gift to the Pope and the City of Rome
In about the year 313 AD, on imperial property just outside the walls of Rome, a great basilica was constructed which was dedicated to Christ the Savior. This was the first church ever built for public Christian worship—the labor of Emperor Constantine himself, immediately following his legal recognition of Christianity. Above the church’s entrance an inscription reads: “The mother and head of all the churches of the city and of the world.” This is the Cathedral of the Bishop of Rome. It was called the Lateran Basilica because it was built on property that once belonged to the patrician Laterani family. In the later Middle Ages the names of St. John the Baptist and later St. John the Evangelist were included in the church’s dedication, and so the church of the Most Holy Savior became commonly known as the Basilica of St. John Lateran. Over the centuries, earthquakes and fires have damaged the noble basilica, and so its Early Christian interior is unrecognizably altered. In the 17th century the engineering genius of Francesco Borromini found a way to preserve the weakened building from being torn down.
Holy Cross in Jerusalem: An Imperial Chapel and the Cross
Besides the Lateran, the only other remaining imperially sponsored church in Rome sits on what was originally the palace church of St. Helen, mother of the Emperor Constantine. Helen’s chapel was founded near the Lateran in about 326 as a place to house the relic of the true cross that she had brought back from Jerusalem. She had also brought back earth from Jerusalem that was spread on the floor of the chapel, which was henceforth called “Holy Cross in Jerusalem”. The present Basilica of Holy Cross in Jerusalem stands on Helen’s site. Helen also brought to Rome the Holy Stairs that once led to the praetorium of Pontius Pilate, and were ascended by our Lord during his passion. The stairs were originally placed within the Lateran Palace, though today they are housed near it. It is certainly on Good Friday at Holy Cross in Jerusalem that we are most reminded that the Imperial Rome which brought about our Lord’s death would become papal Rome, the beacon of light to the world until the end of time.
St. Mary Major: Christian Antiquity Resplendent
A little over a century after the building of the Lateran, on the summit of Rome’s Esquiline Hill, another magnificent basilica was erected, dedicated to Mary the Mother of God. Her title in Greek, “Theotokos,” had been recently affirmed in 431 by the Council of Ephesus, and to honor Mary, Pope Sixtus III sponsored the earliest major basilica dedicated to her, the church of St. Mary Major. (It should be remembered that Sixtus’ church replaced a modest basilica built on the same spot in 352 during the reign of Pope Liberius, after a miraculous August snowfall had occurred signifying the Virgin’s wish for a church to be built there, which was Santa Maria Liberiana.)
Nowhere in Rome is the architectural and artistic flavor of Christian antiquity better preserved and communicated than from within the Basilica of St. Mary Major. In the 5th century, Mary’s church stood not far from the now long-vanished legendary civic basilica built by the Emperor Trajan in around 110 A.D. In size, opulence and excellence, Trajan’s Basilica far surpassed any other building of its day. Its structure and design embodied the most refined elements of classical Greco-Roman architecture and elegant decoration. The exquisite interior of this centerpiece of Trajan’s Forum was certainly influential in the construction of the nearby St. Mary Major, where today the modern visitor encounters the 5th century. This was a time when Rome was ever cognizant of her past glories—even while she had been torn asunder by violent invasions. In 5th century Rome the pagan religion was but a memory—yet the glories of the classical world continued to glimmer in the artistic realm, whose sponsor was now the papacy.
Like all Early Christian basilicas, St. Mary Major was based on the standard Roman civic basilica plan of a tall wide central aisle (the nave) with flanking side aisles, and a rounded apse at the end. (The transept arms were added later). What is extraordinary about the nave is the presence of Ionic columns—which were common to the most richly adorned of Greek temples, but always rare in Rome—although they were last seen supporting the ceiling of Trajan’s Basilica. The horizontal entablature carried by the Ionic columns is decorated with a vine scroll frieze reminiscent of the most elegant Roman architectural decoration. The same is true of the tall Corinthian pilasters that articulate the church’s upper nave walls. In reality the nave’s architectural program continues the traditions found in the finest of Roman architecture. And in fact, the early churches built in 5th century Rome are said to express a classical architectural renaissance!
The mosaics that adorn the nave walls of St. Mary Major are among the outstanding remains of Christian antiquity, incredibly still intact. Their sparkling luminosity would have been familiar to a cosmopolitan Roman of the 1st or 2nd century, even though the stories depicted would have been foreign. It has been suggested that while Sixtus III was Pope, the man who would become his successor, Leo the Great, may have drawn up the program for the mosaic cycles at St. Mary Major. Pope Leo is known to have been a true teacher who understood the need to instruct his flock by visual means. All together the sumptuous mosaics at St. Mary Major make up the earliest large-scale cycle of biblical scenes extant in Rome. Individual vignettes placed along the nave walls narrate stories from the Old Testament Books of Genesis, Exodus, and Joshua. Scores of figures arranged in registers across the “triumphal arch” framing the apse depict events from the life of Jesus and Mary. Some of the delightful stories adorning the arch are apocryphal, such as Mary spinning purple cloth for the temple—or the Adoration of the Magi, where the Christ child is an infant king who sits on a royal bench. These scenes remind us of the worlds of the sacred and the mundane which constantly coalesce in the poetry and art of the classical world. The mosaics at St. Mary Major reveal a similar attitude, but the sacred is no longer pagan, it is Christian.
The present apse mosaic at St. Mary Major dates from the 13th century and was done after an enlargement of the sanctuary. The focal point of the mosaic is the Coronation of the Virgin; this is the first time this subject has appeared in the apse of a church. The surface area surrounding the central figures is covered with graceful vine tendrils inhabited by birds that symbolize various Christian themes; the pelican is a symbol of Christ; the peacock symbolizes eternal life. The apse mosaic exudes a reverence for the natural world that looks back to the antique as it looks ahead to the Renaissance. In all seasons and centuries Mary is honored in her great basilica on the Esquiline.
Rome’s Ancient Station Churches and Easter
Ever since the 5th century, the papal Lateran Basilica has shared a special connection to the basilicas of Holy Cross in Jerusalem and St. Mary Major, through the establishment of “station churches.” At the station churches, Masses would be celebrated on major feast days either by the Pope or by clergy attached to the Lateran. It was there that a special procession would begin, and end at the station church of the given feast day. Today in Rome the practice of the station procession is recalled during the season of Lent by means of Masses being celebrated at certain set various ancient churches throughout the city. The faithful can assist at Mass at a different “stational” church for each day during Lent and through the Easter season. During the actual Paschal celebration, on Good Friday the True Cross is venerated at the station of Holy Cross in Jerusalem, while at the station of St. John Lateran the faithful are invited to enter into the silence of Holy Saturday and the joyful solemnity of the Easter Vigil. Easter Sunday Mass is gloriously celebrated at the station of St. Mary Major.
Fittingly, the special role of the Easter Vigil and Easter morning stations reflects a long history of popular devotion which unites these two patriarchal basilicas and even links them to the apostolic era—that is, to Imperial Rome. It is intriguing that St. John Lateran and St. Mary Major each house an icon that is believed to be miraculous. A constant tradition held that the icons dated back to the time of Christ. The Lateran complex is home to an image of Christ the Savior, still kept in the Sancta Sanctorum, which had been the Pope’s private chapel. The image was called an acheiropoieta, meaning, “not painted by human hands.” It was once believed to have arrived in Rome in the year 70, among the spoils brought back to the city following the Roman conquest of Jerusalem, after the Jewish temple was destroyed as foretold by Christ. Likewise, tradition held that the icon of the Virgin and Child kept at St. Mary Major was painted by St. Luke. This is the very same icon which Pope St. Gregory the Great carried in procession through Rome in the 6th century, as he beseeched heaven to save the city from the plague; it was then that St. Michael the Archangel appeared over the Castel Sant’Angelo as a sign to the Romans that their prayers were answered. At this time the icon was honored as the Regina Caeli. This image of Mary is now known as the Salus Populi Romani—the “health of the Roman people.” For centuries, on the vigil of the feast of Mary’s Assumption, the “unpainted” icon of Christ the Savior was carried from the Lateran—in procession through the night—to the church of Mary Major, to meet the mother, the icon of the Queen of Heaven.
Today during the Easter Triduum, the faithful are invited to ponder Christ’s passion at Helen’s Holy Cross in Jerusalem and to continue the meditations of Holy Saturday at Constantine’s Lateran Basilica of Christ the Savior. But the joy of Easter morning is proclaimed in a special way at the church dedicated to the Mother of God, the most venerable and Roman Basilica of St. Mary Major.
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