The Two Facades of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome

In a recent article we explored how paintings can provide an insight in the history of vestment design, the textiles used, the cuts employed, the decoration and so forth.  But paintings can show more than just the history of sacred vestments; they can also be utilized to understand the developments that have taken place down the years in the area of sacred architecture. 

One of the most famous examples is, of course, the venerable basilica of St. Peter's for which our only view of the former Constantinian basilica is from just such works. But there are other examples in Rome, including that of the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. Like so many of the churches of Rome, their Romanesque facades were eventually replaced by baroque ones during the counter-reformation period. Indeed, the present day Rome we know and love would have a much different look and feel from medieval Rome would have. There are some remnants still of medieval Rome that can be found, and in the 19th century we can find one example of a baroque facade that was put back into Romanesque form; namely Santa Maria in Cosmedin

Whatever one thinks of this, the history remains of interest all the same and certainly any visitor of Santa Maria Maggiore today will notice, at the upper level of the facade, a circular window and mosaics peaking through. One may well wonder what these are. Well in point of fact, they are remnants of the original Romanesque facade.  

For reference, here is what we are used to seeing when we approach Santa Maria Maggiore today:

"The Piazza and Church of Santa Maria Maggiore" by Giovanni Paolo Panini, 1744

Here, however, is how Santa Maria Maggiore used to appear prior to this:

The Basilica of St. Mary Major by Willem Van Nieulandt, 1610

It is this upper level with its window and mosaics on the facade that one sees peaking through the baroque facade. Here is a slightly closer look at it:

If you wonder where I am referring to, here is a modern photo of the current facade of the basilica:

If one looks through these arches, one will still see the top half of the former Romanesque facade with its mosaics and circular window:

As an aside, if you're wondering what those sculptures are, they were, at one time, placed on top of the great ciborium that sits over the high altar of the basilica. They were eventually removed to restore the ciborium to its original form. 

There is so much to find in Rome if you're willing to scratch just beyond the surface. 

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