Santa Maria Maggiore ‘Snowfall’

Somewhat peripheral to our purview, but this is one of the basilicas one often is presented with in art history classes … from Rome Reports comes coverage of an interesting annual ritual:

It’s also noteworthy (if you’re relic-obsessed, as I am) as one of the places to find relics of St Jerome and the manger in which Jesus briefly sojourned… but there is a question that has been lingering in my skull for quite a while. Quite a few ‘travel’ websites say the basilica was built on the site of a temple of Cybele … does anyone know of a reliable source for this claim? In the context of this particular video, it’s interesting that showers of rose petals were also assorted with the cult of Cybele (see, e.g., this page from Kirk Summers’ essay in Cybele, Attis and related cults: essays in memory of M.J. Vermaseren … just another one of those ‘things that make you go hmmmm’ …

UPDATE (a few hours later and after reading the comments): further poking around suggests that some discovery was made in the 1990s which has been interpreted by F van Haeperen in various articles as indicating the existence of a sanctuary of Cybele on the site. The primary reference which seems to keep coming up is “Nouvelle proposition d’identification des vestiges découverts sous la basilique Sainte-Marie-Majeure de Rome : un sanctuaire de Cybèle”, Bulletin de l’Institut historique belge de Rome 67 (1997) pp. 65-98

4 thoughts on “Santa Maria Maggiore ‘Snowfall’

  1. I had not heard about the alleged Temple of Cybele on the site of Santa Maria Maggiore but I will ask around, as soon as people return after the August shutdown here in Italy. I know that the chief Temple of Cybele/Magna Mater was on the Palatine – but there could certainly have been a related sanctuary of some kind there. What is most intriguing, however, is that Santa Maria Maggiore was principally dedicated to the “maternity” of the Virgin Mary and Cybele (needless to say) was a fertility goddess. I wonder how far back the “shower of roses” ritual can be documented?

  2. According to Coarelli, we don’t really know, but it seems to be a secular building, possibly part of an estate belonging to the Neratii. They’ve found a courtyard with a portico and a few rooms. There are painted scenes which date to the 4th century of a calendar and agricultural activities. Part of the building dates to the second century BCE, so the structure isn’t completely late antique. Coarelli doesn’t mention a temple to Cybele at all — it sounds as though that’s a myth.

    1. “Non è vero, ma è ben trovato!” Even if the Temple of Cybele is merely legendary, the legend itself might be instructive–embodying old assumptions regarding the origin of the cult of the Virgin Mary. How far back does the legend go, I wonder?

  3. i’m suspecting someone saw the flower petals, the ‘mother’ connection, and just made a link which made it into the popular press at some point …

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