Our Lady of the Snows

Jan 20, 2023 / Written by: Tonia Long

Patroness of the People of Rome

St Mary Major Basilica Altar
Virgin Icon in Saint Mary Major Basilica, Rome, Italy

Feast – August 5th

Picture this: Our Lady and St. Luke meet regularly so that the physician turned evangelist may capture the story of the Gospel through her maternal eyes. As if in response to an angelic suggestion, Saint Luke asks Our Lady, “May I paint your image?” Full of grace and humility, she responds in the affirmative, only adding, “I have saved a canvas just for this purpose. It is a slab of wood recovered from the table whereon My Son established the Holy Eucharist the day before He died.”

And that is the story of the origin of the icon found in the Basilica of Saint Mary Major in Rome. What a confluence of graces! But the story of this icon and the building of the basilica wherein it now resides does not stop here but continues into the fourth century when, on a hot summer’s day in Rome, the Mother of God appeared to a wealthy, childless couple and, simultaneously, Pope Liberius.

Our Lady of the Snows

Devotion to Mary under the title of Our Lady of the Snows is one of the oldest devotions to Mary. Improbable as it is for snow to fall during August, history tells of a snowfall that seemed even more impossible for having occurred in Rome, Italy. So it was that on August 5, 352 A.D., snow fell during the night in Rome.

But why?

There lived in the Eternal City a devout nobleman, John and his childless wife, who had been blessed with much of this world’s goods. Being bereft of offspring to whom they could leave their inheritance, they chose the Mother of God as the heiress to their fortune.

Aware of their offering, Mary appeared in a dream to them, telling them that she wanted a church built in her honor and that the exact site for this church would be found covered with snow. The next morning the husband approached his friend, then Pope Liberius (352-366), and was amazed to learn that the Virgin Mary had also appeared to the Vicar of Christ, advising him that a miraculous snowfall would occur that would outline where the church was to be built in her honor.

Snow rarely falls in Rome, but the flakes fell silently during that night, blanketing the peak of the historic Esquiline Hill. In the morning the news quickly spread and crowds gathered to throng up the hill and behold the white miracle. The snow had fallen in a particular pattern, showing the exact outline of the future church. The people rushed to stake off the outline before the snow melted. When it became known that the snow was a sign from Mary Most Holy, the people spontaneously added another to her long list of titles, “Our Lady of the Snows.”

A church to honor Mary was built on the hill in 358 A.D. Restored and refurbished many times, this church, now the magnificent Basilica of St. Mary Major, still stands today as the seat of devotion to Our Lady of the Snows in the Catholic Church.

Saint Mary Major Basilica High Altar
Saint Mary Major Basilica High Altar

About the Basilica of Saint Mary Major

Just as Our Lady once contained the Christ Child and Redeemer of mankind in her virginal womb, St. Mary Major contains some the finest artwork and architectural wonders in the world. The ceiling is a masterpiece of the Renaissance gilded with the first gold brought to Spain from the New World by Christopher Columbus as a present to Pope Alexander VI from Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain.

The basilica is also home to a few remnants of the humble crib in which Christ was laid at His birth. These pieces of the manger were carried to Rome by Christians fleeing the Muslim conquest of the Holy Land in the 7th century. To this day they are preserved in a silver reliquary resembling an ordinary manger, upon which lies an image of the Infant Jesus. The Holy Crib is the object of particular devotion and veneration during the liturgical ceremonies of Christmas eve and Midnight Mass. On Christmas morning there is a procession in honor of the Holy Crib of the Infant Jesus, which culminates in the exposition of the sacred relic on the high altar.

Saint Mary Major Basilica, Holy Crib Reliquary Chapel with a statue of Pope Pius IX.
Saint Mary Major Basilica, Holy Crib Reliquary Chapel with a statue of Pope Pius IX.

Another venerable treasure is the icon of Our Lady under the invocation of Salus Populi Romani, meaning “health (or salvation) of the Roman people.” This miraculous icon has been carried in processions around Rome on many occasions. In 593 Pope Saint Gregory the Great had the icon carried in public procession through the streets of Rome, praying for an end to the Black Plague. Pope Saint Pius V followed his example in 1571 to pray for victory during the Battle of Lepanto, as did Pope Gregory XVI in 1837 to pray for the end of the cholera epidemic. At every instance, Our Lady answered the prayers of her faithful.

Saint Mary Major Basilica Holy Door
Saint Mary Major Basilica Holy Door

St. Mary Major is one of only four basilicas that hold the title of “major basilica” and are known as patriarchal cathedrals in memory of the first centers of the Church. These four major basilicas are distinguished by their having a holy door — traditionally an entrance portal that is normally sealed by mortar and cement from the inside so that it cannot be opened.

They are ceremoniously opened during Jubilee years designated by the Pope, for pilgrims who enter through those doors may piously gain the plenary indulgences attached with the Jubilee year celebrations. The last Jubilee year was the Year of Mercy which began on December 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, 2015. Preparations for the next Jubilee in 2025 are already underway.

Over 1,600 years of devotion continue

Saint Mary Major Basilica - Virgin Icon
Icon of Our Lady under the invocation of Salus Populi Romani

In honor of Our Lady of the Snows, every year on August 5th, a Mass takes place in the basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome and white flower petals are dropped from the ceiling. In the evening, the snowfall is recreated in the piazza outside the church. Tens of thousands gather to honor Our Lady of the Snows with a devotion that has never cooled among her people.

Maybe it is the child-like joy that swells in every human heart, regardless of age, at the first snow of the season, coupled with the miraculous way in which Our Lady used snow in the heat of August to indicate her desires for the first church built in her honor. Whatever the reason, devotion to Our Lady of the Snows has outlasted famines, wars, persecutions, plagues and even the impious declaration of the 1960s that “God is dead.”

For over 1,600 years, pilgrims have continued to flock to Rome. And on August 5th, one can be sure they are headed not for the Vatican or the catacombs, but for the Basilica of St. Mary Major.