The more I visit the basilica where I was baptized, Santa Maria Maggiore, on the Esquiline Hill, the more I reflect on the unique features that make this basilica a good example of early religious art in Rome.
First of all, since the agreement of 1929 signed between the Vatican and Italy, Santa Maria Maggiore is, by law, Vatican territory in Italy. Therefore, there is no need to go to Saint Peter’s or to the Sistine Chapel to encounter and admire Vatican jewels in Rome.
Second, Santa Maria Maggiore is the largest temple dedicated to Mary after that, according to the proceedings of the Council of Ephesus held in 431 AD, the mother of Jesus was proclaimed not “Mother of Christ” but ” Mother of Christ as God”.
In consequence of this ecumenical decision that was taken in a period where the Arian creed was still popular in Rome, Sixtus III decided to adorn the church with mosaics. The main nave is decorated with biblical themes that prefigure the advent and the role of Christ as leader of Christendom. In the triumphal arch new themes depict the infancy of Christ and other episodes such as the Annunciation.
The inscription of the 5th century CE on the top of the central arch reads “Sixtus bishop to the people of God” and is flanked by the images of Saint Peter and Saint Paul dressed in Roman toga. The apostles’ white clothing has a L-like sign (gammadion) which stands for peace and prosperity. Both the apostles are pointing the jeweled empty throne on which a cross stands to symbolize the Resurrection of Jesus and his potential second coming.
I have chosen this inscription to show that, contrary to Saint John in Lateran, Saint Peter’s and Saint Paul, this is the first basilica commissioned by a pope. Despite Arianism and the still strong imperial influence, the pope, although still considered the leader of a small community, was able to overcome the status quo by creating a structure that could contain a larger number of people able to listen to sermons and be educated on the mysteries of Catholicism.