When we were planning our trip we discovered a tour listed on the Context Tours website with this description:
Christmas in Rome has always been a spectacular time of year. Steeped in tradition, most churches display elaborate nativities, for veneration during the Christmas season. We will explore the meaning and function of these relics and nativities as they relate to the Christmas tradition.
We all thought it sounded great so we signed up.
Yesterday, after a morning of shopping, we met our guide at the agreed time and set out on our walk. Carol did an amazing job of explaining the iconic underpinnings of the Nativity and how it is often depicted in art. Then we set off for our first church - Santa Maria Maggoire.
Founded in the 4th century, the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore (Basilica of Saint Mary Major) is one of the five great ancient basilicas of Rome. Its 18th-century exterior conceals one of the best-preserved Byzantine interiors in the city.
Santa Maria Maggiore stands on the site of a temple to the goddess Cybele. According to a 13th-century legend, the first church was built here by Pope Liberius (352-66), on the site of an apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The legend has it that the Virgin appeared to Pope Liberius and the patrician Giovanni Patrizio on August 4, 352 (or 358), instructing them to build a church on the Esquiline Hill. That night, the floor plan was outlined by a miraculous snowfall.
The 5th-century mosaics on either side of the nave depict scenes from the Old Testament. This was the first large-scale cycle of Biblical scenes in Rome. The left-hand side has scenes of Abraham, Jacob and Isaac; the right-hand side has scenes of Moses and Joshua.
The golden mosaics of the triumphal arch are also from the 5th century and depict scenes from the early life of Christ. The imagery of these mosaics is rich and complex and the details have been interpreted in various ways; the second woman in the Epiphany scene, for example, has not been certainly identified.
The apse mosaic, depicting the Coronation of the Virgin, is from the late 13th century, by Franciscan friar, Jacopo Torriti. The loggia above of the main entrance contains 13th-century mosaics, but is not always open.
Beneath the altar is a confessio with a kneeling statue of Pope Pius IX. Beneath this, St. Jerome (d.420), Doctor of the Church and author of the Latin translation of the Bible, is buried in the Bethlehem crypt. The crypt is built to resemble the cave of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
A little remembered fact about this church is that it contains the grave of Bernini. When one thinks of Bernini sculptures you picture objects that are full of life, vitality, and movement, the subjects often caught in a moment of action, the flowing robes and drapery flapping in the wind. Bernini's works are the epitome of the baroque's extravagant theatricality. His grave is ANYTHING but that!
Carol took us down to the museum beneath the church - there we would see one of the oldest Nativity scenes in the world. arved in marble by Arnolfo di Cambio in 1280. Depicting the arrival of the Magi, the scene was almost entirely destroyed during the 16th century when Pope Sixtus V ordered it moved. The remaining figures, all beautifully carved, can be viewed only during the holiday season.
The next church that we visited was on the edge of the Roman Forum. This small church on the fringe of the Forum incorporates the library of Vespasian's temple of Peace and the temple of Romulus (visible through the glass panel that forms the front wall; the drop in level is a reminder of the centuries of sediment and muck that swallowed up the Forum). It has a wonderful sixth-century mosaic in the apse: Saints Peter and Paul stand one on each side of the vast figure of Christ descending from the clouds, presenting Saints Cosma and Damian (the patron saints of doctors) to Jesus. On the far left, Pope Felix IV holds a model of the church; on the far right stands St Theodore in memory of Theodoric the Great, who donated the temple of Romulus to the Pope.
Outside the church is an enormous presepio which was purchased from Naples in 1939. A masterpiece of 17th-century Naples, which is generally considered the high point of nativity scene craftsmanship, it features hundreds of figures, fifty angels and scores of animals.
Our final stop on the tour was Santa Maria d'Aracoeli, on the Capitoline Hill. There we were shown what is considered by many to be the world's most famous nativity scene, mainly thanks to its celebrity occupant, the Santo Bambino. Said to have been carved from an olive tree in the Garden of Gethsemane, this life-size statue of the Holy Child is clothed in luxurious fabrics and covered with precious objects donated by believers. For centuries he has been considered to possess miraculous healing powers.
From time to time he has been stolen - presumably to work a miracle on demand - then returned to the church. Consequently he is now kept in a glass case in the sacristy, but at Christmas he is brought out and placed in the manger, beneath a brilliant heavenly sky and surrounded by a host of exquisitely crafted pilgrims and their flocks.
Carol told us about the letters that Roman children write to Santo Bambino - similar to how Canadian children might write to Santa Claus. Sure enough there was a basket of letters left beside the display.
Out overlooking the Piazza del Campidoglio we took our leave from Carol and slowly meandered back to the apartment to relax prior to dinner.