Summer Snowfall Interrupted: Vandals Spoil the Fun at Rome Basilica

At the beginning of each of the ten videos in Fr. Robert Barron’s “Catholicism” series, there is a scene in which thousands of white rose petals drift downward from the ceiling at Rome’s Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore (St. Mary Major).  It’s a breathtaking symbol of the “miracle of the snow”—the rare summer snowfall which, according to legend, fell on August 5, 352, on the Esquiline Hill, one of the famed “Seven Hills” of Rome.

It’s a scene that’s recreated each year on August 6, when the Basilica celebrates the feast of Our Lady of the Snows.  First, the petals fall from the ceiling during Mass; then, as night falls on the city, there is a simulated “snowfall” in the square outside the Basilica, with sound, light and artificial snow.

But not this year!  This year, the petal display in the Basilica occurred as planned, but the festival in the square has been postponed until August 15, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception.

That’s because this year, vandals stole the truck.

I can’t help but imagine the thiefs, desperadoes, quintessential bad guys, driving away with their booty, then popping open the truck at their safe house.  “What did we get?” they wonder.  “Computers and office equipment?  Metals to be melted down?  Automobile tires?  But wait…. No, no…. We’ve got…. ROSE PETALS!  #@!E%*!!”

Actually, what was stolen, according to event organizer Cesare Esposito, was sound and light equipment.  I needed a laugh today, though, so I’m succumbing to knee-slapping levity at the expense of the group I now unofficially dub the Sancta Maria Scoundrels.  Stay tuned for Part 2 of the annual celebration for Our Lady of the Snows, on the 15th of August.

Now, More About That “Miracle”

The Catholic Encyclopedia tells the story of the basilica’s origins:

“During the pontificate of Liberius, the Roman patrician John and his wife, who were without heirs, made a vow to donate their possessions to the Virgin Mary. They prayed that she might make known to them how they were to dispose of their property in her honour. On 5 August, at the height of the Roman summer, snow fell during the night on the summit of the Esquiline Hill. In obedience to a vision of the Virgin Mary which they had the same night, the couple built a basilica in honour of Mary on the very spot which was covered with snow.

From the fact that no mention whatever is made of this alleged miracle until a few hundred years later, not even by Sixtus III in his eight-line dedicatory inscription … it would seem that the legend has no historical basis.”  The legend is first reported only after the year 1000. It may be implied in what the Liber Pontificalis, of the early 13th century, says of Pope Liberius:  ”He built the basilica of his own name (i.e. the Liberian Basilica) near the Macellum of Livia”.  Its prevalence in the 15th century is shown in the painting of the Miracle of the Snow by Masolino da Panicale.

So the story may be only a pious legend; but inside the beautiful Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, high over the side altar in the left transept, is a beautiful golden bas relief depicting the story.  In 2003, while working as conference director for Legatus, I led a group of pilgrims to Rome and to the four papal basilicas.  Cardinal Bernard Law, then-archpriest of the Basilica of St. Mary Major, celebrated Mass for us at the side altar under the great artwork, then explained its history to our group. 

The painting included here is from a triptych which can be seen in the National Museum and Gallery of Capodimonte in Naples, Italy.  That’s Pope Liberius with the small snow shovel, marking the spot where a chapel should be erected honoring the Virgin Mary.

And here, during the Gloria on the feast, the rose petals fall.

When St. Francis Needed to Get Away…

Pope Benedict was scheduled to make a pastoral visit to La Verna on May 13.  The monks and sisters there waited eagerly for his arrival; but inclement weather (a heavy rainfall) necessitated the cancellation of that part of the trip.  I imagine it was the difficult spiral climb up that mountain that could not be negotiated during a heavy rainstorm.

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St. Francis is most often associated with the Italian village  of Assisi.  And fair enough:  Assisi was home base for Francis and the other monks of the Order of Friars Minor.

Sometimes, though, he just needed to get away.  That’s what happened when, in August 1224, Francis withdrew to La Verna, about a day’s walk away, for an extended 40-day period of prayer and fasting.

The Count of Chiusi, Count Orlando, had given Francis and his monks the monastery of La Verna, a beautiful retreat center atop a mountain, as a gift in 1213.  A few years later, in 1218, Count Orlando built him the Santa Maria degli Angeli Chapel.  There, Francis retreated for prayer and contemplation, and it is there—at La Verna—that Francis received the stigmata.

So there, on our about September 17, Francis had a vision of an angel, a seraphim.  After that vision, Francis developed the stigmata, wounds like those of Christ, in his hands, feet and side.

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The monastery at La Verna operates still today.  The Franciscan monks still gather for prayer six times each day (even during the night hours).

Guests are welcome at La Verna—and the cost, compared to a standard European hotel, is very small.  Our family stayed there on our road trip during the Jubilee Year, in October 2000; and I think the cost, for our simple room, an ample breakfast, lunch, and an evening feast complete with wine (and the opportunity to set your alarm and pray with the monks at 2:00 a.m.) was about $34/night.

I’ve been thinking about that trip today; and I thought I’d share some of our family photos with you.

All the bells’ chimes summon the monks to prayer.

Sister Jacinta, our guide and travel angel, is a Franciscan nun from India.

La Verna’s basilica, where the monks gather for morning prayer and for Mass.

Our private dining room, with its cooking fireplace.

Courtyard, and open walkways to comfortable rooms in the monastery.

This is the cleft in the rock where Francis often slept.  Each night, a raven awakened him for midnight prayer.  The metal grate protects the rock where Francis slept.

Linda and Dennis, our companions, leaving the rocky ledge where, it’s reported, Nazi youth were frightened by an earthquake and ran away– without destroying the monastery, as they had planned.

La Verna is home to the world’s largest collection of Della Robbias.

Altar of St. Francis

Small chapels and prayer rooms throughout La Verna remind us of the centrality of prayer in the monks’ lives.

We wait (and wait, and wait…) while Jerry telephones hotels in Rome, our next destination.

(Can you believe that we were in Europe and did not have reservations for that night?!  We did, though, find rooms at the Michelangelo, a lovely hotel just a brief walk from St. Peter’s Basilica—so the drama ended well.)

Sr. Jacinta says goodbye, and heads back to the chapel for the noon prayer.

Hanno, the Pope’s “White Elephant”

White elephant (n.) an idiom for a valuable possession of which its owner cannot dispose, and whose cost (particularly cost of upkeep) is out of proportion to its usefulness or worth.

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Did you ever receive a “white elephant” as a gift? Maybe it was a lamp or bric-a-brac given by a beloved aunt.  You would never intentionally hurt her feelings, but what in the world, you wonder, will you do with this?

Perhaps Pope Leo X felt the same way when he received a gift of a white elephant—a REAL white elephant!—from King Manuel of Portugal.  Pope Leo was a popular leader who had helped to keep peace between European rivals, held Islam at bay, and encouraged Portugal in its explorations and discoveries in the Americas.

Imagine the context in which the elephant arrived in medieval Rome:  In 1514, there were no National Geographic magazines or television documentaries.  The camera was not invented until 1839, so there were no nature photographs.  Paintings and sculptures were expensive, and few artists would have themselves traveled to Asia or Africa, where they might actually see a real, live elephant.

Most people in Italy, then, had never seen even a picture of such a wonderful beast when King Manuel’s gift, an elephant named Hanno, was transported by land and sea to the city of Rome.  According to legend, the animal was led down the main thoroughfare, near where the Via della Conciliazione is today, and brought before Pope Leo.  As it approached the papal throne, its trainer gave a command and the elephant genuflected on one knee—thrilling the audience.

Hanno’s arrival was commemorated in sketches and woodcuts at the time, and the story of his arrival was immortalized in poetry.  Hanno became a treasured addition to the papal collections, and was a favorite in processions through the streets of Rome.  A special building was erected to house the large animal, located right between St. Peter’s Basilica and the Apostolic Palace.

But Hanno’s time at the Vatican was short.  In 1516, just two years after its arrival at the Vatican, the great animal fell ill; and on June 8 of that year, with the pope at his side, Hanno died.  It is thought that Hanno’s death was hastened by a purgative administered during his illness, containing a large amount of gold.  As befitting a member of royalty, Hanno was memorialized in a fresco by the artist Raphael; and Pope Leo himself composed the epitaph:

Under this great hill I lie buried
Mighty elephant which the King Manuel
Having conquered the Orient
Sent as captive to Pope Leo X.
At which the Roman people marveled—
A beast not seen for a long time,
And in my brutish breast they perceived human feelings.
Fate envied me my residence in the blessed Latium
And had not the patience to let me serve my master a full three years.
But I wish, oh gods, that the time which Nature would have assigned to me,
And Destiny stole away,
You will add to the life of the great Leo.
He lived seven years
He died of angina
He measured twelve palms in height.
Giovanni Battista Branconio dell’Aquila
Privy chamberlain to the pope
And provost of the custody of the elephant,
Has erected this in 1516, the 8th of June,
In the fourth year of the pontificate of Leo X.
That which Nature has stolen away
Raphael of Urbino with his art has restored.