Witnessing a miraculous August snowfall in Rome

This year I finally made it to see the August miracle at Saint Mary Major in Central Rome. I had heard many people talk about a miraculous snow shower during the boiling hot summer in Rome, and so I was curious to see if the stories were true.

According to Catholic tradition, during the pontificate of Liberius in the fourth century, a Roman patrician, John, and his wife, vowed to donate their possessions to the Virgin Mary. They prayed for her to let them know where they should leave their things. On the night of the 5th of August, snow fell on the Esquiline hill in the height of summer. Obeying a vision of Mary that same night, they built a basilica on the spot where it snowed. Other legends say Liberius had a similar dream and marked out the area for the construction of the church after seeing the snowfall.

As a result the basilica is often referred to as “Our Lady of the Snows”. Here’s a 15th century depiction of the legend by Masolino da Panicale,  now based in the Capodimonte museum in Naples. Jesus and Mary observe from above as Pope Liberius scrapes the snow into the foundations of the basilica.

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The modern-day ceremony that I attended was revived about 32 years ago by architect Cesare Esposito. Involving 10 snow shooting machines which shower crowds at the height of the celebrations, it has become a popular event in the Roman calendar and I can see why, it was a lot of fun!

Action starts at about 9 pm. At first onlookers are treated to a dazzling light show on the facade of St. Mary Major, which reminded me of psychedelic art.

sm1The lights included disco-style projections of large snow-flakes.

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We heard some beautiful music from a soprano singer, and some prayers. And then, the big moment arrived when the miraculous snow fell.

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sm8The snow shower lasted about 10-15 minutes and was a chance for some photos and laughter. Afterwards the light show continued with some projections of Pope Francis’s election night, and then crowds dispersed into the night.

sm9So if you are in Rome around August 5 and want to take part in this tradition, then head to St Mary Major for the miraculous snow fall. It’s an unusual experience.

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