Although architectonically unimpressive, the church of Santa Maria Maggiore has an interesting history that goes all the way back to the sixth century. Unfortunately our knowledge of that history is full of gaps. This is hardly surprising, as the Santa Maria Maggiore has been described as “one of the least-studied churches in Ravenna”. The church is located close to the famous basilica of San Vitale and the mausoleum of Galla Placidia. When you have visited these two splendid monuments, please do step into the Santa Maria Maggiore and take a few moments to enjoy it.
The Santa Maria Maggiore was built on the orders of bishop Ecclesius (522-533) and dedicated to the Virgin Mary, who had been venerated as the theotokos, the Mother of God, since the Council of Ephesus of 431. According to the ninth-century priest and historian Agnellus, the bishop had a house that belonged to his family converted into a church. As the church was dedicated to the Virgin, it was provided with a beautiful apse mosaic that featured the Madonna and Child. Ecclesius himself was depicted on the mosaic as well: he could be seen offering them a scale model of the church. The image of the bishop was probably quite similar to that of the slightly younger apse mosaic in the adjacent San Vitale. After all, Ecclesius was also the driving force behind the construction of that magnificent basilica. While the San Vitale mosaic has been preserved and can still be admired today, that in the Santa Maria Maggiore has unfortunately been lost forever.
The apse of the building is still the original construction. It has been hypothesised that initially the apse in fact constituted the entire church. This church would have had a central plan, much like the San Vitale, and was supposedly dodecagonal. Only later, the theory goes on, was the freestanding dodecagon provided with a nave and a transept, thus creating a proper basilica. Regretfully none of this can be proven. One important reason for this is that by the sixteenth century the church had become ruinous. When the historian Girolamo Rossi (1539-1607) visited the church, not much was left of the apse mosaic for instance, although apparently Rossi was still able to write down what had been depicted. In the end the entire church, save the apse and the medieval bell-tower, was demolished and then completely rebuilt in the style of the Baroque. The rebuilding took place in 1671 under the direction of the relatively unknown architect Pietro Grossi.
Things to see
The Santa Maria Maggiore has a façade that has not been provided with any form of decoration. Much more interesting is the cylindrical bell-tower that dates from the ninth or tenth century. Circular towers such as this one were a common sight in Ravenna in that era, and fortunately they were usually spared when a church was later renovated or rebuilt. See for instance the bell-tower of the Duomo of Ravenna and that of the Sant’Apollinare in Classe.
The interior of the church is plain and simple. When he rebuilt the church, Grossi made use of the columns and capitals from Ecclesius’ church, and these can still be viewed in the nave. In the apse a sculpted Madonna and Child, made by an anonymous artist in the seventeenth century, serves as the altarpiece. The best-known painting in the church is a work by the local painter Luca Longhi (1507-1580). It represents Saint Paul the Apostle who visits Saint Agnes in prison. Luca Longhi’s son Francesco Longhi (1544-1618) was a painter as well. See for instance his work in the former church of San Nicolò, which currently houses the TAMO Museum. Perhaps even more interesting is the fact that his daughter Barbara Longhi (1552-1638) was also a well-known painter in her own time.
In the right transept we find a small fresco of the Madonna and Child that is called the Santa Maria dei tumori (Sancta Maria a tumoribus in Latin). In the past worshippers used to pray to the fresco to obtain a cure for all sorts of lumps. Nowadays those who pray are usually seeking a cure for cancer.
The Santa Maria Maggiore furthermore has a couple of interesting funerary monuments, first of all a Roman sarcophagus that was later reused as a final resting place for members of the Rasponi family. An inscription on the sarcophagus mentions the name of Filippo Rasponi, son of Lorenzo, who died in 1544. Above the sarcophagus we see a wall monument for the architect Camillo Morigia (1743-1795). Among other things, he designed Dante’s tomb and the façade of the church of Santa Maria in Porto, both in Ravenna.
Lastly, in the right transept we find a part of a sarcophagus that was used as the final resting place of bishop Ecclesius himself, at least according to tradition. On the marble slab we see a Christian cross, two deer and two peacocks (symbols of immortality). The (modern) epitaph commemorates Ecclesius’ involvement in the construction of both the basilica of San Vitale and this church, which was built IN PRAEDIO SVO, on his own property.
- Deborah Mauskopf Deliyannis, Ravenna in Late Antiquity, p. 222-223;
- Website Ravenna Turismo.
 Deborah Mauskopf Deliyannis, Ravenna in Late Antiquity, p. 222.