Snow in August? Rome’s Madonna della Neve

Mon, 08/08/2022 - 20:28
Mosaic depicting miraculous snowfall at the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore
A mosaic at the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore depicts the miraculous snowfall that is re-enacted every August. Photo by Hugo DK, Wikimedia Commons

At midnight on August 5, 2022, it snowed on the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. 

The solemn celebration, Madonna della Neve (miracle of the snowfall), is an annual event with origins dating to 358 BCE. 

Taking place every summer in front of the imposing Church of Santa Maria Maggiore, one of the city’s most important Roman Catholic basilicas, the auspicious feast of Madonna della Neve is eagerly attended each year by faithful and secular onlookers alike.

The happening, which recently marked its 39th edition, is a historical re-enactment of a 4th-century supernatural snowstorm. As the story goes, a miracle occurred when the Virgin Mary (La Madonna) appeared in a dream to the pontiff at the time, Pope Liberius, and to a rich patrician named Giovanni. In their dreams, the Blessed Virgin instructed them to build a church on a spot in Rome that would soon be revealed. The next morning, they awoke to find Esquiline Hill covered in the frozen white stuff. 

Snow in Rome. In August. 

Taking the weird weather event as a clear sign from the Mother of God, the Pope set to work and in 432, the Basilica was consecrated to Our Lady. The church remains an important pilgrimage site of Christendom and serves as the final resting place of Pope Clement IX, Paul V, Nicolas IV, Saint Jerome and artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini, among others. 

This year’s festivities began in the early evening with a dedication to the Supreme Pontiff Pope Francis, followed by a program of music, light projections, games, operatic concerts and general merriment. 

Inside the Basilica’s courtyard was an “offering” of gelato appropriately named Nevicata, created especially for the jubilee by the Antica gelateria del Corso. The lemon-flavored ice cream, topped with orange and ginger, was finished off with a “dusting" of white meringue.

At the stroke of mezzanotte, “snowflakes” (white flower petals) fell from the sky as a symbol of peace, leaving a layer of white on the church’s piazza. It’s a lovely way to commemorate a strange phenomenon believed to have taken place lo those many centuries ago.  

If you go

For more about this annual festival, the history of Santa Maria Maggiore or information about visits, see the official website.