The Foundation of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome: The Dream of the Patrician and his Wife, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. Oil on canvas, 232 x 522 cm, 1664 – 1665, Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

The church of Santa María la Blanca, which had earlier been a synagogue and then a mosque, was administered directly by the Chapter of Seville Cathedral. Its reconstruction was begun in 1662 under the supervision of Justino de Neve. The dedication of the church was the same as the ancient basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, known in Latin as Sancta Maria ad Nives – or Saint Mary of the Snows – and it combined an allusion to the Virgin’s snowy white purity, with a fortuitous but happy reference to the canon’s surname (Nives–Neve).

Murillo was commissioned to paint two large lunettes to be placed beneath the dome showing the origins of the Roman basilica, and two smaller lunettes for the side aisles honouring the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception and the Eucharistic sacrament. The recent cleaning of the Prado lunettes and the painting of Faith (or The Church Triumphant) from Buscot Park has revealed both the subtlety of Murillo’s handling of light and the astounding fluidity of his brushstroke.

The festivities held to celebrate the reopening of the church in 1665 were truly magnificent and were described in a publication written by Justino’s friend, the priest-poet, Fernando de la Torre Farfán (1609–1677). They involved the erection of temporary arches and altars in the adjacent square decorated with paintings by Murillo and other Sevillian painters, processions, grandiose liturgies, poetry competitions and an open-air art exhibition.

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