The Foundation of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. The Patrician recounts his Dream to the Pope1664 - 1665. Oil on canvas, 230.5 x 523 cm.
This painting and its companion, The Patrician’s Dream (P994), are among Murillo’s most renowned works. The two arched works were intended to hang beneath a small dome in the recently remodeled Sevillian church of Santa María la Blanca in 1665, and they narrate the story of the founding of the Roman basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore as succinctly set out in the Roman Breviary’s information about the feast of Sancta Mariae ad Nives, held on August 5 (lectio 5, 6 and 7). We know this from a printed text by Torre Farfán about the acts celebrating the re-opening of Santa María la Blanca (1666, f. 4v). Murillo may also have drawn on the more extensive version of those events offered by Pedro de Ribadeneyra in the August 5 entry of Flos Sanctorum. The parish church of Santa María la Blanca was a chapel under the administration of the cathedral, which explains the particular interest of canon Justino de Neve. This church was remodeled to honor the Immaculate Conception after Pope Alexander VII promulgated the apostolic constitution Sollicitudo omnium Ecclesiarum in 1661, in which he declared the Virgin Mary free of original sin. Santa María la Blanca was very close to Justino’s house, and that Virgin’s advocation, nives in Latin (and neve in Italian), bears a close linguistic relation to the canon’s family name. The painting depicts Roman patrician Juan (Joannes) and his wife -her name does not appear in the Roman Breviary- who sought to give their riches to the Virgin Mary. One sweltering August night, while they were sleeping, the Virgin appeared to both of them and instructed them to build a church somewhere covered in snow. They described their vision to Pope Liberius (352-366), whom Murillo depicts with the facial features of Alexander VII -and on the 5th of that month, they participated in a solemn procession to an area on the Esquilino hill in Rome, where a miraculous snowfall indicated the site for the future temple (in eo locum Ecclesiae disignavit). And so, at the expense of the patrician and his wife, what was then known as the Basilica Liberiana was built there. It was the first church in Rome dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
The Patrician Reveals his Dream to Pope Liberius, was originally beneath the church’s dome, on the left side. It represents the morning after the Virgin Mary appeared to the patrician and his wife in a dream. The elegantly dressed couple -he wears a cape and carries his hat, she has a pink dress with yellow sleeves and is wearing jewelry- present themselves to Pope Liberius and recount their experience. Sitting in an open loggia that is part of a more complex architectural setting, the pope is accompanied by two priests, one of whom is adjusting his pince-nez. Liberius bears a surprised expression, as he, too, has had the same revelation. As in the scene on the other arched painting, the column marks a transition between indoors and outdoors, leading to the story’s second episode, which is depicted on the right. There, dressed in full papal garb under a canopy, Liberius leads a procession towards the snow-covered hill, accompanied by cardinals and priests and watched from on high by the Virgin Mary and the Christ child. In both paintings, Murillo uses a table as a repoussoir to draw the viewer into the scene. Here, it bears a clock and a small bell, recalling the artist’s portrait of Justino de Neve (London, the National Gallery). The use of two different sources of light- the strongly illuminated figure of the patrician’s wife at the center of the composition and the bright landscape on the right, with its delicate pink nuances in the sky- bring depth and chromatic variety to the work, as well as facilitating the narrative. Of particular note in the present painting is the fluidity and freedom of the brushstrokes, which are most apparent on the carpet at the lower left and in the dress and hands of the patrician’s wife. The figures in the foreground are defined with wide, confident brushstrokes, and in the middle ground, with an abundance of fine glazes. The background is rendered with even more transparent layers. An X-ray has shown that Murillo modified the architecture before finding the definitive solution. Apparently, he changed the position of the column and the arch in the background several times. The latter is now closed, but it appears to have been open originally (Text drawn from Finaldi, G.: Murillo y Justino de Neve. El arte de la Amistad, Museo Nacional del Prado, 2012, pp. 102-103).