The Foundation of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. The Patrician's Dream1664 - 1665. Oil on canvas, 231 x 524 cm.
This painting and its companion, The Patrician Reveals his Dream to the Pope (P995), 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’s Dream must have been situated on the right side of the dome when looking from the nave towards the altar. It shows the couple sleeping in their room. With considerable discretion for their marital intimacy, Murillo avoids showing them in bed. Fully dressed, with slippers on his feet, Juan sits on a bench and leans back, resting his elbow on a table where he has left a large book. His wife, also fully clothed, sits on a wide red cushion and rests her head on the bed. She has left her sewing basket by the door and a lapdog is sleeping at her feet. Their clothing is from Murillo’s time, as he makes no effort whatsoever to set the story in ancient Rome. The composition is based on a powerful diagonal that melts into the room’s darkness. On the right, Juan is brightly lit, but his wife, in the central middle ground, is in shadow. From above, the heavens open with a golden light as the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child look down upon them benevolently. Mary extends her right arm to the left, and her tunic is blowing in the same direction. Her figure’s dynamism strongly contrasts with the closed contours of the sleeping mortals. Through the opening to the left of the pilaster lies the snowy hill where they must build the new basilica, as the Virgin indicates. The play of colors throughout the canvas is particularly subtle, especially the relations between reds, crimsons and lacquer reds. The two shades of red on the tablecloth are repeated in the wife’s skirt and on the cushion where she sits. The delicate whites and yellows on the cloth over the table are echoed on Juan’s clothing, and again in the Virgin’s dress and veil (Text drawn from Finaldi, G.: Murillo y Justino de Neve. El arte de la Amistad, Museo Nacional del Prado, 2012, pp. 102-103).