La Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, collocata sulla sommità del colle Esquilino, è una delle quattro basiliche papali di Roma. Fu fatta erigere all’indomani del Concilio di Efeso del 431 per volontà del Pontefice Sisto III che la dedicò al culto della Madonna. Intorno alla fine del 1450 lo scultore Mino da Fiesole iniziò l’esecuzione del Ciborio della neve, realizzato per l’altare papale e consacrato dal committente, il cardinale Guillaume d’Estouteville nel 1461. L’opera, dalla struttura complessa, fu fatta smantellare da Benedetto XIV a metà del 1740 e le sue parti sono oggi conservate in diversi luoghi. S. Maria Maggiore custodisce ancora trentuno dei rilievi originali, tra i quali spiccano i quattro pannelli narrativi principali collocati nella tribuna. La meravigliosa Madonna col Bambino, che campeggiava nel prospetto, è invece parte della collezione del Cleveland Museum of Art.
In 1459, Mino da Fiesole, a sculptor from Tuscany, journeyed to Rome to work on the ciborium for the high altar of the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore, more commonly known today as simply “Maggiore.” A ciborium was a type of freestanding canopy over a high altar, and the new one in Maggiore was commissioned by a French cardinal, Guillaume d’Estouteville (1403-83). This large and ornate structure was originally decorated with 32 sculptures carved in high relief. The ciborium was dismantled in 1747 with most of its sculptures now displayed in other locations throughout Santa Maria Maggiore. Other sculptures were sold into private collections, with one, an exquisitely beautiful “Madonna and Child,” now in the collections of the Cleveland Museum of Art. Three other relief sculptures from this same set, “Christ Blessing,” “The Annunciation,” and “Saints Peter and Paul,” were later set into the walls of Maggiore’s sacristy where they remain today.
The popes and cardinals of the early Renaissance are often remembered for their ongoing efforts to restore the city of Rome, which had been abandoned during the Avignon papacy (1309-77). These great clerics of the church devoted enormous resources to rebuilding aging churches, restoring residences and bridges and redecorating the interiors of revered sites. Santa Maria Maggiore, one of the first churches built in honor of the Virgin Mary, was built in the immediate aftermath of the Council of Ephesus of 431, which proclaimed Mary to be the Mother of God. Pope Sixtus III (432-40) built it to commemorate this momentous doctrinal decision. By Cardinal d’Estouteville’s time, the church of Maggiore was already a thousand years old. Expressed in these numerous restorations throughout Rome is a growing sense that the Roman Catholic Church was heir to both the Roman Empire and the early Church of the martyrs. These new commissions were intended to form an ideal link between Rome as both the imperial and a Christian city.
The ciborium of Santa Maria Maggiore, one of several projects d’Estouteville undertook in the church in tandem with Pope Pius II’s efforts to restore St. Peter’s to its former glory, is part of this trend. Marble ciboria can be traced back to the very beginnings of church architecture, and Cardinal d’Estouteville’s ciborium structure evokes this ancient Roman architecture. Its very monumental sculptural reliefs carved by Mino da Fiesole intentionally emulated ancient Roman sculpture. Guillaume d’Estouteville was originally a Benedictine monk who rose to a very prominent position in the Church, first as a bishop, then as cardinal. He participated in the papal conclaves that elected Popes Nicholas V, Pius II, Paul II, and Sixtus IV. D’Estouteville was, himself, a candidate for the papacy following the death of Pope Calixtus, but he was defeated by Cardinal Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini, who became Pope Pius II. He died in Rome in 1483.
Santa Maria Maggiore was the primary Marian church of all Christendom and the first church erected in her honor. As such, it is not surprising that her image appeared on the ciborium. Mino’s sculpture of the “Madonna and Child,” now in Cleveland, is truly impressive. Though representing a familiar subject, it is surprising to note the differences between this large marble relief and similar Italian relief sculptures produced a century earlier. Mino’s Madonna is larger and more imposing than in earlier examples. Her half-length figure dominates a frame-like window in which she is seated with her son, thus drawing near to the viewer’s space. Mother and child look tenderly at one another, their gazes capturing the essence of love. No longer a divine apparition, this approachable rendering of Christ and his mother is characteristic of the changes taking place in art at the beginning of the Italian Renaissance.
The sculptor, Mino da Fiesole, was born in the Tuscan town of Poppi, about 25 miles east of Florence around 1429. He was trained in Florence and was a friend and follower of the Florentine sculptors, Desiderio da Settignano and Antonio Rossellino, both of whom influenced his work. His early commissions include a sculptural altarpiece for the Cathedral of Fiesole and a pulpit for the Cathedral of Prato. He is known to have spent two lengthy stays in Rome, from about 1459 to 1464 and again from 1473 to 1480. It was during his first sojourn that he met Cardinal d’Estouteville and was commissioned to carve his exceptional ciborium which included the Cleveland relief sculpture of the “Madonna and Child,” completed around 1461. While in Rome, Mino studied classical sculpture and particularly Roman portraiture. He became a master of the marble portrait bust, many of which he undertook for leading princes and high church clergy. A portrait bust of Cardinal d’Estouteville by Mino is today preserved in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Mino’s sculpture is noted for its sharp, angular treatment of his figures’ draperies. It is also extraordinary for its beautiful finish and delicacy of details, as well as for its spirituality and strong devotional feeling. All of these characteristics may be noted in his marble “Madonna and Child,” now in the Cleveland Museum of Art. He was clearly a gifted and important artist of the early Renaissance. His work in Cleveland provides us with a significant example of his talent and a historical link to the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore. It was a moment when the destinies of Mino da Fiesole and Cardinal Guillaume d’Estouteville converged, and art was the richer for it.