Holy Crib at St. Mary Major Basilica
The Holy Crib
In the crypt under the high altar of the St. Mary Major Basilica llies the celebrated relic known as the Holy Crib. A statue of Pope Pius IX kneeling before the ancient wooden pieces of the manger serves as an example to the faithful who come to see the first humble crib of the Savior. Pius IX’s devotion to the Holy Crib led him to commission the crypt chapel, and his coat of arms is visible above the altar. The precious crystal urn trimmed in silver, through which the faithful can venerate the relic, was designed by Giuseppe Valadier.
Arnolfo di Cambio’s “Crib”
The spiritual and sentimental image of the reconstruction of the “Crib” in remembrance of the venerated event of Christ’s birth, originated in 432 when Pope Sixtus III (432-440) created, within the primitive Basilica, a “cave of the Nativity” similar to that in Bethlehem. Numerous pilgrims returning to Rome from the Holy Land, brought back precious fragments of the Holy Crib (cunambulum), which are now kept in the golden Confessional shrine.
During the following centuries several popes took care of Sixtus III’s Holy Cave, until Pope Nicolò IV in 1288 commissioned a sculpture of the “Nativity” by Arnolfo di Cambio.
Many changes and reconstructions took place in the basilica. When Pope Sixtus V (1585-1590) wished to erect the large Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament or Sistina in the right nave, he ordered the architect Domenico Fontana to transfer, without dismantling, the ancient “cave of the Nativity” with its surviving elements of Arnolfo di Cambio’s sculpture.
The three Magi, dressed in elegant vestments and shoes in a rough gothic style, and Saint Joseph admire with a sense of wonder and reverence the miracle of the Baby in the Virgin Mary’s arms (of P. Olivieri) warmed by the ox and the donkey.