The Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore is the largest of the 80 churches of Mary in Rome. It is one of Rome’s four papal basilicas along with St. Peter’s, St. John Lateran and St. Paul’s Outside the Walls.
Of all the great Roman basilicas and Santa Maria Maggiore is the one in which different architectural styles come together in a most harmonious way.
Originally built by Pope Liberius in the 4th century, Santa Maria Maggiore, despite having been renovated and improved by many popes over the centuries, still retains its early medieval structure.
The columns and three naves date back to the 5th century. The marble floor and the lovely Romanesque bell tower are medieval. During the Renaissance the coffered ceiling was made, and in the Baroque period and the two domes and impressive elevations.
The mosaics in the basilica are very famous and are among the oldest in Rome. biblical scenes in the nave the stunning mosaics on the triumphal arch date from the 5th century. Medieval masterpieces include a 13th-century Christ on the Throne in the loggia.
- Admire the extraordinary mosaics from the 5th century.
- Discover the mix of architectural styles and eras that have given the basilica its current appearance.
- Discover the relic of the ancient manger of Jesus.
Santa Maria Maggiore: what to see and what to do
According to legend, in 356 Pope Liberius dreamed of Our Lady ordering him to build a church where he found snow.
When on the morning of August 5, in the middle of a scorching Roman summer, it snowed on the Esquiline Hill, the Pope obeyed.
The miracle of snow is commemorated each year in a celebration during which white petals are dropped from the ceiling of St. Mary’s.
Here is what to see at the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore:
The facade of Santa Maria Maggiore is very distinctive because it actually has two facades, one behind the other.
From a distance you will see the 16th-century Baroque facade designed by Ferdinando Fuga, which has five arches on the lower floor and three arches on the upper floor.
This first façade has large open and bright spaces, contrasting with the imposing columns. They are designed so that the second façade behind can be glimpsed.
The second facade behind the 18th-century one dates back to the 13th century. On it are scenes illustrating the origin of the basilica, particularly the moment when the Virgin Mary appeared in a dream to Pope Liberius.
The magnificent Renaissance-era coffered ceiling covers the entire nave.
The ceiling was designed by Giuliano da Sangallo was commissioned in 1455 by Pope Calixtus III Borgia.
Apparently, instead, the gilding was commissioned by Pope Alexander VI Borgia using gold brought from the Americas and donated by the Spanish sovereigns as partial compensation for the loan granted to finance Christopher Columbus’ voyage to the New World.
Even today, the ceiling retains the original 15th-century wood.
The mosaics in the apse date back to the 13th century and depict the coronation of the virgin as well as scenes from the life of Mary and the childhood of Christ. The mosaics in the arch nave date back to the 5th century when the basilica was built and depict scenes from the Old Testament.
To see the mosaics in detail, the use of binoculars is recommended.
Tombs and relics
Santa Maria Maggiore is rich in tombs and reliquaries:
Inside the church you will find a marble plaque on the floor indicating the tomb of Gian lorenzo bernini and his ancestors paradoxically points a baroque artist of his caliber to a simple and anonymous tomb.
The silver and crystal reliquary under the high altar would contain fragments of the manger of the baby Jesus, brought here from Bethlehem in the 7th century, while relics of St. Matthew and other martyrs are kept above the altar.
The museum under the basilica holds a variety of relics, very rich even by Rome standards, including a hair of the Virgin and the arms of Saints Luke and Matthew.
Arnolfo di Cambio’s crib created in 1291 to decorate a chapel designed to preserve the manger relic is very interesting.
Curiosities about Santa Maria Maggiore
- Every year, on August 5, a cascade of white petals is dropped from the ceiling of the basilica in remembrance of the miraculous snowfall.
- The Basilica is extraterritorial property of the Vatican.
- It is said that by walking through the four holy doors of the patriarchal basilicas on a single day during the jubilee, one is granted an indulgence and absolved of all sins.
History of Santa Maria Maggiore
- 352 A.D. the Virgin Mary appears in a dream to Pope Liberius.
- 420 AD. Probable start of work.
- 434 AD. Sixtus III completes the church. Consecrated on August 5, 434 AD.
- 1288 – 1292 AD. Nicholas IV adds apse and transepts.
- 1370 AD. Added 75-meter-high bell tower (the tallest in Rome).
- 16th – 17th centuries Pope Sixtus V and Paul V added two large side chapels.
- 1743 A.D. Ferdinand Fuga designs the new facade in Baroque style.
- Today Santa Maria Maggiore is the largest Marian church in Rome visited by thousands of people.
How to reach Santa Maria Maggiore
Santa Maria Maggiore is located in the center of Rome, very close to Termini station, and is very easily accessible by public transportation, or on foot from other important sites.
Subway: Line A or B, Termini stop
Buses: 16, 70, 71, 714
Train: all trains that stop at Roma Termini
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