Receive the latest Rome news, travel tips, insights and more + 10% off our store AND a free eBook - Subscribe Today!

Santa Maria Maggiore Rome - 
Why it's a must-see and how to visit

The Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore Rome should be on your list of must-see churches.

santa maria maggiore in romeThe Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore - one of only 4 major basilicas in the world!

Not (only) because it's the largest church in Rome dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Or because of its 5th century mosaics. Or for its golden ceiling.

Read on to find out why you should visit this stunning church!

Visiting Santa Maria Maggiore Rome - Everything You Need to Know

Whether you are on a religious pilgrimage, or just looking for some of the beauty and history this city has to offer, here is everything you need to know about visiting Santa Maria Maggiore Rome:

What is so important about Santa Maria Maggiore?

Maybe I'm partial to this church, since the more I visit it, the more I see, and the more I love. And it's stunningly beautiful to boot.

But it really is one of the most important churches in Christianity.

Santa Maria Maggiore was founded in 432, just after the Council of Ephesus in 431 in which it was decreed that the Virgin Mary was the mother of God.

The basilica is the oldest and largest of 26 churches in Rome dedicated to the Virgin Mary (hence the name, Maggiore, or Major/Most.)

There is a wealth of architecture and art that is worth seeing, whether you take it in as a whole, or decide to take a closer look.

Read on to find out about the most important things to see:

Santa Maria Maggiore Rome - one of the four Major Basilicas

Santa Maria Maggiore is one of only 4 patriarchal/major basilicas, which are all in Rome.

The other 3 are Saint Peter's BasilicaSaint John in Lateran, and Saint Paul Outside the Walls.

Technically, the four major basilicas in the world are not all in Rome.

Saint Peter's basilica is in Vatican City, which is its own state.

In fact, the other three Major Basilicas, while physically "in" Rome and considered Italian territory (thanks to the Lateran Treaty of 1929), are all under the direct jurisdiction of the Pope, and owned by the Vatican, something like a foreign embassy.

All the Papal basilicas, including Santa Maria Maggiore, are policed by the Vatican gendarmerie, not by Italian police.

But all the papal basilicas are easily accessible while you are visiting Rome, and you can visit all four of these basilicas in one Rome visit.


What is a "Patriarchal Basilica?"

The term "Patriarchal Basilica" used to refer to basilicas ceremonially assigned to one of the Patriarchs.

Santa Maria Maggiore originally was assigned to the patriarch of Antioch.

In 2006, Pope Benedict declared the term Patriarchal Basilica to be obsolete, and now the four churches of Saint Peter, Saint John in Lateran, Saint Paul Outside the Walls, and Saint Mary Major are called Papal Basilicas, or Major Basilicas.

Santa Maria Maggiore - quick facts and a brief history

Santa Maria Maggiore was built at the top of Cispius, the highest part of the Esquiline Hill (Esquilino), which is the highest of the seven hills of Rome.

bell tower of santa maria maggioreFrom the Mecenate Palace hotel across from Santa Maria Maggiore, you can really appreciate how tall the bell tower is.

The medieval bell tower, built in the 1370s, is the tallest in Rome, at 75 meters /246 feet.

The basilica you see today looks "modern" on the outside, due to the 18th century façade designed by Ferdinando Fuga.

façade of santa maria maggioreThe 18th-century façade by Ferdinando Fuga.

Once you step inside, you realize you are standing in a 5th century basilica, but in fact its foundations go back much further.

santa maria maggiore interiorThe interior of Santa Maria Maggiore is in its original 5th-century form.

And like many Roman monuments that have a long history, the further back we go, the fuzzier things can get.

Some of the below history about this important basilica contains theories and legends.

Things become much clearer from about the 5th century on.

Santa Maria Maggiore Rome in Ancient times

A temple to honor the Roman goddess Juno Lucina, was built in 375 BCE somewhere in this area, although its exact location is unknown so it's not clear if it was on the site where Santa Maria Maggiore is now.

Archeological excavations have revealed a 1st century building whose entrance was under the apse of today's basilica, likely the villa of a wealthy family.

The excavations show an evolution of architectural style and art, indicating that the building was amended over the next three centuries.

You can visit these excavations from inside the museum of the basilica!

Jump down to this section for things to see and do in Santa Maria Maggiore Rome.

It all started with a dream

Skipping ahead to the year 352 (or 358, sources differ), we have the first origin story of the basilica.

Wealthy patrician John and his wife vowed to donate all their possessions to the Virgin Mary.

The Virgin appeared to John in a dream and told him she'd leave him a sign, so he would know how to honor her.

mosaics on upper loggiaThe mosaics on the upper loggia tell the story of the dream and the snow.

That same night, Pope Liberius had the same dream about the Virgin Mary.

The miraculous August snowfall

On the night of August 5, in the height of the notorious Roman summer heatwave, it snowed right on the summit of the hill where the basilica stands today.

Not only that, the snow fell in exactly the size and shape the basilica was meant to have, so Pope Liberius had the basilica outline right there.

Every August 5, you can visit the piazza outside Santa Maria Maggiore at around 9 pm, where they simulate a snowstorm.

You can also attend Mass at 10am or Vespers at 5pm, where you will see white flower petals descend from the ceiling.

The Liberian Basilica Evolves

In 432, Pope Sixtus III ordered a new church be built to honor Mary, after her status was confirmed as the Mother of God.

The original Liberian basilica may not have been exactly in the spot the stories tell us, but it was completely destroyed to make room for the basilica you see today.

The central nave you see as soon as you walk in, is the original nave, with 5th century mosaics. (See below for more about the mosaics.)

This church was the first church dedicated to Mary in Rome, built much earlier than the 7th century Santa Maria Antiqua (inside the Roman Forum.)

In fact, its original name was Sanctae Mariae.

A BASILICA BY ANY OTHER NAME...

The legend of the snowfall is one of the reasons the basilica is also called Our Lady of the Snows (La Madonna della Neve.)

It has also been called the Liberian basilica, named for Pope Liberius.

Finally, the basilica has one other name - Santa Maria ad Praesepem, because of the relics from Jesus' birth held here (see below.)

Santa Maria Maggiore Rome architecture and interior

What is a basilica?

In Ancient Rome, basilicas were buildings that served as markets, courthouses, and meeting halls, among other things.

They had a particular form: rectangular walled structures featuring an open hall running longways, lined by colonnades on either side, usually with a roof.

As Christianity began to take hold, some of these structures from Ancient Rome were converted into churches, which is why some Catholic basilicas in Rome today have this same architectural shape.

But Santa Maria Maggiore was built specifically to be a Christian basilica from the start, acting as a fascinating bridge from ancient Roman to early Christian architecture.


The perfect 3-day itinerary in Rome

Trying to figure out how to organize your visit to Rome? I've got the perfect 3-day itinerary for first-time visitors (or those who have not been here in a while.) It works for a 2.5 day visit as well.

In my 3-day itinerary, you'll see all the major must-see Rome attractions like the Vatican, Colosseum, Trevi Fountain, Pantheon, Piazza Navona, Spanish Steps, Castel Sant'Angelo, and much more.

And if you have more time, or want suggestions for extra/other things to do, you'll find that there too.

Visit my page with the best 3-day itinerary in Rome for first-timers.


Santa Maria Maggiore Ceiling

For centuries, there was no roof over the central and side naves.

In 1455, Pope Callixtus III (Borgia) ordered the central nave covered. It was eventually designed by Giuliano da Sangallo.

inside of santa maria maggiore with ceilingThe gilded ceiling gives the entire basilica interior a warm glow.

Look closely and you can see that it's covered in gold, which was probably brought over from the new world by Christopher Columbus for Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain*, who gave it as a gift to Pope Alexander VI (Borgia.)

The gilt ceiling of Santa Maria MaggioreBoth popes involved with the creation and decoration of the wooden ceiling of Santa Maria Maggiore Rome were from the Borgia family. This is why we see their heraldry on the ceiling.

I find it astounding that this ceiling is still intact and that what you see is the original wood from the 15th century.

Only one other church in Rome has its original wooden features, from the same era, Saint Mark the Evangelist in Piazza Venezia.

*The King of Spain is, to this day, the secular protector and patron of the basilica.

Santa Maria Maggiore Cosmatesque floor

The beautiful Cosmatesque floor you see today in the central nave is mostly the same floor that was laid in the 12th century. 

santa maria maggiore cosmatesque floorThe Cosmatesque floor of Santa Maria Maggiore Rome as seen from above.

Some of the floor was restored over the centuries and you can actually see and feel the differences in some of the mosaic pieces.

But otherwise, we are lucky it has mostly survived.

THE FAÇADE

There are two façades to Santa Maria Maggiore Rome.

The original one was built in the 13th century and is covered with shimmering mosaics.

façade of santa maria maggiore at dawnYou can see the original façade of Santa Maria Maggiore behind the later one by Ferdinando Fuga.

In 1743, Pope Benedict XIV had architect Ferdinando Fuga add an outer façade, which somewhat masked the earlier one but managed not to destroy the mosaics.

THE COLUMN IN THE PIAZZA

The Column of Peace (Colonna della Pacein the piazza facing the basilica was once part of the Basilica of Maxentius in the Roman Forum.

column of peaceThe Column of Peace stands in the piazza in front of Santa Maria Maggiore Rome.

Pope Paul V had it placed here by architect Carlo Maderno in 1614. Maderno also designed the fountain at the base of the column.

The obelisk behind the basilica

The obelisk at the back of the basilica was moved there in 1587 when Pope Sixtus V had the area around the basilica reworked by his favorite architect Domenico Fontana.

Egyptian obelisk in the back of santa maria maggioreThe back of Santa Maria Maggiore is as beautiful as the front. Here you can see one of two ancient Egyptian obelisks that once stood at the entrance of the mausoleum of Rome's first emperor, Augustus.

The simple obelisk made of Egyptian granite originally stood at the entry of the Mausoleum of Augustus.

Special things to see and do at Santa Maria Maggiore

It's easy to just visit Santa Maria Maggiore, walk around and soak up the scenery.

It's a massive church, with so many little side chapels and cupolas that there are things to see at every turn, so you can simply enjoy the view and that's that. 

But if you have time, you may want to explore some of the most important and interesting aspects of Santa Maria Maggiore Rome:

The first nativity scene

For Christmas 2021, a group of small marble statues sculpted by Arnolfo di Cambio in the late 13th century was moved from an underground chapel to be displayed in the Sistine Chapel. (Not the one in the Vatican Museums! There is also a Sistine Chapel in Santa Maria Maggiore.)

first nativity sceneIn this 13th-century marble nativity scene now on display in the Sistine Chapel in Santa Maria Maggiore Rome, five of the marble statues are original. The statue of the Virgin Mary with baby Jesus was restored in the 16th century.

While this is not the first depiction of the nativity, it is the first that was inspired by Saint Francis of Assisi, which is the way we think of nativity scenes today.

Salus Populi Romani

Salus Populi Romani icon in santa maria maggioreSalus Populi Romani

Another important Christian artefact in Santa Maria Maggiore Rome is a painting of the Virgin Mary known as the Salus Populi Romani (Salvation of the Roman People.)

It is inside the Pauline Chapel and said to have been painted by Saint Luke the Evangelist. Supposedly it was brought to Rome from the Holy Land by Saint Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine.

The painting played an important part in Roman history.

In the 6th century, Pope Gregory the Great carried this icon in a procession in an attempt to ward off the plague that was ravaging Europe at the time. 

As the procession passed the ex-mausoleum of Roman Emperor Hadrian, the Pope saw a vision of the Archangel Michael sheathing his sword, and he took it as a sign that the plague would soon end.

And it did.

And because of this episode, Hadrian's Mausoleum became known as the Castel of the Angel, or Castel Sant'Angelo, its current name.


castel sant'angeloCastel Sant'Angelo was named for the vision that Pope Gregory the Great had of the Archangel Michael sheathing his sword. You can see a bronze sculpture of this scene on the roof of the castle.

Santa Maria Maggiore Rome - relics

There are many relics spread throughout this church.

You won't want to miss a closeup viewing of a piece of Jesus' crib supposedly brought here from Bethlehem in the 7th century.

pieces of wood from the nativityUnderneath the high altar of Santa Maria Maggiore Rome you can view this crystal reliquary designed by Giuseppe Valadier that houses pieces of wood from Jesus' crib.

You can view this relic by going down a small staircase to the confessio just underneath the high altar.

It's a fairly easy space to access and not claustrophobic.

SANTA MARIA MAGGIORE ROME - MOSAICS

There are three main places to look for mosaics in Santa Maria Maggiore - the nave, the triumphal arch and apse, and the outer façade.

When the basilica was built in the 5th century, the upper part of the nave was lined with mosaics representing Old Testament events such as Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt.

These mosaics are intact and even if they are sort of small and hard to see from the floor level, they are spectacular.

ceiling and nave mosaics of santa maria maggioreAll along the central nave of Santa Maria Maggiore Rome you can see the original mosaics from the 5th century.

The 13th century mosaics in the apse by Franciscan friar Jacopo Torriti show scenes from Mary's life and Jesus' childhood.

apse mosaic of santa maria maggioreThe apse mosaic, the Coronation of the Virgin, is from 1295, signed by the Franciscan friar, Jacopo Torriti.

The mosaic above the arch, which continues the story of the mosaics along the sides of the nave, was commissioned by Pope Sixtus III when he had the basilica built in the 5th century. (There was another mosaic in the apse, also from the 5th century, but that was destroyed and replaced by the 13th century mosaic there today.)

triumphal arch of santa maria maggioreThe mosaics on the triumphal apse of Santa Maria Maggiore are also originally from the 5th century.

The mosaics on the original façade of the loggia are from the late 13th century, the same period as the apse mosaic, as both were part of a restoration by Pope Nicholas IV.

mosaics on the loggiaThe façade mosaic was mostly completed by Filipp Rusuti, who was a student of Jacopo Torriti (who had done the apse mosaic.)

The lower set of mosaics seem to have been executed by a different artist as they are a different style. These show scenes from the foundation legend of the dream and the snow.

Santa Maria Maggiore - ancient Rome underground

Outside past the sacristy you can find the bathrooms (very clean!) and also the museum.

Inside the museum, you can book a visit to the archeological underground site, or a visit to the upper loggia where the 13th century mosaics are.

Each visit costs 5€. They usually go hourly.

underground excavations of santa maria maggioreThe 3rd/4th century underground of Santa Maria Maggiore Rome is a truly amazing thing to see - the entire structure represents a calendar!

It's absolutely fascinating to discover that the entire complex represents an enormous calendar. Each room is decorated with frescoes and marble and depicts a given month.

The Loggia - Angels and mosaics

If you take the tour of the upper loggia, you will get to see the shimmering mosaics that depict the legend of the miraculous snowfall up close.

There are also four larger-than-life angels. They were made in 1749 by Pietro Bracci (who designed the Oceanus sculpture in the center of the Trevi Fountain.)

angels on the upper loggiaThe angels originally meant for the Baldacchino were moved to the loggia, which you can visit.

The angels were meant for the new baldacchino designed by Ferdinando Fuga for the high altar.

In 1932 the baldacchino was shortened considerably to improve the view of the apse mosaic.

The baldacchino todayThe baldacchino of Santa Maria Maggiore Rome.

We are lucky that somehow the angels survived and can now be seen when you visit the loggia.

The spiral staircase

When you tour the upper loggia, you can also take a look at Bernini's hidden spiral staircase. (Although actually it's probably not by Bernini!)

spiral staircase in santa maria maggioreIf you visit the upper loggia of Santa Maria Maggiore Rome, you will be treated to this view of a simple but beautiful spiral staircase, supposedly designed by Gian Loranzo Bernini.

You can't go up or down it as the staircase is inside the quarters of the monks who live there.

Want to discover Santa Maria Maggiore with an experienced guide?

Burials in Santa Maria Maggiore

Probably the most renowned person to be interred in the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore is the man who was lived right nearby, and who has contributed so much to Rome's baroque personality, Gian Lorenzo Bernini. 

bernini's tomb in santa maria maggioreJust to the right of the main altar of Santa Maria Maggiore, if you look down, you will see the tomb of the great Baroque artist and architect, Gian Lorenzo Bernini. His family are also buried here.

Another famous person who we might be surprised to find is buried here is Pauline Bonaparte. (You can see a stunning sculpture of Pauline Bonaparte by Antonio Canova in the Galleria Borghese.)

Several popes are buried in Santa Maria Maggiore, including, perhaps most famously, Pope Sixtus V, who has a whole chapel named for him, the Sistine Chapel.

(The word "Sistine" refers to the papal name "Sixtus." The other, much more famous Sistine Chapel, was named for Pope Sixtus IV.)

Disclosure : If you make a purchase through a link on this page, I may receive a small commission - at no extra cost to you. Thank you for supporting my site!

A must for history and murder-mystery fans!

I strongly recommend "Murder in the Garden of God", by Eleanor Herman.

It tells the story of Pope Sixtus V and his unusual rise to the papacy.

The background is loaded with intrigue, murder plots, betrayals, and lots and lots of executions.

Besides all that, you will get an excellent understanding of Rome's current layout thanks to the changes implemented by this pope.

The book is based on facts but it reads like a novel and is hard to put down.

In the chapel opposite the Sistine Chapel you will find the Pauline Chapel, built in 1611 and named for Paolo Borghese, who was Pope Paul V, and who contributed a lot to renovations in this basilica.

The Sistine Chapel is often open for visits, while the Pauline Chapel is only open for prayer. No photos are allowed in the Pauline Chapel.

Inside the Pauline/Borghese chapel is a crypt for the Borghese family, where Pope Paul V is buried here.

He also had the remains of his predecessor Pope Clement VIII moved here from Saint Peter's Basilica.

Other notable popes buried in Santa Maria Maggiore include Pope Honorius III (no longer extant), Pope Clement IX, Saint Pope Pius V, and Pope Nicholas IV.

The basilica also houses the relics of Saint Jerome.

Michelangelo was here too

Most people don't realize that there is a bit of Michelangelo in this basilica.

On the left-hand side, just before the Pauline Chapel, you can see the outside of the Sforza Chapel, designed by the great artist. It's only open occasionally for prayer but you can peer inside.

Santa Maria Maggiore Rome - practical info

Santa Maria Maggiore opening times

The Basilica is open daily from 7 am to 6:45 pm.

Santa Maria Maggiore Rome mass times

Holy masses are held as follows:

Weekdays: 7, 8, 9 (in the Sforza Chapel), 10, 11 am and 12 and 6 pm.

Sundays & Holidays: (in the Paolina Chapel) 7, 8, and 9 am

(on the Papal Altar) 10 am (in Latin), and 12 and 6 pm

Sundays and Feast days:

9 am – Liturgy of the Hours

10 am – Holy Mass of the Canons (in Latin)

4:40 pm – Holy Rosary

5:15 pm – Vespers

Eucharistic Adoration: Every day (except Saturday and Sunday) from 9:30 am to 4:15 pm in the Sforza Chapel. Vespers and Eucharistic Blessing at 4:15 pm.

Holy Rosary every weekday at 5:25 pm.

Sacrament of Penance: from 7 am to 12.30 pm; and from 3:30 pm to 6:45 pm.

For more details visit the official website of Santa Maria Maggiore Rome on the Vatican website

Bonus!

There are two cafés on the piazza that are open daily from 6 am.

When I say daily, I mean even on Christmas Day, New Years Day.

There is something magical about having a cappuccino and croissant on Christmas Day at dawn, and having the piazza and the church all to yourself.

santa maria maggiore dawn christmas daySanta Maria Maggiore Rome at dawn on Christmas morning

Santa Maria Maggiore Rome - location and how to get there

Santa Maria Maggiore is near Termini station at the intersection of via Merulana and via Cavour in the Esquilino neighborhood on the edge of the Monti neighborhood.

You can easily reach the basilica via the Metro lines A or B at Termini train station.

It's only a 5-10 minute walk from there.

Click here to visit my interactive Google map showing where Santa Maria Maggiore Rome is located in relation to the other papal, or major, basilicas.

It will open in a new window.

Bibliography - sources for this article


Want to save this page about Santa Maria Maggiore Rome to Pinterest? Pin it here!

pin santa maria maggiore

Get your free Rome trip planner!

Simply sign-up today for our free newsletter and get the Romewise Quick-start guide to Rome

We are committed to respecting your data. Click for our Privacy Policy .


Comments? Questions? Suggestions?

Please come over to the private Romewise Facebook group and join in the conversation.

You will often find me there, happy to answer your questions / comments!

You will also meet other Rome lovers and experts, too.

What are you waiting for?

Come join in the fun!