The Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore Rome should be on your list of must-see churches.
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!
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:
Take a guided tour and visit all the special areas like the loggia and more!
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.
This was just after the Council of Ephesus of 431 which 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 is one of only 4 patriarchal/major basilicas, which are all in Rome.
The other 3 are Saint Peter's Basilica, Saint John 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 Lateran, Saint Paul Outside the Walls, and Saint Mary Major are called Papal Basilicas, or Major Basilicas.
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.
The medieval bell tower was built in the 1370s.
It 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.
Once you step inside, you realize you are standing in a 5th century basilica, but its foundations go back much further.
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.
Take a guided tour and visit all the special areas like the loggia and more!
In 375 BCE, a temple to honor the Roman goddess Juno Lucina, was built somewhere in this area.
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.
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 were childless.
They 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.
That same night, Pope Liberius had the same dream about the Virgin Mary.
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.
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.
In 432, Pope Sixtus III ordered a new church be built to honor Mary.
Her status had just been confirmed as the Mother of God.
The original Liberian basilica may not have been exactly in the spot the stories tell us.
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.
Its 5th century mosaics are original. (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, near the Colosseum.)
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.)
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.
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.
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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.
Look closely and you can see that it's covered in gold.
The gold 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.)
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.
The beautiful Cosmatesque floor you see today in the central nave is mostly the same floor that was laid in the 12th century.
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.
There are two façades to Santa Maria Maggiore Rome.
The original one was built in the 13th century and is covered with shimmering mosaics.
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 of Peace (Colonna della Pace) in the piazza facing the basilica was once part of the Basilica of Maxentius in the Roman Forum.
Pope Paul V (Borghese) had it placed here by architect Carlo Maderno in 1614.
Maderno also designed the fountain at the base of the column.
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.
The simple obelisk made of Egyptian granite originally stood at the entry of the Mausoleum of Augustus.
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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:
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.
There is a Sistine Chapel in Santa Maria Maggiore.
It's named for Pope Sixtus V.
The Sistine Chapel at the Vatican is named for Pope Sixtus IV.
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.
Another important Christian artefact in Santa Maria Maggiore 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.
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.
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.
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.
The 13th century mosaics in the apse by Franciscan friar Jacopo Torriti show scenes from Mary's life and Jesus' childhood.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
We are lucky that somehow the angels survived and can now be seen when you visit the loggia.
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!)
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?
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.
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.)
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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.
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.
The Basilica is open daily from 7 am to 6:45 pm.
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.
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 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.
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