Basilica of Saint Mary Major

Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore

Santa Maria Maggiore is one of the four main basilicas in Rome, and there is a peculiar legend related to its foundation. On one summer night Pope Liberius had a dream that Virgin Mary came to him and told him to build a church in the place, where snow would fall the next day. It was a true miracle, as indeed, snow fell during the night on the summit of the Esquiline Hill! Liberius erected a church on the spot, and every August a ceremony is held in Santa Maria Maggiore, when thousands of petals flow in the air reminding of that summer snow. The original structure of the church was replaced by the basilica erected in 440 by Pope Sixtus III. In the apse of the church there is a 13th-century mosaic performed by Jacopo Torriti that pictures Virgin Mary as a Byzantine princess being crowned by Christ. The main nave keeps 5th-century mosaics showing the scenes from the Old and the New Testaments, but these are located really high, so be sure to bring a binocular with you. Many Popes reconstructed, extended and decorated the church. The wooden coffered ceiling said to have been made by Guliano da Sangallo is of particular interest. Gold brought from the New World (Peru) was used for gilding of the ceiling. This gold was presented to the Pope by the Spanish Royal family. Floors were made in the XII century by Cosmati, a family of marblers, founders of the Cosmatesque style. However, they went through some significant changes during the 18th-century restoration.

The highest bell-tower in Rome (75 meters) was built in 1377. The facade with a gallery and a stanza was constructed in 1740s by Ferdinando Fuga. The greatest treasures of Santa Maria Maggiore can’t be detected at once though, as among them are the real crib of the baby Jesus, stored under the Pontifical altar, the most revered in Rome icon of the Virgin Mary Salus Populi Romani (Salvation of the Roman People), painted by the Apostle Luke, and relics of the Apostle Matthew. Chapels of the church are of the great interest as well. Domenico Fontana constructed the Cappella Sistina on the right side as was ordered by Pope Sixtus V. It is the burial place for Sixtus V and Pius V along with the sculptor Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini and his family. If you enter the left nave, you can get into an even more luxurious Pauline chapel, also known as the Borghese chapel, erected in 1611 under the order of Paul V, born Camillo Borghese. Popes Clementis VIII and Paul V are buried there. The Sforza chapel that is located closer to the exit on the same side was constructed by Giacomo della Porta, supposedly, by Michelangelo’s project.

Address: Piazza di S. Maria Maggiore, 42
Opening hours: daily 7 am – 7 pm
How to reach: metro Vittorio Emanuele, Cavour, Termini
Coordinates: 41.897761, 12.498170