See stunning mosaics in the Virgin Mary’s church.
Santa Maria Maggiore is one of Rome’s four patriarchal basilicas, and the biggest church in Rome dedicated to the Virgin Mary. According to scholars, it’s the second most beautiful church in Rome and a must-see for visitors interested in spectacular art and architecture.
- Be stunned by the shimmering mosaics, some dating as far back as the 5th century.
- Admire the mix of architectural styles. Can you guess which parts were built during which periods?
- Find an ancient relic said to have been a part of the baby Jesus’ manger.
What to see and do
Santa Maria Maggiore presents a fascinating example of overlapping Christian art and architecture throughout history. Every inch of the church is decorated. Sometimes when there’s so much to see you don’t know where to begin! Below is a list of some of the highlights to get you started.
Santa Maria Maggiore has an unusual exterior because it actually features two facades, one in front of the other.
The 18th-century Baroque facade, designed by Ferdinando Fuga, contains a portico of five arcades on the lower story and three arches on top. These light and open spaces, which contrast the heaviness of the columns, are designed in a way so you can still see glimpses of the original facade behind it.
The shimmering gold peeking out behind Fuga’s design belongs to the mosaics of the 13th-century facade. They show scenes illustrating the origin of the Basilica, such as the moment when the Virgin Mary appeared to Pope Liberius in a dream.
The magnificent ceiling covers the entire central nave. Originally, the nave and aisles were uncovered until 1455, when Pope Callixtus III (belonging to the Borgia family) commissioned Giuliano da Sangallo to design a coffered wooden ceiling.
It’s said that the gilding was done later under Pope Alexander VI (another Borgia) using gold brought from the Incan empire and gifted to the pope by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain.
Although the gilding has been replaced over the years, the ceiling still has the original 15th-century wood.
The beautifully intricate floor was laid in the 12th century, under Pope Eugene III, using the Cosmatesque style, consisting of geometric inlay stonework, typical of the Medieval period in Rome.
It was restored by Fuga (who designed the facade) in the 18th century and some areas had to be re-laid. However, unlike many other Roman church floors from that period, much of the original stonework still remains.
The Basilica is also known for its spectacular mosaics, some dating all the way back to the 5th century. There are three main mosaiced areas of interest: the facade outside (accessible with the museum ticket), the nave and triumphal arch, and the apse.
The apse mosaics date back to the 13th century and show the Coronation of the Virgin, as well as other scenes from Mary’s life and Christ’s childhood. The nave and arch mosaics are from the 5th century when the basilica was built and depict scenes from the Old Testament and scenes from Christ’s childhood.
Relics and Tombs
Although the church is rife with reliquaries, one unmissable one, located underneath the high altar, contains five pieces of wood said to have belonged to the holy manger in which Christ was placed at birth. They were brought here from Bethlehem during the 7th century.
The basilica also contains the tombs of famous Catholics like Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the Baroque artist, as well as the funerary monuments of three different popes: Clement IX, Paul V, and Nicholas IV.
The museum, located underground, was first opened in 2001 by Pope John Paul II. It contains mainly liturgical items such as reliquaries and vestments, but there are also impressive works of art and manuscripts.
The Area Archeologica, the excavated remains of the ancient structure under the basilica, is included in the price of the ticket, and for a small extra fee, you can get a guided tour of the Loggia with its 13th-century mosaics.
Santa Maria Maggiore is located in the center of Rome, very close to the Termini train station, and is very easily accessible by public transport, or on foot from other major sites. Termini station also has a bus terminal that is used by all major routes in Rome. The church is a 5-10 minute walk from there.
Address: Piazza di Santa Maria Maggiore, 00100
Metro: Line A or B – Termini
Train: Any train that stops at Termini station.
Did you know that: (3 Interesting Facts!)
- Every year on August 5th, a cascade of white petals falls from the ceiling of the basilica in memory of the miraculous snowfall.
- Although located inside the city of Rome, the basilica enjoys extraterritorial status, as it is owned by the Holy See.
- It’s said that if one were to walk through all four holy doors of the patriarchal basilicas in a single day during a jubilee, they would be granted an indulgence and absolved of all their sins.
- According to legend, in 352 CE, the Virgin Mary appeared to Pope Liberius in a dream. She instructed him to build a church on the site of a miraculous snowfall. The next day, August 5th, Liberius woke to see the Esquiline hill covered in snow, in the exact shape of the perimeter of the basilica.
- In 431 CE, the Council of Ephesus confirmed the belief that Mary was the true mother of God. One year later, the actual Santa Maria Maggiore was founded, becoming the first great church of Mary in Rome.
- It was consecrated on the 5th of August 434 by Pope Sixtus III.
- Over the centuries the church underwent numerous restorations and extensions by various popes, but it still retains the core of its original structure.
- The 75-meter-tall bell tower was added in the 1370s and is the tallest in all of Rome.
- In the 16th and 17th centuries, two large side chapels were erected by popes Sixtus V and Paul V.
- In 1743, Ferdinando Fuga was commissioned to design a new facade, giving the church its current Baroque appearance.
- Today, the basilica remains the largest Marian church in Rome and is considered an important artistic and religious site. It’s visited by locals, tourists, and pilgrims alike.
Address: Basilica Papale di Santa Maria Maggiore, Piazza di Santa Maria Maggiore , 00100 Roma, Italy · view larger map