Founded in the 4th century, the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore (Basilica of Saint Mary Major) is one of the five great ancient basilicas of Rome. Its 18th-century exterior conceals one of the best-preserved Byzantine interiors in the city.
History of Santa Maria Maggiore
Santa Maria Maggiore stands on the site of a temple to the goddess Cybele. According to a 13th-century legend, the first church was built here by Pope Liberius (352-66), on the site of an apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The legend has it that the Virgin appeared to Pope Liberius and the patrician Giovanni Patrizio on August 4, 352 (or 358), instructing them to build a church on the Esquiline Hill. That night, the floor plan was outlined by a miraculous snowfall.
Archaeological evidence, on the other hand, indicates that the church was probably first built in the early 400s and completed under Pope Sixtus III (432-440). This was a time when churches dedicated to Mary were beginning to spring up all over the empire, prompted by an increasingly popular devotion to the Virgin and the official acceptance of her title "Theotokos" (Mother of God) at the Council of Ephesus in 431.
The church has had many names over the years: first Santa Maria della Neve (St. Mary of the Snow) after the snowfall, then Santa Maria Liberiana after Pope Liberius. After the basilica obtained a relic of the Holy Crib, it was called Santa Maria Del Presepe (St. Mary of the Crib). It was finally named Santa Maria Maggiore (St. Mary Major) because it is the largest of the 26 churches in Rome dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
Santa Maria Maggiore was fully restored and renovated in the 18th century - the facade and most of the interior decorations date from this period. Today, the basilica is served by Redemptorist and Dominican fathers and remains very popular with pilgrims and tourists alike.
What to See at Santa Maria Maggiore
The development of the city has taken away the impact of Santa Maria Maggiore's commanding position on the summit of the Esquiline Hill, but the church is still considered by many to be the most beautiful church in Rome after St Peter's.
Santa Maria Maggiore still retains its ancient layout, but most of the exterior dates from the 18th century. The only visible exterior part of the Early Christian basilica is a short length of the clerestory wall, seen from Via dell'Esquilino.
The interior of the basilica preserves its majestic Early Christian form, which was standard in Rome in the 5th century: a tall, wide nave with side aisles and a round apse at the end.
The 5th-century mosaics on either side of the nave depict scenes from the Old Testament. This was the first large-scale cycle of Biblical scenes in Rome. The left-hand side has scenes of Abraham, Jacob and Isaac; the right-hand side has scenes of Moses and Joshua.
Although most are original, not all the nave mosaics have survived. The cycle of Biblical scenes is thus interrupted several times and some panels were replaced by painted copies in the 16th century.
The golden mosaics of the triumphal arch are also from the 5th century and depict scenes from the early life of Christ. The imagery of these mosaics is rich and complex and the details have been interpreted in various ways; the second woman in the Epiphany scene, for example, has not been certainly identified. The scenes are as follows:
The apse mosaic, depicting the Coronation of the Virgin, is from the late 13th century, by Franciscan friar, Jacopo Torriti. The loggia above of the main entrance contains 13th-century mosaics, but is not always open.
The Athenian marble columns supporting the nave are the oldest parts of the church - they either come from the first basilica or from an antique Roman building. However, the shafts were reworked and the old capitals and bases were replaced during a restoration of the 18th century.
The medieval bell tower is the highest in Rome at 240 feet, (about 75 m). The floor of the church is paved in opus sectile mosaic, featuring the Borghese arms of an eagle and a dragon.
The high altar of this Patriarchal basilica is a papal altar, used only by the pope himself, or a priest given specific permission by him. It is traditional for the pope to lead a mass here on the Feast of the Assumption of Mary, every August 15. A porphyry urn on the altar contains the relics of St. Matthew and other martyrs.
Beneath the altar is a confessio with a kneeling statue of Pope Pius IX. Beneath this, St. Jerome (d.420), Doctor of the Church and author of the Latin translation of the Bible, is buried in the Bethlehem crypt. The crypt is built to resemble the cave of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
In the right transept is the Sistine Chapel, containing the elaborate tomb of Pope Sixtus V (1521-90) and decorated with frescoes and reliefs of events from his reign. The chapel centers on a reliquary containing part of the Holy Crib, which was carried to Rome by Christian refugees during the Muslim conquest of the Holy Land in the 7th century. Just outside the chapel is the tomb of Gian Lorenzo Bernini and his family.
Across the way, the Pauline chapel is sumptuously decorated and houses the tombs of Pope Paul V (1552-1621) and his immediate predecessor Clement VIII. It is also home to the famous icon of the Virgin Mary known as Salus Populi Romani, "Health of the Roman People." The name derives from a miracle in which the icon helped keep plague from the city. Legend claims that it was painted from life by St. Luke the Evangelist, but most scholars date it to the 13th century.
Another relic held by the church are pieces of the True Cross, housed in a 14th-century cross-shaped reliquary. According to a 14th-century manuscript (Mirabilia Urbis Romae), there were even more relics that have not survived: "There be also... some of the milk of the blessed Virgin, and Our Lord's blood in a crystal."
A museum below the church contains Roman remains that were found here in the 18th century, including a section of Roman road, a mosiac pavement, two wells, a series of arches and narrow passages cut into the bedrock.
While you're in the area, don't miss the nearby Basilica di Santa Prassede (see map below), often overlooked despite its magnificent 9th-century mosaics and relic of Christ's scourging column.
Festivals and Events
The legend of the miraculous snowfall is commemorated every year on August 5, when white rose petals are dropped from the dome during the festal Mass.
The feast day of Santa Maria Maggiore is August 15.
A procession of the Holy Crib is held on December 25.
Quick Facts on Santa Maria Maggiore
|Names:||Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore · Santa Maria Maggiore|
|Categories:||basilicas; churches; shrines|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||41.897574° N, 12.498464° E|
|Address:||Piazza di Santa Maria Maggiore|
|Hours:||Daily 7am to 7pm|
|Lodging:||View hotels near Santa Maria Maggiore|
- Personal visit (July 2006).
- The Rough Guide to Italy 7 (May 2005), 767.
- Matilda Webb, The Churches and Catacombs of Early Christian Rome: A Comprehensive Guide (Sussex Academic Press, 2001), 59-64.
- Santa Maria Maggiore - Fodor's Online Travel Guide
- Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore - Frommer's Attraction Review
- Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore - Lonely Planet Destination Guide
Map of Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome
Below is a location map and aerial view of Santa Maria Maggiore. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.