Even by Roman standards the Papal Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore is magnificent. It has artworks in every corner, stunning mosaics, and holy relics. And, if you are there in December – as I was – you may even be lucky enough to catch a living tableau.
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A Papal Basilica
Santa Maria Maggiore is one of four papal basilicas in Rome (the others being St Peter’s in the Vatican City, St John Lateran, and San Paolo Fuori le Mura). The first church on the site was built in 432 CE. According to legend, the location was chosen when Pope Liberius had a vision of the Virgin Mary telling him to build in the place where snow had fallen. Despite it being August, snow was found on the Esquiline Hill, and the church was built!
The grand façade dates from the 18th century. However, the basilica incorporates elements from the original church and from all later additions and reconstructions.
A Spectacular Interior
When you enter the Basilica you will immediately be struck by its size, space and splendour. It is only as you start to walk around that you realise that it is not a single, homogenous construction, but a fusion of different periods and building styles.
There is a Renaissance ceiling, and marble columns plundered from classical buildings. Some of the mosaics are original to the 5th century church; others date from the 13th century.
Crypt Of The Nativity
Beneath the high altar is the Chapel of the Nativity. This is notable for its ornate reliquary containing a rare relic: some fragments of wood said to have been part of Jesus’ crib in Bethlehem. The crypt is also the burial place of St Jerome.
One of the most notable of the Basilica’s small chapels is the Capella Sistina, where Pope Sixtus V is buried. It is lavishly decorated with frescoes and with four gilded angels holding a model of the chapel.
Each year on 5 August white rose petals are floated from the ceiling of the Cappella Sistina, a reminder of the miraculous snow that led to the founding of the Basilica.
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The baptistery was added in the 17th century. It has marble walls and ceiling frescoes, and the font is topped by an ornate golden sculpture. Around the walls are memorials to several popes.
Loggia And Mosaics
You will probably spot one of the most impressive artworks before you even enter the Basilica. High above the main entrance is a loggia, affording a tantalising glimpse of some Byzantine-style mosaics. Created in the 13th century, these were originally on the outside of the church, but were partially obscured when the new façade was added.
To see the mosaics up close you will need to buy a ticket for the loggia tour. I recommend that you do this, because the mosaics are spectacular, and you get to stand right next to them. An added bonus is that when you stand in the loggia you get a very good view along the Via Merulana towards the papal basilica of St John Lateran.
The loggia tour also takes you to the Hall of the Popes, at one time a papal residence. And you will get a glimpse of the famous Bernini staircase, a grand spiral structure that winds its way downwards into the closed-off areas of the basilica.
Entrance to the basilica museum is included in the loggia tour, or you can buy a separate ticket. The museum has information about the history of the church, and some interesting artefacts including a relic of “the virgin’s hair”.
The museum building includes the remains of a Roman house, with vestiges of an early indoor heating system.
A Living Presepe
The custom of building presepi (or nativity scenes) is widespread in Italy at Christmas time. But, when I visited in December 2022, Santa Maria Maggiore had taken it one step further with a living presepe.
This began with a cast of hundreds of people in costume and accompanied by drums and music marching down the Via Merulana from the Basilica of St John Lateran. When they arrived at Santa Maria Maggiore they arranged themselves into a nativity tableau, while a choir sang carols. It was all very impressive!
How To Visit The Papal Basilica Of Santa Maria Maggiore
- The Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore is a short walk (around half a kilometre) from Roma Termini station.
- Entrance to the Basilica is free. However you will need to buy tickets for the loggia tour and/or the museum. These can be purchased from the ticket desk in the lobby.
- Guided tours of the Basilica, including the loggia, are also available.
- As with all Italian churches, it is necessary to wear appropriate clothing.