One of the four papal basilicas in Rome!

Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore Rome

Sebastian Erkens
Sebastian Erkens

The Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome is another famous cathedral, which is particularly popular with pilgrims. It is located in the city center of Rome.

The church, which is only a few meters away from Termini train station, is one of the four papal basilicas and one of the holy attractions in Rome.

The Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore is home to some historically valuable treasures of contemporary history! For example, fragments of Jesus Christ’s crib are said to be found under the altar of the Basilica. 

Bernini’s tomb, whose art treasures can be viewed in the Galleria Borghese, is also located here. 

Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore Rome at night
Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore Rome

Visitor Information:

Piazza Santa Maria Maggiore 42, 00100 Roma

Termini metro station (lines A and B)

Opening hours:
Church: daily from 7:00 to 18:45
Museum: daily from 9:30 to 18:30 

Palazzo Massimo alle Terme (0,4 km)
Domus Aurea
(0,8 km)
Baths of Diocletian (0,9 km)
Basilica di San Clemente (1,0 km)

Interior decoration-Basilica-Santa-Maria-Maggiore
Interior of the Basilica
Fontana di Santa Maria Maggiore

The History of the Basilica

The Basilica was built on the orders of Pope Liberius. It is said that the Virgin Mary appeared to him in a dream on August 5, 358, and inspired him to have the Basilica built on Esquiline Hill, where he would find snow the following day. 

And indeed – according to legend, there was snow on the Esquiline Hill despite the warm summer morning. Even today, August 5 is still commemorated every year as the year the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore was founded.

This is when an artificial snow cannon is used to celebrate the crazy story of the origins of the imposing church.

However, just under a hundred years later, St Maria Maggiore was extensively rebuilt and completely renovated under the direction of Pope Sixtus III (in the years 432-440).

Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore

Today, it is not only Rome’s largest Marian church (of which there are 40) but also one of the 7 pilgrimage churches in the Eternal City! With a height of 75 meters, the Basilica also has the most giant bell tower in Rome. However, this was only extended in the 14th century.

But it is not just the church’s exterior that is worth seeing. Behind the rococo façade of St Maria Maggiore are many treasures of contemporary history. The cathedral is now even a UNESCO cultural heritage site. 

These art treasures await you in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore.

Contrary to what you might expect, Bernini’s tomb is extremely simple! Bernini is one of the most respected artists of the Baroque period, who was instrumental in the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica, among other things. Today, a bare stone slab adorns the cathedral floor with the inscription: “The noble Bernini family awaits their resurrection here.” 

Santa Maria Maggiore interior
Tomb of Bernini

Some of the church’s mosaics, which are 1500 years old, are also world-famous and almost unique in their quality. They were created shortly after the building was completed. The tiny glass bricks depict biblical scenes in nearly 190 shades of color. The mosaics on the floor were created in the middle of the 12th century. They are made of marble and depict geometric figures, the so-called ‘cosmetic technique.’

Another highlight of the Santa Maria Maggiore Basilica is the apse with the Virgin Mary. Nicholas IV had this renovated in 1290. The extremely sumptuous coffered ceiling in the nave was created between 1493 and 1498. The precious coffers are said to be made of the first gold to arrive in Rome from America.

At the time, it was a gift from Spain to Pope Alexander VI. His coat of arms still adorns the center of the ceiling in the church’s nave today. The design of the coffers is attributed to Giuliano da Sangallo – a rival of the great Michelangelo. 

Golden ceiling of the basilica

The rebuilding and further construction of the church continued and so the basilica continued to change over the coming years. Both the transept and side aisles of the cathedral were vaulted in the 16th century.

The “Capella Sforza” was built in the left aisle according to Michelangelo’s plans. The church was partly rebuilt with massive Baroque elements, as you can still see today from the open staircase at the back or the front hall.

Two rows of 20 marble columns each also clad the pompous nave of the Basilica of Santa Maria.
Another chapel dome is the “Capelle Sistina”, which is richly frescoed and beautifully decorated.

Here you can visit the beautifully designed tombs of Pope Pius V (1572) and Pope Sixtus V (1590) and marvel at 4 exciting human-sized angels.

Where is the Basilica Papale di Santa Maria Maggiore located?

The Basilica is the 2nd stop on most hop on hop off tours in Rome. If you are interested in a city tour by bus, this is a great place to hop on. The next destination from here is the Colosseum! 

Editor: Sebastian Erkens
Hey and welcome to Rome-Tourist! My name is Sebastian and I travel regularly to Rome, Italy.
On our Rome blog you will get valuable travel tips. If you have any questions about specific tours or sights, feel free to leave us a comment.

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