Basilica of St Mary Major, Rome Santa Maria Maggiore
Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome is the largest of the 80 Roman churches dedicated to the Virgin. It is also one of the four patriarchal basilicas (coming after San Giovanni in Laterano, San Pietro in Vaticano and San Paolo fuori le Mura) and one of the seven pilgrimage churches (the patriarchal churches together with Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, San Lorenzo fuori le Mura and San Sebastiano). It is the only church in Rome in which mass has been celebrated every day without interruption since the fifth century.
Basilica of St Mary Major Map
Address: Piazza di Santa Maria Maggiore, I-00186 Rome, Italy
Opening hours: 7am-7pm
Transit: Metro: Termini (lines A and B); Bus: 3, 4, 16, 27, 70, 71, 93, 93b, 93c; Tram: 14, 516, 517.
Basilica of St Mary Major Highlights
According to legend, on the night of the fourth/fifth August in the year 358 the Virgin appeared to Pope Liberius and a Roman patrician named Johannes and told them to build a church on the spot where snow fell on the following day (in the month of August!). Snow did fall on the following morning on the Esquiline hill, outlining the plan of a basilica; since then the feast of Our Lady of the Snow has been celebrated on August fifth. Archeological research has been unable to establish, however, whether the church was erected in the fourth or the fifth century.
The original church was added to in later centuries; a new apse was built in the 13th century; the campanile (75m/245ft high; the tallest in Rome) in 1377. Alexander VI built the golden coffered roof with the first gold from America; two side chapels, the Cappella Sistina and the Cappella Paoline were added, and between the 16th and 18th centuries the church was surrounded by a whole series of extensions prelates's house.
The interior is perhaps the finest and most majestic church interior in Rome; 86m/282ft long, three-aisled, with 36 marble and four granite columns, mosaics (fourth or fifth century, the oldest in Rome) on the upper part of the walls, Cosmatesque work in the floor (mid 12th century) and a coffered ceiling by Giuliano da Sangallos (15th century). The Cappella Sistina on the right and the Cappella Paoline on the left are in effect transepts. The Cappella Sistina, built by Domenico Fontana (1584-90) for Pope Sixtus V, contains a bronze tabernacle and the tombs of Sixtus V and his predecessor Pius V. The Cappella Paolina was built for Pope Paul V by Flaminio Ponzo; the richly decorated altarpiece was designed by Girolamo Rainaldi. On the canopied high altar, by Ferdinando Fuga, is a much venerated image of the Virgin (the "Salus Populi Romani"), traditionally attributed to St Luke but in fact a 13th century work.
The Confessio contains a glass case displaying relics of the manger in Bethlehem, in front of which is the kneeling statue of Pius IX by Ignazio Iacometti (1880). A further contribution is made to the magnificence of the decoration by the mosaics on the triumphal arch and in the apse, depicting Old and New Testament themes, scenes from the life of the Virgin and a "Coronation of the Virgin" Jacopo Torriti (end of 13th century), the supreme achievement of the art of the Roman mosaic-workers (best light early in the morning). The canopy over the Papal altar is supported on four porphyry columns from Hadrian's villa at Tivoli.