Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore

Rome, Italy

The Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore is a Papal major basilica and the largest Catholic Marian church in Rome. It is one of the only four churches that hold the title of 'major basilica' (all in Rome).

It is agreed that the present church was built under Pope Sixtus III (432-440). The dedicatory inscription on the triumphal arch, Sixtus Episcopus plebi Dei, ('Sixtus the bishop to the people of God') is an indication of that Pope's role in the construction. The church retains the core of its original structure, despite several additional construction projects and damage by the earthquake of 1348.

Santa Maria Maggiore, one of the first churches built in honour of the Virgin Mary, was erected in the immediate aftermath of the Council of Ephesus of 431, which proclaimed Mary Mother of God. Pope Sixtus III built it to commemorate this decision. The magnificent mosaics of the nave and triumphal arch depict scenes of her life and that of Christ, but also scenes from the Old Testament.

When the popes returned to Rome after the period of the Avignon papacy, the buildings of the basilica became a temporary Palace of the Popes due to the deteriorated state of the Lateran Palace. The papal residence was later moved to the Palace of the Vatican in what is now Vatican City.

The basilica was restored, redecorated and extended by various popes, including Eugene III (1145-1153), Nicholas IV (1288-92), Clement X (1670-76), and Benedict XIV (1740-58), who in the 1740s commissioned Ferdinando Fuga to build the present façade and to modify the interior. The interior of the Santa Maria Maggiore underwent a broad renovation encompassing all of its altars between the years 1575 and 1630.


The 5th century mosaics found in Santa Maria Maggiore are not just incredibly beautiful works of Late Antique art; they are also one of the oldest representations of the Virgin Mary in Christian Late Antiquity. The mosaics of the triumphal arch and the nave were the definition of impressionistic art during the time period and gave a model for the future representations of the Virgin Mary.

Under the high altar is the Crypt of the Nativity, with a crystal reliquary designed by Giuseppe Valadier said to contain wood from the Holy Crib of the nativity of Jesus Christ. Here is the burial place of Saint Jerome, the 4th-century Doctor of the Church who translated the Bible into the Latin language.

Beneath this altar is the Oratory or Chapel of the Nativity, on whose altar, at that time situated in the Crypt of the Nativity below the main altar of the church itself, Saint Ignatius of Loyola celebrated his first Mass as a priest on 25 December 1538.

Just outside the Sistine Chapel is the tomb of Gianlorenzo Bernini and his family.

The Mannerist interior decoration of the Sistine Chapel was completed (1587-1589) by a large team of artists, directed by Cesare Nebbia and Giovanni Guerra.



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Founded: 432 AD
Category: Religious sites in Italy


4.8/5 (based on Google user reviews)

User Reviews

Ian McKenzie (9 months ago)
Another magnificent cathedral in Rome. This is a papal basilica and one of the 7 pilgrim churches. It sits as part of a large square. This allows for easy walking around the building. Entrance to the church requires passing through a metal detector at a security point, but even with all the tourists present, this did not take too long. This interior of the building is ornate and beautiful. Most of the areas in the main part of the church are accessible, though tourists are asked to be respectful as it is in active use and confession and other services take place throughout the day. It is a popular tourist attraction and there were lots of tour groups present, however, this did not detract from the experience. A bit of patience might be needed to get a clear view of parts of the building, but these are certainly worth the wait.
Anil Korkut (10 months ago)
Gorgeous basilica built in the 5th century. Several burials of popes as well as the head of Bernini family. This church is another must visit as it is filled with ornates and artifacts. Beyond pretty. You do not need a ticket to enter the church but tickets are required for the mass.
Jenny R (Jen) (11 months ago)
One of the most beautiful basilica in Rome. It is on par to the extravagance within the Vatican City, but away from the massive crowd. The decorative frescoes and ceiling works will leave you in awe. It is also a great place to visit if you are a fan of Bernini. As he rest here peacefully.
Brian Saylor (12 months ago)
A must see in any visit to Rome. One of the major basilicas of Rome you will not be disappointed spending some time here. Spend some time looking at the beautiful doors. Below the main altar is said to be the remains of Jesus’ crèche. It is one of Pope Francis’ favorite churches to visit.
Jenny Clate (14 months ago)
This is my favourite Basilica in the whole of Rome. It has unique architectural features and is ornately decorated. It felt so calming and peaceful inside, I spent a long time just sitting. You have to go through a security check to enter the building. There is a small museum in the basement, which you have to pay to enter. It was overpriced considering the small size of the museum. Though it did have interesting artifacts. You can also pay to go on a tour to the top of the Basilica. Tours are in English and Italian. They leave at set times. There is a souvenir shop and toilets.
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