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Santa Maria Maggiore

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Santa Maria Maggiore
Santa maria maggiore 051218-01
English name: Great St Mary's
Dedication: Blessed Virgin Mary
Denomination: Roman Catholic
Type: Papal basilica
Titular church No
National church: No
Built: 5th century
Architect(s): Ferdinando Fuga
Contact data
Address: 42 Piazza di Santa Maria Maggiore

00185 Roma

Phone: 06 44 65 836 / 06 48 14 287
41° 53.849' N 12° 29.929' E

Santa Maria Maggiore is a 5th century papal basilica with a postal address at Via Liberiana 27, which is in the rione Monti. The main entrance is on the Piazza di Santa Maria Maggiore. Pictures of the basilica on Wikimedia Commons are here. An English Wikipedia article is here.


The dedication is to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Alternative names to be found in the sources are Santa Maria della Neve (Our Lady of the Snow) after the foundation legend (see below), and Santa Maria ad Praesepem after the relic of the manger (presepio) which is enshrined here.

The traditional English version of the name is "St Mary Major". This is confusing to many, but it simply means that this is Rome's principal church dedicated to Our Lady (there are very many others).

For historical reasons (see below), the appellation "Liberian Basilica" is also to be found.


This is the junior of the four papal basilicas in Rome, the other three (on order of seniority) being San Giovanni in Laterano, San Pietro in Vaticano and San Paolo fuori le Mura.

In 2006, Pope Benedict XVI abolished the title of “patriarchal basilica” formerly given to these four churches. Before then, this church was traditionally ascribed to the Patriarchate of Antioch.

The basilica is regarded as the most important church worldwide dedicated to Our Lady.

It is served and administered by a Chapter of Canons headed by a cardinal, and has the King of Spain as its secular protector and patron. Unlike the canons at the Lateran, those here are secular priests and not religious.

The ancient parish has been appropriated to the church of Santi Vito e Modesto nearby, so the basilica is no longer parochial.

Since 1929, the basilica has been "extraterritorial". This means that it is part of Italy, but is completely in the care of the Vatican City with the same legal status as a foreign embassy.


Ancient timesEdit

This church is on the ancient Cispius, the main summit of the Esquiline Hill, which in ancient times was not a heavily built-up area.

It was not one of the original tituli, those places of worship putatively descending from the original house-churches used by Rome's Christians in the first two centuries AD. Instead, it was a 4th century foundation. Further, pace earlier publications, it was not on the site of the Macellum Liviae (a known ancient market building in the locality). Also, the 4th century BC temple of Juno Lucina, proposed as a progenitor of the cult of Our Lady (this goddess was a protectress of pregnant women), was not near here but near the church of San Francesco di Paola.

Archaeological investigations under the basilica between 1966 and 1971 revealed a 1st century building made up of a large courtyard, a porticus or colonnade and some ancillary rooms. This measured some 37 by 30 metres, and was six metres below floor level. The entrance was under the present apse of the basilica. On epigraphic evidence, it seems to have belonged to a villa complex of the Neratii family.

The walls were originally revetted in marble, but at some stage in the early 4th century this was removed and replaced with a series of frescoes representing a calendar with a bucolic scene for each month. Then, the fresco work was painted over with a decoration of imitation marble by the third quarter of the 4th century at the latest.

If the conclusion of the archaeologists as regards the last point is correct, then this ancient edifice seems to have post-dated the foundation of the first church traditionally located here. This is an important point.

Liberian BasilicaEdit

According to the Liber Pontificalis, this first church (the so-called Basilica Liberiana or "Liberian Basilica") was founded in the 350s by Pope Liberius. However, the ancient building that the archaeologists found in 1966 was not a basilica -and so it seems that Liberius did not build it on the site of the present church. It might have been immediately to one side, or somewhere in the locality, and only some future lucky archaeological discovery would solve the problem of its location.

A complication is that archaeological investigations under the present apse from 1931 to 1933 revealed foundations in opus vittatum, which at the time were interpreted as belonging to the Liberian Basilica. Another look was taken in 1960, and it seems that the old foundations belong to the apse of Sixtus III.

A further complication is that the name Basilica Sicinini occurs in early sources, such as Ammianus Marcellinus. This seems to refer to an otherwise unknown patron or benefactor called Sicininus. (There is, however, a minority view that the name referred to Santa Maria in Trastevere.)

Foundation legend Edit

According to the legend, the work was financed by a Roman patrician John, and his wife. They were childless, and so had decided to leave their fortune to the Blessed Virgin. She appeared to them in a dream, and told them to build a church in her honour on a site outlined by a miraculous snowfall -this was in August (traditionally in 358). Such a patch of snow was found on the summit of the Esquiline the following morning, and so the church was built.

This is a charming story, but unfortunately there is no trace of it before the second millennium. The first direct documentary reference to it dates from 1288.

A modern surmise is that the legend's odd detail about the snow derived ultimately from the memory of a violent and localised downpour of hail from a severe August thunderstorm. This is entirely possible, since Rome suffers thunderstorms serious enough to spawn tornadoes (there's a video of one here).

Civil war Edit

The death of Pope Liberius caused a civil war among Roman Christians, because no agreed procedure for electing a pope had yet been worked out. Pope St Damasus I and a rival called Ursicinus were elected, and their supporters started to kill each other. Damasus obtained the support of the Imperial government and the possession of the Lateran, but Ursicinus had a strong following in the city and set up a rival court in the Liberian Basilica. After he refused the emperor's order to vacate, the partisans of Damasus laid siege to the basilica and killed over a hundred people inside it. Apparently the besiegers got onto the roof, ripped off the tiles and pelted those inside with them.

There is no record of the church after that, and after such destruction and desecration it might have been abandoned.


Pope Sixtus III built a new church here to commemorate the declaration at the Council of Ephesus in 431 that Our Lady was Mother of God (Theotokos). The nave of this survives structurally intact, and has original mosaic decoration.

It was the first church dedicated to Our Lady in Rome, pre-dating Santa Maria Antiqua by about a century. As such, its original name was simply Sanctae Mariae.

Manger Edit

It is not known how or when the relic of Christ's manger arrived here. In a recording of a donation to the church by one Flavia Xantippa in the 6th century, the name ad Praesepem first appears. The relic was provided with a replica Grotto of Bethlehem, which is thought to have been excavated outside the basilica at its far right hand side (where the Cappella Sistina is now) and provided with an external oratory. Also, it appears that the relics of St Jerome were brought here from Bethlehem and enshrined in the same place; unusually, they have since been mislaid although it is claimed that they are still here "somewhere".

Given the presence nearby of the pilgrimage basilica of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, then simply called "Jerusalem", it seems persuasive that this church was set up as a Roman "Bethlehem". The Oratory of the Grotto was certainly extant by the mid 8th century, although it would not have had an altar then and so was not a chapel. It was mentioned in a Vita of St Winibald, who was in Rome for two years from 721.

The relic of the manger is referred to in Italian as Il Presepe, or Sacra Culla. If you are not very sure of your spoken grasp of the language, be careful of the latter phrase. There is a centuries-old Roman joke originating in the basilica, concerning an English tourist who asked about the Sacro Culo -which means "Holy Arse".

Monastic colony Edit

Rome's dignity as a great city came to an end in circumstances that remain very obscure, but the old idea that the barbarian sacks of the 5th century destroyed its civic identity is now discredited. The Senate and city government continued until the early 7th century. However, one change in circumstances massively altered the surroundings of the basilica. The collapse of the aqueducts meant that only those who able to afford the digging of deep wells could continue to live on the hills, so almost all of the surviving population had migrated down to the Tiber flood-plain and neighbouring small valleys by the 8th century. The vacated land was given over to vineyards (drinking well and river water was very unhealthy) and also monasteries.

The basilica, now ex-urban, became the focus of a monastic colony comprising several monasteries in the last quarter of the first millennium. Many, if not most, of the original monks were refugees from the Iconoclast persecutions in the Byzantine Empire and from the conquests of Islam, and so worshipped in the Eastern rites. The church of Sant'Antonio Abate nearby is the sole survivor of these monasteries, which became important in the 8th century. The basilicas of the Lateran and St Peter's also attracted monasteries in the same way.

The monks at the time would have had liturgical duties in the basilica, but the church itself never became monastic.

(The old tituli of Santa Prassede and Santa Pudenziana in the vicinity also became monastic, the former still functioning as a Vallumbrosan monastery and the latter as a Cistercian monastery until the 19th century.)

Setting of mediaeval basilica Edit

The basilica is now the centre of a system of major streets, but this was not the case in the Middle Ages. By the time the city had settled into its mediaeval built-up area, around the beginning of the 11th century, the ancient street plan around the church had been abandoned and become countryside. Before the Renaissance, the basilica was not on the road to anywhere. The main road of the Via Tiburtina ran from the Suburra neighbourhood along the present Via in Selci (the ancient Clivus Suburanus), through the Arch of Gallienus and so to the Porta Tiburtina and San Lorenzo fuori le Mura. The basilica had a short access drive running south past Santa Prassede to join this road. At the Trofei di Mario was an important road junction, with side roads going off to the Porta Pia, Porta Maggiore and the Lateran, and the last was the only route from the basilica to the Lateran.

The ancient Vicus Patricius, now the Via Urbana, also survived in use in the Middle Ages as a direct route from the Suburra past Santa Pudenziana to the Porta Pia, and there would have been another short road linking the basilica to this. Before it became the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, the massive ruin of the Baths of Diocletian was the haunt of wild animals and robbers.

Fabric of original basilica Edit

Up to the early 9th century, it is thought that the church was much as Pope Sixtus had left it. That is, it was of basilical form with a central nave and side aisles, and a semi-circular apsidal sanctuary at the end of the central nave. There were no side chapels then (apart from the detached Oratory of Bethlehem), and also no transept.

The side aisles were separated from the central nave by two rows of ancient columns of differing sizes and lengths, a total of forty supporting two horizontal entablatures (these columns were subsequently got at by restorers and made uniform). There was a round-headed window above each gap between columns, a total of twenty-one in each nave side wall (half of these were later blocked). The apse originally had five windows.

Mosaics embellished the nave side walls between the entablature and the windows, and over the triumphal arch of the apse (these survive). Further mosaics were in the apse conch and on the counterfaçade (these do not). It is on record that the counterfaçade mosaic incorporated a long dedicatory epigraph destroyed in the 18th century, similar to a surviving one at Santa Sabina.

The original floor was made of scavenged marble revetting slabs, laid irregularly. It is still there, only about 5 cm below the Cosmatesque floor which was laid on top of it.

Documentary evidence also exists that there was an atrium courtyard in front of the entrance originally, such as the other three major basilicas certainly had. The nearby San Clemente has a very good example.

Early middle ages Edit

Alterations to the original fabric began with Pope Paschal I (817-24), who re-arranged the sanctuary. He provided a new high altar with eight steps in porphyry, over a devotional crypt or confessio. Also, the bishop's throne was moved back from the centre of the apse to the far point in its curve. Further, the pope arranged for an odd architectural addition to the apse, described as a porticus or gallery for lady patricians (the technical term is matroneum), from which they could allegedly hear everything that the pope said to his ministers while seated on his throne in the curve of the apse. The architectural arrangement might have been like that to be found now at Sant'Anna al Laterano.

This pope also made major interventions at the nearby Santa Prassede, and you can see him depicted in the main mosaic there.

The church emerges into mediaeval history when Pope St Gregory VII was kidnapped there while celebrating Mass in 1075, by a crew of rebel citizens led by one Cencio I Frangipane. He was rescued the next day. This is an early hint of a mediaeval attitude among ordinary Romans that the basilica belonged especially to them, since Pope Sixtus allegedly built it for them (there is an epigraph in the apse mosaic that supports this view).

The kidnapping was on Christmas Eve, and the pope was celebrating the Vigil Mass of the Nativity in the Oratory of the Grotto. This is the first evidence of a tradition that continued until the 19th century.

In the reign of Pope Eugene III (1145-53), a new external entrance loggia was added with a single-pitched roof on eight Ionic columns arranged in pairs. Also, the extant Cosmatesque pavement was laid in the nave. The names of the patrons of the latter are recorded: Scoto and Giovanni di Paparone. A schola cantorum or choir enclosure was provided for the far end of the nave, together with a pair of ambones or pulpits halfway down the nave for the proclamation of Scripture (a surviving pair is at San Lorenzo fuori le Mura). These lost items also had Cosmatesque decoration.

The external Oratory of Bethlehem was rebuilt on the orders of Pope Innocent III (1198-1216), becoming the Chapel of the Manger (Cappella del Presepe) on the site of the present Cappella Sistina.

13th century Edit

Between 1256 and 1259, two Gothic shrines were erected either side of the sanctuary. The left hand one was donated by Giacomo and Vinia Capocci, and was for the famous and venerated icon of Our Lady, Salus Populi Romani. The other one was sponsored by the Senate and People of Rome (Senatus Populusque Romae -SPQR), and was used for exhibiting the relic of the Manger for veneration.

The icon was probably originally painted for the basilica in the 12th century, although an 8th century Byzantine provenance has also been claimed. A tradition grew up that it had been painted by St Luke, but this derives from the legend of the original icon of the Theotokos Hodegetria at Constantinople.

There was a major intervention under Pope Nicholas IV (1288-92), who demolished and rebuilt the apse of the church. This got rid of Paschal's matroneum. A slightly larger new apse was provided, not circular but polygonal with five sides and with four windows pointed in the Gothic style. A transept was erected immediately in front of the apse, slightly wider than the combined nave and aisles.

The new apse conch was provided with a magnificent mosaic, which survives. Also, the entrance façade over the loggia was embellished with mosaics as part of the same project. The transept was apparently going to receive a fresco cycle, but work was interrupted. A small part of the decoration survives high up in the far left hand corner, and features tondi with portraits of saints and prophets. The artist is unknown. A fragment of a scene of the Creation of Adam suggests that the left hand end of the transept was to be illustrated with scenes from the Old Testament, and the opposite end with some from the New.

The Chapel of the Manger was also re-fitted and embellished by Arnolfo di Cambio. This widely admired work was later destroyed accidentally, but some crib figures survive and are now in the museum. It had a vault in mosaic, and a Cosmatesque floor.

14th century Edit

As the "People's Basilica", the church was the setting for the coronation of Cola di Rienzo as Tribune of Rome after he briefly succeeded in overthrowing the papal government on behalf of the citizens in 1347. The popes were residing at Avignon at the time, and law and order in Rome had collapsed. The abbot of San Paolo fuori le Mura was nominally in charge, but in practice the local nobility were terrorising and exploiting the population.

The church was damaged in an earthquake in the following year, and restored by 1377. The right hand campanile was damaged and became dangerous, and so was rebuilt by Pope Gregory XI on his return to Rome from Avignon. This is over the first bay of the right hand side aisle.

There was, however, also a second campanile, over the corresponding bay of the left hand aisle -hence the church façade used flanked by two campanili. However, this second one was much less impressive. It was a brick tower reaching to just below the roofline of the façade, followed by a bellchamber with three arched openings on each face. It has a little pedimented kiosk on top by the start of the 17th century, but was destroyed in the 18th century restoration. (It is thought that the original pair of campanili was erected in the 12th century, but the first documentary reference to bells dates to the late 13th century.)

Renaissance Edit

Up to the 15th century, the roofs of the nave and aisles in the interior were open. In 1455, Pope Callixtus III had the central nave covered by a flat coffered wooden ceiling allegedly designed by Giuliano da Sangallo, which would have been amazing since he was only ten at the time. The story is that the later gilding was done using the first shipment of gold to Spain from the conquered Inca Empire, presented to Pope Alexander VI (1492-1503) by Ferdinand and Isabella. Both popes belonged to the Borgia family, hence its heraldry is displayed in the ceiling.

The side aisles were vaulted on the orders of Cardinal Guillaume d'Estouteville (1443-83). The cardinal also commissioned a new baldacchino or high altar canopy, and relief panels from this by Mino del Reame are now on the apse wall. As part of this restoration project, two entrances flanking the apse were opened and side chapels in the ends of the transept fitted out.

By this period, the sacristy and other ancillary accommodation for the church were located in a huddle of structures next to the bottom end of the right hand aisle. Most of these have gone but the Chapel of St Michael survives as the shop, and has frescoes by the school of Piero della Francesca. This is the oldest surviving side chapel, and was evidently built or re-fitted at this time. Accommodation for the canons was located in another two-storey block to the left of the entrance portico.

The Sack of Rome in 1527 despoiled the Chapel of the Manger. As the main focus of devotion here it had become a treasure-house, and had altar gates of silver, an altar frontal of beaten gold and a golden statue of the Madonna and Child weighing over two kilograms. All were lost.

Further external side chapels began to be added to the basilica itself soon after, with access arranged by the simple expedient of knocking a hole through the ancient aisle side wall. The Cappella Cesi was first, about 1550, and the Cappella Sforza next door followed in 1573. The latter was allegedly designed by Michelangelo.

Sixtus V Edit

The basilica saw massive patronage by Pope Sixtus V (1585-90), who began work on the Cappella Sistina in the year before his election when he was still Cardinal Felice Peretti. This was primarily intended as his mortuary chapel, but doubled up as the basilica's Blessed Sacrament Chapel. The architect was Domenico Fontana, who used some of the polychrome marble spolia available from the demolition of the ancient Septizodium. The result was an edifice that could count as a church in its own right -if it were free-standing.

The old and much admired Cappella del Presepe by Arnolfo di Cambio was in the way, and the initial intention was to move it to the centre of the new chapel. Unfortunately, the attempt failed and the structure fell to pieces. The mosaics and Cosmatesque work were destroyed, but the crib figures were scavenged and so survive.

The pope also ordered new roads to be built to improve access to the basilica. To provide a direct link between the city centre and the church he laid out the Via Painisperna. The Via Merulana (actually begun by his predecessor, Pope Gregory XIII) linked the basilica with the Lateran. Then, the Strada Felice was built to Trinita dei Monti. The works were overseen by Domenico Fontana. A large formal piazza was laid out to the north of the basilica, and an obelisk provided in 1587 that was sourced from the Mausoleum of Augustus.

To make way for this piazza, the present Piazza Esquilino, the old church of San Luca was demolished. This had been the home of the city's confraternity of painters, and in compensation they were given the church of Santa Martina in the Forum. The painters took the dedication with them, hence their church is now Santi Luca e Martina.

After the pope died, the ongoing work of restoration was completed by Cardinal Domenico Pinelli in 1593. His heraldry was inserted into the Cosmatesque floor. One last work accomplished was to replace nine of the 5th century mosaic panels on the nave side walls with works in fresco, owing to the fact that they had fallen off or were about to do so. Unfortunately, the frescoes did not copy the lost panels.

17th century Edit

The Cappella Sistina received its twin, the Cappella Paolina, at the start of the 17th century. This was intended as the mortuary chapel of Pope Paul V, and was begun in 1605. The structure was completed in 1611, but decorative work went on for another five years. The architect was Flaminio Ponzio.

As part of the chapel's construction, the colonnade outside it was altered by moving two columns apart and inserting an arch into the wall above. The same was done for the Cappella Sistina opposite. Unfortunately, six of the 5th century mosaic panels were destroyed as a result.

The pope also commissioned Ponzio to do something about the mediaeval sacristy wing, which must have become an embarrassment by then. He demolished the old baptistry and sacristy, and replaced them with a new multi-storey block also including a set of papal apartments. Unfortunately, the frontage of this protruded beyond the façade of the basilica and was in line with the colonnade of the entrance portico -aesthetically very unfortunate. An engraving of the result is here.

Pope Paul commissioned Carlo Maderno to erect the Colonna della Pace in front of the basilica, with a statue of Our Lady on top.

However, it seems that the intention in the 17th century was to focus on the back end of the basilica as the focus of the church's monumental civic presence. In 1669, Bernini was appointed by Pope Clement IX to remodel the apse -the Gothic windows were well out of fashion. Bernini's proposal included a surrounding colonnade, but Clement X, the next pope, cancelled the project owing to the proposed expense. In 1673, Carlo Rainaldi was appointed to execute a scaled-back project. This involved exterior cladding being added to the old apse instead of its replacement, the alteration of the exteriors of the windows and the adding of a symmetrical frontage to the transept. This was extended to front the sacristy block of the Cappella Paolina to the right (the church's left) and a large aula adjacent to the Cappella Sistina. Rainaldi then added the impressive, curving sweep of stairs in front. His work has remained unchanged.

18th century Edit

A major restoration was ordered by Benedict XIV (1740-58), who chose Ferdinando Fuga as the architect. The work took several years from 1741. The entrance frontage of the church had been very unsatisfactory for over a century, so Fuga built another five-storey ancillary block to the left of the basilica's façade, matching that put up by Ponzio to the right. To erect this he demolished the two-storey mediaeval accommodation block for the canons which had survived till then. He also connected the two blocks with a new façade built in front of the old one. This incorporated a second-storey Loggia of Blessings over the entrance portico, and fortunately the old mosaic on the original façade was mostly left alone. It survives on the back wall of the loggia.

Oddly, the sculptural works included in the new façade and entrance loggia are poorly documented.

In the sanctuary Fuga provided a new baldacchino in 1749, and preserved some of the reliefs from the mediaeval one by attaching them to the apse wall. He also built a new Chapel of the Crucifix (also known as the Chapel of the Relics) off the right hand aisle. The Cosmatesque floor of the nave was carefully restored, and missing areas replaced with new. One patch of new work bears the date 1750, a Jubilee year for which the church's restoration was finished.

Fuga also re-vamped the colonnades. Previously, the ancient columns had been used as found by the original 5th century builders of the basilica and were of differing lengths and widths. Uniformity was achieved by packing the bases as needed. Fuga carefully removed the columns one by one, pared down the thicker ones and cut short the longer ones so that the set was uniform. Then he provided a new set of bases, and new capitals. So, although the nave side walls are ancient and bear their original mosaics (mostly), the colonnades actually count as 18th century.

There seems to have been an intention also to provide a left-hand campanile to match that on the right, but all that happened is that the old one on the left was demolished.

Modern times Edit

Not much has been done in the way of alterations to the basilica since.

In 1825, Giuseppe Valadier created a baptistry out of what used to be the choir chapel of the canons.

In 1864, the confessio of the high altar was refitted by Virginio Vespignani, with the assistance of Francesco Podesti.

In 1883, the Via Cavour was opened. This finally gave the basilica an adequate access from the city centre.

Attention needed to the roof of the transept in 1931 led to the discovery of fragments of 13th century wall frescoes hidden by the 15th century vault. This restoration went on until 1933 and also involved the aula in the far right hand corner, which bears an epigraph on its frieze recording the fact. In 1932, the baldacchino of the high altar was chopped down in order to improve the view of the apse mosaic behind.

A major restoration of the Cappella Sistina was carried out in the early 21st century, and the chapel was closed for several years.


Layout and fabric Edit

The ancient brick fabric of the original basilica is completely invisible from the outside, owing to later accretions.

The central nave has a single pitched and tiled roof, and a second roof with a transverse gable covers the transept. The apse has a semi-dome in lead (invisible from the street). The mediaeval campanile is over the first bay of the right hand aisle.

The entrance façade has an open portico in the first storey, and a Loggia of Blessings over this in the second. This contains 13th century mosaics. The façade is flanked by two identical ancillary blocks, the right hand one containing the sacristy and the papal apartments and the left hand one the ceremonial stairs to the Loggia of Blessings. This left hand block is continued down the left hand side of the church as a five-storey accommodation wing, and joins onto the Cappella Paolina. It conceals two large side chapels (the Cappella Sforza and Cappella Cesi).

The right hand ancillary block is not so extended down the right hand side, and so the Cappella Sistina is free-standing. There is a screen wall here instead, delimiting a courtyard in which privileged members of the basilica staff can park their cars.

More ancillary accommodation occupies the far corners beyond the two large domed chapels (Sistina and Paolina), and the far frontages of these are incorporated into the apse façade which is mostly clad in travertine limestone.

Apse frontage Edit

This monumental apse frontage by Rainaldi 1673 is arguably more impressive than the entrance façade, and is the first part of the church you will see if you arrive by the Via Cavour.

The obelisk in front is one of a pair that used to embellish the Mausoleum of Augustus, which was discovered fallen and buried in three pieces in 1519. It was repaired and re-erected here in 1587, on the orders of Pope Sixtus V. Its companion is now in the Piazza del Quirinale. These two are about 14.75 metres high, and bear no hieroglyphs. Hence they are not Pharaonic, and it is uncertain whether they were quarried in Aswan, Egypt to order for the mausoleum or were left-over builders' stock after the temple-building campaigns of the Ptolemaic dynasty.

The apse of the church is set into an impressive symmetrical composition, which is best viewed by the Via Cavour. There, the octagonal lead domes of the two side chapels are visible on their high drums, each side of which has a large rectangular window with a segmental pediment. Interestingly, the two domes are almost identical but not quite -the little lead cupolas of the lanterns are slightly different. Rainaldi actually composed the design with this viewpoint in mind; as you get closer, the dome drops from view and the impression unfortunately then becomes one of a rather hulking mass of masonry.

Rainaldi dealt with the hill slope by installing an impressively wide and curved set of stairs, in two flights. These are now (2014) behind moveable railings, and are inaccessible. Presumably this is to prevent people sitting on them.

The apse itself has four windows round-headed on the outside, separated by Corinthian pilasters in shallow relief which support an entablature. These windows have molded frames, and omega cornices supported by strap brackets. Below each window is an almost square blank panel, in relief within a frame. The front of the apse has no window, but instead an epigraph detailing the restoration by Pope Clement X. Above is his coat-of-arms, borne by angels. The roofline has a pin balustrade which conceals the lead semi-dome of the apse conch, and incorporated in this are plinths for five statues by Francesco Fancelli (1624-81), a local Roman sculptor. This set is his major surviving work. King David and SS Peter, Paul and Dominic are represented.

Flanking the apse are two doorways with raised triangular pediments, which lead into the far ends of the basilica's side aisles. Above these is a pair of almost square windows with omega cornices over a star emblem, derived from the heraldry of Pope Clement. The entablature of the apse is continued on both sides over the entire façade, and above this behind the apse is the back wall of the transept which has more framed blank panels and a pin balustrade.

The pair of protruding two-storey zones flanking these entrance doorways themselves contain two doorways with segmental pediments, which lead into the ancillary accommodation on each side. There is a pair of Corinthian pilasters on the first storey of each, and a pair of Doric ones on the second. The first storey has a window with a triangular pediment, but the second storey has a window with an omega cornice over a scallop shell.

Finally, the ancillary accommodation frontages each have four Corinthian pilasters supporting the entablature over which is another pin balustrade. In between the capitals are putto's heads with swags. Two rectangular windows with segmental pediments flank a large tablet, the left hand one bearing an epigraph recording the work of Pope Sixtus V and the right hand one that of Pope Paul V. Here the symmetricity of the façade breaks down, because the right hand tablet is embellished with three heraldic shields which for some reason were never provided for the left hand one.

It might have been that the missing shields were removed by the French occupiers at the end of the 18th century, since they certainly defaced papal heraldry elsewhere on the exterior of the basilica.

Unlike the central part of the façade, which is entirely clad in limestone, these two ancillary frontages are rendered in yellow ochre behind the architectural details. The ancillary frontage on the right, fronting the sacristies of the Cappella Paolina, was actually designed and erected by Ponzio and Rainaldi used it as an inspiration for his own design. Especially, the pin balustrades are a Ponzio feature and occur elsewhere in the basilica's fabric.

Cappella Paolina frontage Edit

From the apse, the Cappella Paolina is to the right. First comes the side of the ancillary block by Ponzio, which actually contains the sacristy of the chapel. This has a very similar design to its frontage flanking the apse, except that there is a central statue allegedly by Giovanni Antonio Paracca, Il Valsoldo, of St Jerome as a hermit in the Syrian Desert, under a triangular pediment. Also, the frontage here is on an enormously high plinth.

The slightly earlier frontage of the chapel itself, by Ponzio 1611, is two-storeyed, the lower storey forming three sides of a hexagon on a plinth of the same height. The central portion has four Corinthian pilasters supporting the entablature, with a large tablet proclaiming the construction of the chapel by Pope Paul V which is topped by three heraldic shields having defaced heraldry as well as a six-winged putto's head representing a seraph. The tablet is flanked by a pair of statues in round-headed niches with segmental pediments, having smaller tablets above them with the names of the saints (not easy to read). The narrower diagonal zones to each side each have a statue and two pilasters.

The left hand side statue is of St Luke, holding the icon of Salus Populi Romani which he allegedly painted. This has also been attributed to Il Valsoldo, but there are serious doubts about his responsibility for this statue and that of St Jerome because he is now thought to have died in 1599.

The left hand central statue is of St Matthew by Francesco Mochi, the right hand central one is of St Matthias by "Andrea Sonsino" (?) with the battle-axe with which he was allegedly martyred, and the right hand side one is of St Epaphras by Stefano Maderno with the assistance of Francesco Caporale. St Matthias is here because his alleged relics are under the high altar. It is nowadays thought that Maderno and Caporale were responsible for his statue, too.

The second storey of the chapel displays its Greek cross plan, and is embellished with Doric pilasters.

Beyond the chapel is the frontage of the canons' palazzo, a good 18th century late Baroque five-storey façade by Fuga in red brick with stone details. The two entrances (the left hand one blocked up) have arched portals under nested pediments, a triangular one within a segmental one. These are supported on brackets with triglyphs. The lintels bear the name of Pope Benedict XIV. The fourth storey windows have little pin balustrades, except for an anomalous one on the right which is actually the back window of the Cappella Sforza. The balustrades are imitating the work of Ponzio on the right hand sacristy block of the basilica, over a century earlier.

Cappella Sistina frontage Edit

From the apse, the Cappella Sistina is to the left. The frontage of the ancillary block here actually differs from the corresponding frontage next to the Cappella Paolina. There is no central statue, but a window instead. Also, the pilasters have doubletting strips. There is an epigraph on the frieze of the entablature, proclaiming a major restoration in 1933 under the aegis of Pope Pius XI: An. Iub. MCMXXXIII Pii XI P. M. XII a mundo Red. MCM.

The chapel is separated from the street by a stone screen wall, delineating the former carriage yard of the basilica (now basically a car park). The chapel itself, by Fontana 1685, displays its Greek-cross plan in its exterior. The street frontage differs substantially from that of its twin, and has two storeys. The first storey has four Corinthian pilasters with doubletting and tripletting strips, with a central framed panel having a segmental pediment which looks like a blocked window. The second storey, above the entablature, has four blind pediments (without capitals) supporting a roofline entablature. The roof around the dome drum is flat.

You can see the surviving mediaeval fabric of the Chapel of St Michael peeping over the screen wall next to the Cappella Sistina.

Next is the sacristy block, by Ponzio and built at the same time as the Cappella Paolina. It displays a relief panel with the coat-of-arms of Pope Paul V.

Column of Peace Edit

The Colonna della Pace in front of the basilica used to belong to the Basilica of Maxentius in the Forum, and is a gigantic ribbed Corinthian monolith, described as being of Parian marble. It was erected here on its very high plinth by Carlo Maderno in 1614, on the orders of Pope Paul V. Two eagles and two dragons in bronze adorn the plinth, which derive from the pope's family of the Borghese. The statue of the Immaculate Conception on top is in cast bronze which was formerly gilded, and the wax model for it was by Guillaume Berthelot. The actual caster was Orazio Censore.

The fountain accompanying the column is by Carlo Maderno, but is not in its original form. It used to be embellished with more Borghese heraldry, but this has been removed.

Campanile Edit

The mostly Romanesque campanile or bell-tower is the highest one in Rome, at 75 metres. It was rebuilt between 1370 and 1378 on the orders of Pope Gregory XI on his return to Rome from Avignon, replacing an earlier one damaged in an earthquake. It is over the first bay of the right hand side aisle, and rests on the ancient foundations there. The steep pyramidal cap was added when Pope Paul V had the tower restored, and there was another restoration under Pius VII (1800-23). A major problem was lightning strikes, and this pope ordered a lightning conductor fitted.

The red brick tower has six storeys, but only four are visible above the façade. Each of these four upper storeys used to have arched openings on each face, but the lower two have had theirs blocked and the second one up now contains the basilica's public clock. Above the clock face is the heraldry of Pope Paul V again.

The storeys are separated by decorative cornices, formed from modillions in marble in between dentillations in brick. A matching string course connects the arch springers in each storey. Originally, each face of each storey had a row of five coloured ceramic dishes set into the fabric above the arches, each surrounded by a recessed circular frame, with two others flanking the arches and one in between them. Many of these dishes have perished, and some are obscured. Most were green. The idea was to provide a cheap alternative to the old practice of sawing decorative discs from ancient columns of rare stones, usually porphyry or green serpentine.

The first visible storey has two blocked Gothic (that is, pointed) arches on each face -that is why the campanile is "mostly" Romanesque. The second storey has a pair of double arches, blocked up. The third storey has these arches in their original state, each pair being separated by a marble column. The top storey has these two pairs of arches set within two larger arches, the tympani of which have each a stone quatrefoil opening (another Gothic hint).

The oldest bell that the campanile had was a famous one called La Sperduta, dated 1289. This is no longer used, but has been in the Vatican Museums since the early 20th century. The story is that the odd name, "The Lost One", derives from its having been donated by a pilgrim who was lost in the vicinity on a dark night and who oriented himself by means of the basilica's bells being rung. (This is interesting evidence about how dangerous a wilderness this part of the city was in the 13th century.) The tradition has been maintained through the centuries of ringing this bell (now its replacement) at 21:00 each evening.


The façade was designed in 1743 by Ferdinando Fuga, on the orders of Pope Benedict XIV. He employed a strong chiaroscuro effect, a play on light and shadows, in his design of the central section which fronts the ancient façade of the basilica. Below is the entrance portico, and above is a so-called Loggia of Blessings from which the pope could bless a crowd in the piazza.

What Fuga started with was the block containing the sacristy and papal apartments to the right, which was already a hundred and thirty years old and was by Flaminio Ponzio. He decided to match this with a symmetrical block to the left, and connect the two buildings with his two-storey loggia. Unfortunately the pope did not like the result very much and thought it frivolous, and art critics since have sometimes been unkind. Pope Benedict allegedly said:Si credette fossimo impresari di teatro perché sembra una sala da ballo.

The façade and the two flanking blocks are certainly very different in style, but Fuga tried to unite them by giving the combined roofline a pin balustrade (a feature that Ponzio had already provided for his block).

The flanking frontages display two gigantic matching coats-of-arms supported by angels. The 18th century one on the left is anonymous, but the 17th century one on the right is by Nicolas Cordier and Ambrogio Buonvicino. The latter is of much better quality.

The actual façade of the basilica has two storeys, and is entirely in travertine limestone. It has five rectangular portals, separated by six rectangular piers. The two on each side have an applied semi-column, with the combined capitals done in Ionic style. However the central pair of piers differ, in that their inner sections are replaced by free-standing Ionic columns flanking the portal and that they have full columns in front instead of semi-columns.

The piers support an entablature with a dentillated cornice, and the columns and semi-columns support six posts in front of this. These posts support three pediments over the entablature, the flanking ones being triangular and with scallop shells in their tympani and the central one being segmental. The latter is over the coat-of-arms of Pope Benedict XV, which defaces the entablature. On the triangular pediments are pairs of putti with Papal emblems, but on the central pediment sit two allegorical figures. Humility is by Pietro Bracci, and Chastity by Giovanni Battista Maini. The pairs of putti are by Pieter Antoon Verschaffelt (left) and René-Michel Slodtz (right).

These pediments are in front of the attic plinth of the second storey, also with six posts. In between the pediments the attic is embellished with two floral swags. The posts support six plinths, with a pin balustrade between them. The outer two plinths have a pair of statues, but the inner four support Corinthian semi-columns (outer pair) and columns (inner pair), which themselves support four posts in front of an entablature with a dedicatory epigraph mentioning the pope. On this entablature is a second pin balustrade, the one that runs along the rooflines of the flanking blocks, and this balustrade contains four plinths for statues.

The outer pair of statues are of Bl Nicholas Albergati by Filippo Della Valle to the left, and St Charles Borromeo by Francesco Queirolo to the right.

The second storey only fronts the central nave of the basilica, hence is narrower. In between the outer pair of statues and its sides are a pair of understated concave sweeps. In between the semi-columns and columns are three large arched portals opening into the Loggia of Blessings. The two flanking ones have arches with molded archivolts springing from Doric imposts and fitting under the entablature, but the central one is much larger. It has a pair of free-standing columns supporting the archivolt, which rises through the entablature into a crowning triangular pediment. Defacing the keystone is a large stucco relief of the Holy Spirit in Glory. Finally, the central finial is replaced by a statue of the Madonna and Child on a high Baroque plinth.

This statue of Our Lady is by Giuseppe Lironi, and the Holy Spirit is by Filippo Della Valle 1743.

The four statues of popes are a problem. The identities of the popes concerned are uncertain, as seem to be the proper attributions to the four sculptors responsible. They were: Agostino Corsini, Carlo Monaldi, Bernardino Ludovisi and Carlo Marchionni. Roma Antica e Moderna published in 1750 gives them as the sculptors of the statues in that order, left to right. Info.roma thinks that the statue by Monaldi is of Pope St Gregory the Great, that Corsini's is of Pope Benedict XIV, that Ludovisi's is of Pope Sixtus III (with doubt expressed) and that Marchionni's is of Pope Paschal I.

Epigraph of Pope Eugene III Edit

When Fuga built his portico, he had to demolish the 12th century portico put up by Pope Eugene III (1145-53). This had a horizontal roofline entablature supported by eight Ionic columns arranged in pairs, and with a dedicatory epigraph on its frieze. Fuga had the sense to preserve the inscription, which he affixed to a side wall of the sacristy block where it survives. It reads:

Tertius Eugenius, romanus p[a]p[a] benignus, obtulit hoc munus, Virgo, tibi, qu[a]e Mater [Ch]risti fieri merito meruisti, salva perpetua virginitate tibi, es via, vita, salus totius gl[ori]a mundi, da venia[m] culpis virginitatis hono[s] ("Eugenius III, blessed Roman pope, offered this sacred gift to you Virgin, who deservedly merited to be the Mother of Christ. Perpetual virginity was preserved for you, you who are the life, salvation and glory of the whole world, give healing to the guilty, O honour of virginity ").

Portico and loggia Edit

Entrance portico Edit

When Fuga rebuilt the portico, he kept and re-used the eight ancient columns of the mediaeval portico that he demolished. Four of these are in grey granite, and four in red.

The lower portico fronts five separate entrance doors. The middle three open into the central nave of the basilica, and the far right hand one leads into the campanile. The one on the far left hand side leads into the left hand aisle, and is the Holy Door which is only open during Jubilees (Holy Years).

There is a doorway in the left hand end, which gives access to the formal staircase leading to the Loggia of Blessings. (However, you cannot go up by this route, but only via the museum). When Vespignani refitted the confessio in the 19th century, he moved some mediaeval reliefs and memorials to here. Angeli listed four memorial slabs of bishops of the 15th century, one effigy of a bishop of the same century and a memorial with bust dated 1690.

Here now also is a large seated statue in bronze of Pope Paul V by Paolo Sanquirico 1620, which used to be in what is now the shop (Chapel of St Michael). This important work had been neglected, but was recently restored. A gallery of photos is here.

At the right hand end of the portico is a bronze statue of King Philip IV of Spain, by Girolamo Lucenti 1692 to a design by Bernini.

The barrel vault is attractively decorated in a geometric design in cream, light grey and gold, the pattern being based on a six-pointed star containing a rosette. The central bay has a little cupola with square coffering, having the Monogram of Our Lady in the middle. The pendentives have plant fronds, of four different species including rose and olive. The stucco details are by Della Valle.

The central bronze door dates from 1949, is by Lodovico Pogliaghi. He actually begun work on the wax model in 1937, but the actual casting was twelve years later. The figurative panels depict episodes from the life of Our Lady, framed by images of prophets, Evangelists and four women of the Old Testament who prefigure her. The main panels are, from bottom to top and left to right, The Birth of Our Lady, The Presentation of Our Lady, The Annunciation, The Visitation, The Nativity, The Assumption, The Crucifixion, The Deposition, Pentecost and The Ascension of Christ.

The bronze Holy Door was blessed by Pope St John Paul II on 8 December, 2001, after the Millennium Jubilee. It is by Luigi Enzo Mattei, and was paid for by by the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre. The main panels depict the Risen Christ appearing to Our Lady (an old tradition, not in the Bible, has it that she was the first person to whom he appeared after his Resurrection). The right hand side depicting Christ is modelled after the image on the Shroud of Turin, and the left hand one shows Our Lady as modelled on the icon Salus Populi Romani. In the upper left corner is a depiction of the Annunciation at the Well at Nazareth, a story drawn from apocryphal Gospels, while on the right there is a depiction of Pentecost. The lower corners show, on the left, the Council of Ephesus which proclaimed Mary as Theotokos (Mother of God) and, on the right, the Second Vatican Council which declared her to be Mater Ecclesiae (Mother of the Church). The coat-of-arms of Pope St John Paul II, as well as his motto Totus Tuus, is above the door, while the two shields further down are those of Cardinal Carlo Furno, archpriest of the Basilica in 2001, and of the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre. (The Cardinal was Grand Master of the Knights as well, hence their patronage.)

Over the doors are four sculptured relief panels. The sculptors and subjects are given as, left to right: Lironi, Pope St Martin I and the Exarch Olympius; Maini, Pope St Gelasius I Oversees the Burning of Heretical Books; Bracci, Pope St Hilary Holds a Council; and Ludovisi, John the Patrician and Pope Liberius.

Loggia of Blessings Edit

Access to the Loggia of Blessings is via the museum, and is included in the ticket.

The loggia has a simply decorated barrel vault, with cut-away lunettes exposing the parts of the mediaeval mosaic that would otherwise be covered by it. This vault springs from corbels decorated with putti by Filippo Della Valle.

There are now four stucco angels looking rather out of place here, with gilded clothing and holding sprays of vegetation. They are by Pietro Bracci, and were executed in 1749 for the new baldacchino provided by Fuga for the high altar. However, in 1932 it was decided that the top of the baldacchino should be chopped off to improve the view of the apse mosaic, and so the angels were banished. They were lucky to survive.

From the loggia, one can see San Giovanni in Laterano in the distance at the other end of the ruler-straight Via Merulana.

Loggia mosaic Edit

The famous late 13th century mosaic here used to decorate the façade of the basilica above its old portico, before Fuga built his new portico and loggia in front of it. It dates from the restoration ordered by Pope Nicholas IV (1288-92), and was (at least in part) executed by Filippo Rusuti. He was a pupil of the Jacopo Torriti who executed the apse mosaic. There are two registers, the upper one being signed by Rusuti -there are, however, doubts about the lower register, on the grounds of style and workmanship. Gaddo Gaddi has been suggested as the artist here. The work was completed in 1308.

Note how the wall behind the upper register curves out slightly -this is a cavetto cornice, and was provided so that the mosaic was not foreshortened in the view of anyone standing just in front of the old mediaeval portico. The lower register contains an oculus or round window, a feature of the original 5th century basilica.

The centre of the upper register depicts Christ as Pantocrator (Ruler of All), in a traditional Byzantine style. He sits on a scarlet cushion on a richly decorated throne and holds a book, which displays the text Ego sum lux mundi, qui... ("I am the light of the world who [takes away the sins of the world]."). The background is dark blue with golden stars and is bounded by a pale blue circle or tondo, which represents the entire Universe.

On the lower part of the band around the tondo is Rusuti's signature: Phillipo Rusuti fecit hoc opus. This signature was an example of a new trend towards individuality in producing artworks for churches in the 13th century. In ancient times artists had often signed their works, but in the early Middle Ages those responsible for church decoration had usually seen themselves as part of a workshop, rather than as individual creative artists needing recognition. The Cosmati family are another good example of early signers.

Four angels accompany the tondo with Christ's image, two of them holding candlesticks. By the feet of these two angels are two small figures, depicting Cardinals Pietro and Jacopo Colonna who oversaw the completion of the mosaic after Pope Nicholas had died. (The family's shield is depicted four times around the oculus, but the dedicatory inscription that used to be above it was destroyed by Fuga.)

To the sides of the central depiction are Our Lady, Apostles and saints. The saints are identified by means of Latin inscriptions, but the Virgin Mary is identified with a Greek lettering, a contracted form of Mater Theou (Mother of God). Closest to Christ are the Virgin and St John the Baptist. Further to the left are SS Paul, James the Great and Jerome (the last included because his relics were thought to be somewhere in the church). To the right of St John are SS Peter, Andrew and Matthew. Above are symbols of the Evangelists.

This depiction is a deesis, and is a type of artwork that is usually only found associated with the sanctuary of a church. The effect of having it on the façade was to turn the whole piazza into a locality for worship when the great pilgrim processions of the Middle Ages reached it on the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin. While the dogma was only defined solemnly in 1950, the Feast and the doctrine it is based on go back to at least before the year 500, and it was (and remains) the most important Marian celebration in the calendar of the Catholic Church. In the Middle Ages, the Pope would celebrate Mass from the portico on that day.

The lower register has scenes from the foundation legend of the basilica. The style of clothes and the papal insignia depicted belong to the 14th century, rather than to the 4th century when the events allegedly took place, but this was standard practice in mediaeval representations. There are four scenes: The Dream of Pope Liberius, The Dream of the Patrician John, John Recounts His Dream to the Pope and The Pope Outlines the Plan of the Basilica in the Snow.

The mosaic can sometimes be seen from the piazza outside if the light is just right, but you will then only discern a small part of it. You are strongly recommended to have a closer look by buying a museum ticket. Guided tours are also available, and are advertised online.


Layout Edit

The basilical plan has been well preserved inside. The edifice has a nave with side aisles. Then comes a shallow transept, and finally an external semi-circular apse. The overall length of the interior is 86 metres.

The high altar with its confessio is at the far end of the nave, with the transept actually behind it -this is unusual. Originally, the 5th century basilica did not have any transept. The reason was that the main purpose of one in early church design was to provide space for pilgrims flocking to a saint's shrine. In the case of this basilica, however, the main focus was not on a tomb (such as those of the Apostles Peter and Paul in San Pietro in Vaticano and San Paolo fuori le mura), but on the liturgical veneration of Our Lady. Mary had been assumed body and soul into Heaven, and therefore she has left no relics of her body to be venerated. There is a monument near Ephesus in Turkey known as the House of Mary, but the idea that she died and was buried here only goes back to the 19th century. The Tomb of Mary in Jerusalem is a church in which her empty sepulchre is venerated -the more traditional location of her Assumption.

The transept was added by Pope Nicholas IV (1288-1292) when he had the apse rebuilt.

Unlike other old Roman churches which might have a number of external side chapels, the basilica has a few very large ones. The two enormous papal mortuary chapels of the Cappella Sistina and Cappella Paolina could count as churches in their own right -in fact, the latter is the basilica's location for saying ordinary Masses. They are through the archways cut into the side colonnades in 1611. To the left are two other large chapels, and to the right one smaller one. Most of the near right hand side is taken up by a wing containing the sacristy and baptistry, with the Papal apartments on the first floor above. The mediaeval Chapel of St Michael is accessed through the baptistry, and is now the shop. The museum is accessed through this in turn.


Originally the nave had twenty-one bays, flanked by colonnades containing a total of forty-two Ionic columns supporting an entablature rather than arcades (this arrangement is known as a trabeation). Thirty-eight of the columns are of Hymettian marble sourced from near Athens in Greece, while the other four are in grey granite. It is certain that they are spolia, and probably came from more than one ancient Roman building since they were not originally a matching set. They look uniform now, but that is because Fuga in the 18th century pared down the thicker ones and shortened the longer ones in order to match them up. The Ionic capitals and the bases are also by him, so the colonnades are really 18th century.

The regularity of the column spacing was disturbed twice in the basilica's history. The first event was when two campanili were built at the near ends of the aisles, probably in the 12th century. Blocking walls were inserted into the first two bays in order to support these, and the first pair of columns moved back (they are still there, but incorporated into the walls). The second intervention was in 1611, when the two large arches were cut into the nave walls in front of the papal chapels and the columns to each side shuffled back. Fuga put the four granite ones here in his restoration.

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The columns of Athenian marble were possibly reused from the first basilica

The entablature supported by the columns has a scrollwork design on its frieze and modillions (little brackets) on its cornice. In between the modillions the cornice displays a star and a pine cone in turn. Above the cornice the nave side walls each have a row of Corinthian pilasters, originally one above each column, which support the second entablature on which the ceiling now rests. Originally also there was a round-headed window between each pair of pilasters, but half were blocked in 1593 and given frescoes instead (twenty-two in total). The frieze of this second entablature is embellished with scrollwork containing putti and bulls (the bull is an emblem of the Borgia family), and the lower parts of the ribbed pilasters are gilded.

Below these windows and former windows are original 5th century mosaics depicting Old Testament scenes, which makes them the oldest surviving cycle of Christian mosaic panels in a church in Rome. (There are older single mosaics, such as the one in the apse of Santa Pudenziana nearby which is fifty years older.) They were once thought to have belonged to the Liberian Basilica originally and to have been re-used, but later research has firmly dated their creation to 432440, that is the pontificate of Pope Sixtus III. The reason for the original idea is a puzzle as to what the themes (the stories of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and Moses) are actually doing in a church dedicated to Our Lady. The style of the depictions is Classical, that is pre-Byzantine.

Nave floor Edit

In the reign of Pope Eugene III (1145-53), the extant exquisitely intricate Cosmatesque floor in the central nave was laid. The names of the patrons are recorded: Scoto and Giovanni di Paparone. This pavement was restored in 1593 by Cardinal Pinelli, and again by Fuga in the 18th century when some areas were re-laid. It is easy to tell which these are, as the year 1750 is included and also the quality is not so good as the original's. Also, the wide borders in white marble tiles around the Cosmatesque panels are not aesthetically pleasing.

However, in other old Roman churches similarly damaged Cosmatesque floors were being ripped out and replaced with boring marble tiling, so Fuga is to be commended. The floor could have ended up like those now in the side aisles.

The work includes a memorial slab for the cardinal, with his heraldry in polychrome inlay.

Nave ceiling Edit

Up to the 15th century, the roofs of the central nave and aisles were open. In 1455, Pope Callixtus III had the central nave covered by a flat coffered wooden ceiling allegedly designed by Giuliano da Sangallo, which would have been amazing since he was only ten at the time. It was actually begun by Leon Battista Alberti, and completed by Sangallo. The story is that the later gilding was done using the first shipment of gold to Spain from the conquered Inca Empire, presented to Pope Alexander VI (1492-1503) by Ferdinand and Isabella. Both popes belonged to the Borgia family, hence its heraldry is displayed in the ceiling. Most of the coffers are identically treated, with a central gilded rosette and several orders of gilded molding in the frame. The background is white, and the effect is spectacular.

This enormous ceiling covers the entire central nave, including as far as the triumphal arch behind the high altar.

It was restored by Fuga in 1750 after rot had got in, and again in 1825 by Valadier. The gilding was restored by the former, so even if the Peruvian legend as to the source of the original gold is true it does not apply to the gilding displayed now.

Side aisle fabric Edit

The side aisles were vaulted on the orders of Cardinal Guillaume d'Estouteville (1443-83). In both aisles, opposite each column is an engaged Ionic pilaster in shallow relief revetted in grey-streaked marble, supporting an entablature from which the barrel vault springs. The nave columns support the matching entablature on the other side. Over each pair of pilasters and pair of columns is a semi-circular lunette, those in the side wall containing windows. These cut into the vault, which is divided into sections by semicircular ribs embellished with three rosettes each. Each section has a large six-pointed star within a wreath. The colour scheme is gold on cream. (These 15th century vaults were later interrupted by the frescoed vaults of the entrance bays of the papal chapels.)

Fitted into the wall between each pair of pilasters is a molded marble frame, some of these functioning as doorways and others as niches. Over each of these is a stucco relief panel in gold on cream, featuring a wreath. Some of the niches contain side altars, but the majority contain confessionals.

The decorative elements are all by Fuga.

Papal memorials in entrance vestibuleEdit

The old supporting walls of the 12th century campanili created an entrance vestibule at the beginning of the nave by blocking off the lower ends of the side aisles. These two walls proved useful places to locate two matching papal funerary monuments.

That of Pope Clement IX (1667-1669) is to the right, and was designed by Carlo Rainaldi in 1671. The seated statue of the pope is by Domenico Guidi, while the allegorical representation of Faith is by Cosimo Fancelli and that of Charity is by Ercole Ferrata. The monument is in polychrome marble, featuring white, red, green and yellow, and the effigy is in an aedicule with a pair of Corinthian columns in red marble supporting a segmental pediment. The two Virtues are in rectangular side niches, set back slightly under a pair of horizontal entablatures and with a pair of red marble Corinthian pilasters at the outer corners.

On the opposite side, to the left of the entrance, is a memorial to Pope Nicholas IV, designed by Domenico Fontana in 1574. This was over three centuries after the death of the pope. It is the earlier of the two memorials, and is in the same style although more ornately decorated. Both memorials have very fine holy water stoups in the form of shells stuck to their fronts.

Counterfaçade Edit

It is actually easy to come into the basilica, look around and go out again while forgetting to look at the counterfaçade. So, on entering do look over the entrance doors before going on.

The two entablatures of the nave side walls are united into one by being carried across the counterfaçade. This has a large round window or oculus, which intrudes into the higher entablature and is in fact original to the 5th century basilica. In 1995 it was provided with stained glass by János Hajnal which depicts Our Lady, Mother of the Church. She is shown symbolically as the union of the Old and New Testaments, with the Menorah and the Tablets of the Law on the left and the Cross and Eucharist on the right.

This window is flanked by five ribbed Corinthian pilasters (the outer two folded into the corners) in the style of those on the nave walls. These flank two larger frescoes over two smaller ones. The former are part of the nave wall cycle dealing with the life of Our Lady, and are mentioned again below. The latter match the panels of the ancient mosaic cycle on the side walls, also dealt with below.

The lower entablature is supported on the counterfaçade by five Ionic pilasters in grey-streaked white marble, the outermost pair again being folded into the corners. Over the main entrance is a broken triangular pediment, occupied by the coat-of-arms of Pope Clement VIII supported by angels. A smaller coat-of-arms supported by putti and actually on the entablature is of Pope Benedict XIV, and was executed by Giovanni Battista Ledoux 1750. On the entablature over the side entrances are the shields of Cardinals Pinelli (left) and Girolamo Colonna (right), while below the three shields are tablets recording the restorations that the pope and cardinals supervised.

Nave mosaics Edit

The 5th century figurative mosaic panels on the nave side walls are of first importance -but It can be hard to view them, since the natural light is rather dim and comes from windows immediately above them. Binoculars are useful here. The order of the cycle is from the left hand side near the high altar down to the entrance, and again from the right of the high altar to the entrance again. Biblical references are given for the scenes in the descriptions below.

There are now thirty-six panels left of the original forty-two, since six were lost when the Pauline and Sistine Chapels were built. Some of the thirty-six were heavily restored with paint during the Middle Ages, and some were reconstructed in fresco in 1593 and later. This is especially the case with those nearer the entrance. A total of nine mosaics on the thirty-six have been completely lost, leaving twenty-seven mosaics. The fresco work replacing these nine and the missing bits in other panels has not survived well.

The left hand cycle features scenes from the lives of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Twelve panels survive. Most of these each depict a story in two or three conjoined scenes, and show:

1) The Offering of Bread and Wine to Abraham by Melchisedec. Abraham is returning from winning a battle with invading kings, in a single scene. This is regarded as a prophecy of the Eucharist, hence the presence of Christ in heaven. (Gn 14:18).

2) The Visit of the Three Men of God to Abraham at the Terebinth of Mambre. There are three scenes. Abraham welcomes the three guests, Sarah prepares bread for Abraham, and Abraham serves them at table (Gn 18:1-8).

3) The Parting of Abraham and Lot with their Families. This is when Lot set out for Sodom, depicted in the top right hand corner. The separate scene below shows shepherds with their animals, because the separation was caused by lack of pasture in one place (Gn 13:1-12).

(The next three panels have been destroyed for the Cappella Paolina.)

4) Jacob Steals the Blessing of Esau. The top panel shows Isaac blessing Jacob, with Rebecca on the right. The damaged lower panel shows Esau belatedly arriving with a meal of game (Gn 27:22-31).

(The next panel shows The Dream of Jacob at Bethel, a fresco painted in 1593 to replace a lost mosaic).

5) The Arrival of Jacob at the Household of Laban. There are three scenes. Laban is in a yellow tunic, Jacob in a blue one and Rachel is in an orange dress with crimson stripes. The lower part is frescoed (Gn 29:12-13).

6) Jacob is Tricked into Marrying Leah Instead of Rachel. The top scene shows him agreeing to work as a shepherd for seven years in order to marry Rachel. The bottom scene is lost, but would have shown him tricked into marrying Leah instead (Rachel's sister) (Gn 29:15-24).

7) Marriage of Jacob and Rachel. The top scene shows Jacob leaving the sheep to marry Rachel, and the bottom shows the wedding (Gn 29:28-30).

8) Payment by Laban to Jacob for his Services. The top scene shows the agreement to share the flock, and the bottom one the division. The agreement was that Jacob would have the parti-coloured sheep, hence some are depicted thus (Gn 30:25-35).

9) Return of Jacob to Canaan. There are three scenes: Jacob encourages the sheep to produce parti-coloured offspring (read the Bible narrative if you want to know how), God tells Jacob to return to Canaan and Jacob tells his two wives that they are going (Gn 30:37-31:16).

(The next panel has a fresco depicting Jacob Recognises the Bloody Tunic as Joseph's -this episode is much later, when Joseph was sold as a slave into Egypt by his brothers. The scene is out of place, and was chosen when the fresco replaced the lost mosaic in 1593.)

10) The Meeting of Esau and Jacob in Shechem. There are three scenes. The top left one shows a messenger from Jacob meeting Esau in Canaan, the top right one shows the messenger telling Jacob that Esau was on his way and the (mostly lost) bottom scene showed the meeting of the two brothers (Gn 32:3-33:5).

(The next panel has a 1593 representation of The Sacrifice of Isaac, again out of place in the cycle. It is fairly clear that the original scene was The Rape of Diana at Shechem.)

11) Hamor Asks to Marry Diana. He was the man of Shechem who raped Jacob's daughter. The top scene shows him making the petition, and the bottom scene shows the sons of Jacob debating the matter (Gn 34:4-7).

12) The Men of Shechem Agree to Circumcision. The top scene is the proposal made by the sons of Jacob, and the bottom one is the men of the city agreeing to it (Gn 34:8-23).

(The last three panels have frescoes dating to 1593, and there is a fourth panel on the counterfaçade which was never part of the original sequence. The second shows Daniel in the Den of Lions, and the fourth Jacob Wrestles with the Angel.)

The right hand wall depicts The Journey to the Promised Land. Fifteen mosaic panels survive.

(The first panel, to the right of the high altar, shows The Apotheosis of a Martyr and is a 1593 fresco. The original scene would have been Moses in the Reeds.)

13) The Career of Moses at the Court of Pharaoh. He is shown being adopted by Pharaoh's daughter at the top, and disputing with philosophers below (Ex 2:9-10. The second scene is not Biblical, but is based on a legend mentioned by Philo.)

14) Moses Marries Zipporah, and the Burning Bush (Ex 2:21, 3:1-4).

(The next three panels were destroyed for the Cappella Sistina. They are recorded as having depicted The Meeting of Moses and Aaron, Moses and Aaron Before Pharaoh and The Institution of the Passover.)

15) The Crossing of the Red Sea (Ex 14:16-31).

16) The Miracle of the Quails. There are three scenes -the people complaining about not having meat to eat, God talking to Moses and the actual arrival of the "quails" (actually sandgrouse) (Ex 16:2-13).

17) The Bitter Waters are Made Sweet, and Moses Orders Josua to Fight Against Amalec. There are two separate episodes depicted (Ex 15:24, 17:9).

18) Victory Over Amalec (Ex 17:10-13).

19) Return of the Spies from Canaan, and Revolt of the People. The latter scene shows the Ark of the Covenant in the Tabernacle (Nu 13:26-33, 14:10).

20) Moses Hands Over the Ten Commandments, Moses Dies on Mount Nebo and Preparations for Entering the Promised Land. The Ark features again (Dt 31:24-29, 35:1-5, Js 3:6).

21) The Crossing of the River Jordan, and The Spies at Jericho (Js 3:14-4:11, 2:1-6).

22) The Angel Appears to Joshua, the Flight of the Spies from Jericho and The Report of the Spies to Joshua (Js 5:13-16, 2:15-24).

23) The Capture of Jericho (Js 6:1-18).

24) The Amorite Kings Attempt to Capture Gibeon, and Joshua Sends Assistance. (Js 10:5-9).

25) The Defeat of the Amorite Kings, and the Miraculous Fall of Hail. (Js 10:10-11).

26) The Sun Stands Still at Gibeon (Js 10:12-14).

27) The Kings Are Brought to Josua to be Executed. (Js 10:22-25). This panel is damaged.

(The next two panels are lost, and have been replaced with 1593 frescoes. They depict The Carrying of the Ark of the Covenant and The Seven-Branched Candlestick. The fresco panel on the left hand side of the counterfaçade depicts The King of Israel.

Nave frescoes Edit

Above the nave side wall mosaics, on the blocked windows mostly, are a series of late Mannerist frescoes featuring scenes from the life of Our Lady. The set was commissioned by Cardinal Pinelli originally, and were mostly painted in 1593 (except for three). They have helpful labels in Latin over them -although you will need binoculars to read these.

The cycle starts to the right of the high altar, and runs clockwise. The frescoes are: The Angelic Glory by Giovanni Battista Ricci, SS Joachim and Anne with The Immaculate Conception by Ferraù Fenzone, The Birth of Our Lady by Aurelio Milani 1742 (added in the Fuga restoration, over the arch to the Cappella Sistina), The Presentation of Our Lady by Baldassare Croce (she's the little girl running up the steps), The Marriage of Our Lady by Croce, The Annunciation by Ricci, The Visitation by Ricci, The Dream of St Joseph by Ferraù, The Adoration of the Shepherds by Andrea Lilio, The Adoration of the Magi by Croce, The Circumcision of Christ by Orazio Gentileschi, The Flight to Egypt by Ferraù, The Return from Egypt by the same (the last two are on the counterfaçade), The Holy Family in the Temple by Ventura Salimbeni, The Marriage of Cana by Ricci, The Way to Calvary by Ferraù, The Crucifixion by Croce, The Deposition by the same, The Resurrection by Lilio, The Ascension by Ricci, Pentecost by Ricci, The Dormition by Croce 1614 (the big picture over the arch to the Cappella Paolina), The Assumption by Ricci 1614 and The Coronation of Our Lady as Queen of Heaven by the same.

High altar Edit

The high altar is a so-called "papal altar", reserved for the celebration of Mass by the Holy Father. The sacrament can be celebrated on it by others only with special permission.

The altar and baldacchino were erected by Ferdinando Fuga in about 1750, with sculptural details by Pietro Bracci. Fuga demolished the late 14th century baldacchino provided by Cardinal Guillaume d'Estouteville, and put up the present very impressive work in porphyry and gilded bronze with details in verde antico. The altar itself is a porphyry urn containing the relics of St Matthias, and is accompanied by bronze angels by Bracci. Matthias was the thirteenth Apostle, elected after Judas Iscariot had either hanged himself or died in a fall (biblical accounts differ).

Four massive porphyry Corinthian columns spirally entwined with gilded bronze palm fronds (an allusion to the martyrdom of the saint) support a cornice via four posts bearing acanthus leaf embellishments. In between the posts are pendant rows of bronze plaques featuring winged putto's heads and palm fronds. On the cornice facing the nave is a set of crossed Papal keys. There is a low saucer dome, coffered on the inside in squares.

Unfortunately, the baldacchino was mutilated in 1932. Before that, it had an open canopy formed by stucco figures of four angels, holding up one wing each so as to support a central crown and cross finial. They also held palm fronds which surrounded the crown. This charming composition by Bracci was chopped off because of a wish to improve the view of the apse mosaic, and the angels banished to the Loggia of Benedictions where they remain.

Originally, the four porphyry columns were part of a set of six which formed an open screen in front of the mediaeval high altar. They supported a horizontal marble entablature. The other two are now in the baptistry.

Confessio Edit

The confessio is the open devotional crypt in front of the high altar, on an arch plan with a pair of longitudinal staircases flanking it in two flights. It had been fitted out by Cardinal d'Estouteville in the 14th century, but Pope Pius IX commissioned Virginio Vespignani to re-fit it in 1864. The result was sumptuous, with the floor and walls revetted in polychrome marble panelling, but mediaeval reliefs and memorials were removed. Contemporary critical response was not universally favourable -for example, the French critic Francis Way (who had a nice turn of insult) described the result as similar to how the Americans fitted out the interiors of their steamboats on the Mississippi. A large statue of the pope by Ignazio Jacometti was added in 1883. The story that the pope initially wanted to be buried here, but chose San Lorenzo fuori le Mura instead after 1870 as some sort of odd protest against losing his temporal sovereignty in 1870, is false (he intended to be buried in the latter church all along).

Above the altar in the confessio is a reliquary which holds five pieces of wood. These are venerated as the Sacra Culla, the Holy Manger (feeding-trough) into which Christ was put at Bethlehem. Pope Theodore I (642-649) was said to have brought it to Rome shortly after the fall of Jerusalem in 638, but there is a documentary reference from the previous century which shows that the relic was already there. So the authenticity is uncertain, and one suggestion is that it might have been the manger in one of the first Christmas cribs at the basilica.

The silver-gilt reliquary is by Giuseppe Valadier, and replaced an 18th century one looted by the French at the end of that century. It is in the form of a soup-tureen with hanging festoons, and with a figure of the Holy Child on top. Some modern visitors have asked why the Child has a Mohican haircut -this is the silversmith's attempt at a rayed halo. The reliquary has several crystal windows through which the Culla can be seen.

Once upon a time the reliquary was taken into the centre of the nave and displayed on the 25th of each month, and large groups of pilgrims could ask at the sacristy if they wished to see them at other times. However, the fragility of the Culla caused concern in the latter part of the 20th century and both of these practices were stopped. The reliquary is now only taken into the church for the Midnight Mass at Christmas.

Tomb of Bernini Edit

A short distance away from the confessio, in the floor to the right of the high altar, is the simple tomb-slab covering the entrance to the crypt of the family of Gian Lorenzo Bernini. It displays the family's heraldry, and the epitaph Nobilis familia Bernini hic resurrectionem expectat ("Here the noble family Bernini waits for the Resurrection"). The architect himself has been given a short Latin epitaph of his own which is carved into the step adjoining -Ioannes Laurentius Bernini, decus artium et Urbis, hic humiliter quiescit ("Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the glory of the arts and of the city, here rests humbly").

Triumphal arch mosaic Edit

The triumphal arch into the transept is, unusually, behind the high altar and is supported on simple engaged piers. These are revetted in grey-streaked marble, and have a shallow Ionic pilaster on the inward faces.

The mosaic above the arch was commissioned by Pope Sixtus III when he built the basilica in the 5th century. This was after the Council of Ephesus in 451, which proclaimed Mary as Theotokos (Mother of God), and the theme is picked up in the great 13th century apse mosaic behind which was commissioned by Pope Nicholas IV (1288-92). The arch here originally enclosed the 5th century apse, but it became a triumphal arch when Pope Nicholas demolished the old apse and built a transept with a new apse further back. It is thought that the lost 5th century apse mosaic had a theme similar to the present one, but this is now unprovable.

It should be remembered that this mosaic is part of the overall cycle of the nave mosaic panels described above, being part of the same commission.

Below the keystone is a scene known as the Hetoimasia. It features an empty jewelled emperor's throne, on which is the jewelled case of the True Cross. On the footstool is the Scroll with Seven Seals. St Peter stands to the left, St Paul to the right and above are the symbols of the four Evangelists. Below is an epigraph reading Xystus Episcopus Plebi Dei, ("Sixtus the bishop to the People of God") referring to Pope Sixtus (whose correct name was Xystus). This is the epigraph that began the tradition that the basilica belonged to the Roman people, rather than to the pope or the nobility.

The spandrels of the arch each have four scenes, one above the other. The scenes on the left are (top to bottom):

1) The Annunciation. Unusually, there are three angels instead of the one featuring in the Bible narrative, and one of these is talking to St Joseph who is to the right. The number three is an allusion to the three "men of God" who visited Abraham at the Terebinth of Mambre before the destruction of Sodom. (This Old Testament scene is featured in the second of the nave mosaics to the left.) The building to the right, behind St Joseph and with an open portal, is the House (or family) of David to which he belonged. The building to the right with closed doors might be representing Heaven, which would only be opened at the Incarnation about to happen when Mary gives her consent to the angel, or the womb of Our Lady as the New Temple.

The Blessed Virgin is depicted enthroned as an Augusta (a Roman empress) and dressed in cloth-of-gold, and is similarly depicted in the other scenes.

2) The Adoration of the Magi. Two of the Magi are to the right, and one to the left. They are dressed rather outlandishly, in bright colours and with tight trousers instead of tunics. This was the artist's way of indicating that they were foreigners. Christ is depicted as a boy-emperor on his throne, with the Blessed Virgin depicted seated to his right in the same dress as in the panel above. The figure seated to his left might be St Anne, Christ's grandmother, but her identity is seriously uncertain. St Joseph features again to the far left. Note the Star of Bethlehem between the four angels behind Christ.

3) The Massacre of the Innocents. The figure seated on the left is actually Herod, who is shown with a halo. This is evidence that the halo did not have a sacred significance in the religious art of the early Church, but was merely a way of highlighting the most important people in a composition. The soldiers are still recognisably ancient Roman.

4) Jerusalem. This stylized depiction actually includes some real topographical data. The gate opens onto a colonnade, the Cardo or porticoed street that ran north to south in the city as rebuilt by the emperor Hadrian (he called it Aelia Capitolina). Behind, you can make out the rotunda of the Anastasis or Holy Sepulchre, and the Martyrion or great Constantinian basilica that accompanied it. Below the city is a flock of sheep.

The scenes on the right are:

5) The Presentation of Christ at the Temple. The Holy Family accompanied by angels is to the left, with the prophetess Anna. To the right is Simeon the Elder leading a crowd, with the Temple behind and the two doves or young pigeons. To the extreme right is a separate scene where Simeon is warned in dream that he is about to meet the Messiah.

6) The Legend of Aphrodisius. This scene is not in the Bible, but depicts an ancient story featuring St Aphrodisius. According to it, he was a priest at the Jewish temple of Leontopolis in Egypt, who helped the Holy Family during their exile in that country. The temple here functioned identically to that in Jerusalem, with a hereditary priesthood and cursus of sacrifices. The depiction shows him leaving the city in procession in order to meet the Holy Family, depicted to the right with three angels.

7) The Magi Report to Herod.

8) Bethlehem, with more sheep.

The intrados (underside) of the arch is decorated with a pattern formed of four-petalled flowers in alternate blocks of colour, red, green and blue. It is a stylised rainbow, with the chi-rho symbol at the top.

Transept Edit

The transept added by Pope Nicholas has no structural unity in the interior layout. This is because it has blocking walls inserted between the triumphal arch piers and the apse, thus creating a choir. The far sides of these walls are occupied by two entrance vestibules for the doorways flanking the apse, which are basically extensions of the nave side aisles.

In contrast to that of the nave, the ceiling of the sanctuary is very straightforward. It is in wood, with large shallow square coffers painted alternately light red and yellow with pale green frames. Each coffer has a starburst symbol, of different geometric types.

The side walls of the choir each have a cantoria or corbelled-out opera box for solo musical performers. These were added by Fuga, and now contain a pair of organs. Below each are three panels with purple and white brecciated marble slabs in gilded frames with verde antico surrounds.

Apse mosaic -conch Edit

The famous mosaic in the conch of the apse which depicts the Coronation of the Virgin was executed in 1295 by Jacopo Torriti, a Franciscan friar who signed the work -Iacobus Torriti pictor hoc opus mosaicum fecit- in the extreme left hand corner of the conch. Traditionally, in the iconography of apse mosaics Christ was shown alone as Ruler (Pantokrator) and Teacher, but here he is shown with Our Lady. He shares a single royal throne and scarlet cushion with her, and is in the act of crowning her with a jewelled crown. In his other hand is an open book, reading Veni electa mea, et ponam te thronum meum ("Come, my chosen one, and I will put you on my throne"). Her figure is only slightly smaller than his, and her blue velvet octagonal footstool is only slightly less grand than his. The footstools stand together on a single scarlet plinth This is Marian devotion at its most exalted. The starry orb surrounding them represents the Universe, including the Sun and Moon below the footstool plinth.

There is an epigraph below the orb, reading Maria Virgo assumpta est ad ethereum thalamum in quo Rex Regum stellato sedet solio. Exaltata sancta Dei Genitrix super chorus angelorum ad coelestia regna. ("The virgin Mary is taken up into the eternal bedroom, in which the King of Kings sits on his starry throne. The holy Mother of God is exalted above the choir of angels to the heavenly kingdoms").

The orb is accompanied by a flock of angels on each side. Then, on a golden background, come two processions. These are fronted by two little kneeling figures, Pope Nicholas on the left and Cardinal Giacomo Colonna on the right. The left hand procession is composed of SS Peter, Paul and Francis, and the right hand one by SS John the Baptist, John the Evangelist and Anthony of Padua.

From behind the posterior saints arise two gigantic scrolled acanthus vines, which contain birds and flowers. The birds are accurately depicted -as well as a pheasant, two peacocks and two blackbirds there is a hawk killing a snake on the right, and a crane on the left. Also on the right is a rabbit!

In the top of the conch is a stylised curtain, symbolic of the hidden presence of God the Father (the Hand of God is often depicted, but not here). The bottom of the conch depicts the River Jordan as a symbol of baptism, with little scenes of waterfowl and people doing things on boats. There are actually two rivers springing from the centre, and ending at two pagan river gods at either corner.

It is uncertain as to how much this mosaic imitated the lost 5th century one that was destroyed when the apse was rebuilt. It has been suggested that Torriti was influenced by the mosaic at Santa Maria in Trastevere.

Apse mosaic -arch Edit

The apsidal arch has a separate mosaic, but it is part of the same commission given to Torriti. The arch intrados bears two vines, arising from pots at either end held by pairs of putti. The vines bear various different kinds of fruit, in between nine tondi bearing portraits of saints (not labelled or identified). In the keystone is the chi-rho symbol again.

The spandrels of the arch show the twenty-four elders of the Book of Revelation (Apocalypse), above which are the four symbols of the Evangelists. The archivolt bears another two vine-scrolls, not so complicated and with no pots. These contain flowers, birds and little putti and meet at a tondo on the keystone displaying the Lamb of God. Either side of this tondo are the Seven Candlesticks of the Apocalypse.

Apse mosaic -wall Edit

Below the conch, on the wall of the apse, Torriti's scheme continues with panels depicting scenes from the life of Our Lady. These are in between the windows, and are: The Annunciation, The Nativity, The Dormition, The Adoration of the Magi and The Presentation of Christ. The central scene, The Dormition, is the most important. It shows Our Lady on her bier, accompanied by the Apostles, some holy bishops to the left and holy virgins to the right. Christ is standing within a rainbow, holding her soul depicted as a young girl. Above are heavenly beings, including King David (labelled). The top left hand corner shows Mount Zion, and the top right hand one the Mount of Olives.

Around the outer corners of the curved apse wall are two more mosaic panels, which have nothing to do with Our Lady but concern the two saints whose relics are allegedly in the basilica. The left hand one shows St Jerome Instructing SS Paula and Eustochium in the Scriptures, and the right hand one shows St Matthias Preaching to the Jews.

Apse Edit

The apse below the mosaic work was decorated by Fuga. The insides of the windows, however, are original 13th century work since they have kept the pointed Gothic shape. In between them are tripletted Ionic pilasters in the grey-streaked marble which is one of Fuga's trademarks in the basilica. These support a continuation of the nave entablature, broken by the windows and the cantorie.

In the far curve of the apse is a large painting by Francesco Mancini 1750, depicting The Adoration of the Shepherds. To either side are the wooden choir stalls of the canons, fitted into the curve of the apse, and in front is a completely gilded wooden free-standing bishop's throne.

Between the stalls and the lower mosaic panels are four reliefs which used to be part of the mediaeval high altar baldacchino demolished by Fuga. They are by Mino del Reame 1451, and depict The Nativity, The Miracle of the Snow, The Assumption and The Adoration of the Magi. The surrounding wall is revetted in verde antico.

The description of the side regions of the basilica starts at the bottom of the right hand aisle, and proceeds anticlockwise.

Cappella Patrizi Edit

At the bottom of the right hand side aisle is the so-called Cappella Patrizi. This family of Roman nobles liked to pretend that they were descendants of John the Patrician of the foundation legend, hence the altarpiece depicts Our Lady Appears in a Dream to John the Patrician. It is by Giuseppe Puglia, Il Bastaro. Here is a memorial to Costanzo Patrizi 1623, with a bust by Alessandro Algardi, and another to Patrizio Patrizi 1611 the sculptor of which is anonymous.

Baptistry Edit

The sacristy block, including the baptistry, was designed and by Flaminio Ponzio in 1605 as part of his massive programme of additions to the basilica ordered by Pope Paul V. The baptistry itself was originally the Chapel of the Winter Choir, where the canons celebrated the Divine Office in winter when they found the main basilica uncomfortably cold (even now, northern Europeans can find the Roman sensitivity to slightly cold weather rather surreal). However, in 1825 Pope Leo XII ordered the canons to move out to the Cappella Sforza and for Giuseppe Valadier to convert the old chapel into a baptistry. The pope provided an ancient porphyry basin from the Vatican Museums to be the new font.

The baptistry has two bays, an antechamber and the baptismal chamber proper. The former has two large side doors, the one on the left leading into the Chapel of St Michael (now the shop, also the place where you buy a museum ticket) and the one on the right accessing the sacristy suite. The two bays are separately vaulted.

The square antechamber has a vault in the form of a truncated pyramid with four lunettes, three containing windows and one the arch into the baptistry proper. The slopes have rows of coffering in yellow within pale grey on white, and the lunettes contain wreaths in the same colour scheme. The charming central panel is by Domenico Crespi, Il Passignano, and features a band of five angels on vocals, organ, lute, violin and flute with others in attendance. A pair of putti hold up the music that they are playing, which is an antiphon in honour of the Immaculate Conception. The words are: Gaude Maria, a Deo electa ante qua genita, quae benedictionibus es praevisa dulcedinis ("Rejoice Mary, chosen before birth by God, who are foreseen with blessings of sweetness"). The female angelic vocalist is looking rather dyspeptic, and has wings in green, white and red (these were not the Italian national colours at the time). The arch lunette bears the coat-of-arms of Pope Paul V.

On the left hand wall in the antechamber are memorials to Innocenzo Merlo 1704 with a good half-length portrait to the left, and to the right a famous one to the "Marquis Antonio Nigrita", who died at Rome in 1608. He was an ambassador sent to Rome by Álonso II, ruler of the Kingdom of Kongo in what is now modern Angola. The king's name was actually Mpangu a Nimi a Lukeni, and he was keen to propagate Christianity in his kingdom as part of a modernising campaign in response to Portuguese aggression. So he sent one of his nobles, Antonio Emanuele N'Funta to Rome but unfortunately the young man seems to have died of malaria. He was given a sumptuous funeral. The bust is by Francesco Caporale, although guides asserted for centuries that it was by Bernini.

Odoardo Santarelli is buried here; the tomb dated c.1640 is by Allessandro Algardi.

Chapel of St Michael Edit

The next room on the right side, the Chapel of St Michael and St Peter in Chains has 15th century frescoes of theAnnunciationattributed toPiero della Francescaand behind this room is the column erected by PopeClement VIIIin memory of the abjuration of Emperor Henry IV during the investiture conflict.


You may ask the sacristan to admit you to the sacristy and the rooms behind it. They contain frescoes of the Blessed Virgin from the early 17th century by Passignano and Giuseppe Puglia, and sculptures from the 15th century. The present design is by Flaminio Ponzio, from 1605. In the rooms behind the sacristy, known as the Hall of the Washbasins, are fragments of the reliefs of the early baldachino and altar.

A relic of St Thomas of Canterbury is preserved here, and groups of pilgrims may ask to see and venerate it.

Chapel of the Holy RelicsEdit

This chapel was designed by Ferdinando Fuga, about 1750.

Outside and to the left of the chapel is a fresco from c. 1740 by Pompeo Baoni, the Annunciation.

Sistine ChapelEdit

To the right of the high altar is the domed Blessed Sacrament Chapel, designed by Domenico Fontana. He started work here in 1585. It was named after the founder, Pope Sixtus V.

The tabernacle dates from 1599. It is now opened only on Holy Thursday. It is held aloft by four bronze angels made by B. Torrigiani. The tabernacle itself was made by L. Scalzo to a design from 1590 by Giovanni Battista Ricci.

Pope Sixtus V (1585-1590) is buried on the right-hand side of the chapel. Although he has never been canonized, he was venerated as a saint here for a long time. The tomb is by Domenico Fontana.

Opposite this tomb is the funarary monument of Pope St Pius V, also by Fontana.

In the sacristy of the chapel are vestments worn by Pope St Pius V, a 15th century holy water stoup by Isaia da Pisa and landscape paintings by Paul Brill.

Crypt beneath the Blessed Sacrament ChapelEdit

As early as the 7th century, this crypt was arranged as a reproduction of the cave in Bethlehem. The Christmas crib here is one of the finest in the world, with statuettes made by Arnolfo de Cambio c. 1289.

St Jerome, Doctor of the Church and translator of the Bible into Latin in the 4th century, is buried here. He lived as a hermit next to the cave in Bethlehem, and it was thought fitting to preserve his relics here, in the "Bethlehem in Rome".

St Ignatius of Loyola offered his first Mass at the Cosmatesque altar in the crypt. The altarfront is by the Vassalettis.

The sculpture of the Nativity is from the 15th century. The statue opposite the altar depicts St Cajetan holding the Holy Child, and is by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. In a letter the saint wrote to a nun at Brescia, he explained that when he was once lost in prayer at this spot, the Holy Child climbed into his arms.

The crypt is not always open to the public. It is possible to see some of it if you look over the balustrade.

In the sanctuary area, you will find the relics tabernacle, a special tabernacle placed here to hold several important relics. It was donated in 1256 by Giacomo and Vinia Capocci. It has Cosmatesque decoration, and a mosaic showing the donors presenting the shrine to Our Lady.

Near the door leading out of the church on the right-hand side is the 14th century tomb, in the Gothic style, of the Spanish cardinal Gonzalo Rodriguez Hinojosa, Archbishop of Toledo and Cardinal Bishop of Albano, who died in 1299. The mosaic on the tomb is signed by Giovanni de Cosma, of the family after which the Cosmatesque technique is named. The inscription reads HOC OP(US) FEC(IT) JOH(ANN)ES MAG(IST)RI COSM(A)E CIVIS ROMANUS, "This work was made by Cosma, a citizen of Rome".

On the left side of the apse is the tomb of Clement Merlini, designed by Francesco Borromini c. 1650.

Pauline ChapelEdit

The chapel was founded in 1611 by Pope Paul V, and is named after him. It was designed by Flaminio Ponzio, who also made the monuments of the Paul V and Clement VIII.

The icon of the Blessed Virgin enshrined here is difficult to date, but it is at least a thousand years old. Legend claims that it was made by none other than St Luke the Evangelist, but this is clearly not true. It is called Salus Populi Romani, "Well-being/Salvation of the Roman People". According to tradition, it was this icon that Pope St Gregory the Great carried through the streets in 593, when Rome was suffering under the plague. On his way back from St Peter's, he saw St Michael the Archangel above the Mausoleum of Hadrian (later named Castel Sant'Angelo because of this vision. The archangel drew his sword to ward off the plague, and the city was saved. Later instances of processions with this icon are well recorded; the last time was in 1837, when Pope Gregory XVI had it carried through the city during a cholera epidemic.

Pope St Pius V came here to pray during the Battle of Lepanto, when Christendom was saved from the Ottoman expansion. Eugenio Pacelli celebrated his first Mass at the altar beneath the icon in 1899, and in 1939 he returned as Pope Pius XII to celebrate a Mass of Thanksgiving after his election. The people of Rome also gathered here in 1944, when the Battle of Anzio was fought close to the city. The icon originally depicted Our Lady sitting on a throne with the Holy Child on her lap. The lower part was destroyed by fire at some point, and the remaining part was damaged; fortunately, the restoration was successful. It is in the Eastern style, with Greek letters identifying the figures. It is also decorated with jewels. Both figures have been crowned by the Vatican Chapter.

The sculpture above the altar depicts the legend of the snowfall.

Guido Reni painted most of the frescoes in the chapel c. 1613. The is also a fresco by Giovanni Lanfranco above the monument of Pope Clement VIII.

The sacristy of the chapel, also desgined by Ponzio, has paintings by Passignano.

Below the chapel is the burial crypt of the Borghese family. Popes Paul V and Clement VIII are buried here, in porphyry tombs. The entrance to the crypt is in the sacristy.

Sforza ChapelEdit

The chapel was designed by Michelangelo in 1564 and completed by Giacomo della Porta in 1573.

Cesi ChapelEdit

Martino Longhi the elder or Guidetto Guidetti designed this chapel c. 1550. Peolo and Federico Cesi are buried here, in tombs by Guglielmo della Porta.


The basilica is open daily from 07:00 to 19:00, although the custodians might start shepherding you out fifteen minutes beforehand.

The museum opens from 09:30 to 18:30.

Redemptorists assist in the basilica as sacristans, but the secular custodians in charge of managing visitors are employees of the Vatican since the basilica is extraterritorial.


Mass is celebrated, usually in the Cappella Paolina:

Weekdays 7:00, 8:00, 9:00, 10:00, 12:00, 18:00.

Sundays 7:00, 8:00, 9:00, 10:00 (solemn high Mass in Latin), 11:30, 12:15, 18:00.

Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament takes place from 9:00 to 16:30, Monday to Friday.

Confessions can be made from 7:00 to 12:00, and 15:30 to 19:00. A collegio dei penitenzieri of Dominicans has the responsibility of hearing them. The friars speak several different languages, and the basilica is one of the most important locations in Rome for both locals and pilgrims wishing to approach the Sacrament of Penance.

Vespers is celebrated in choir on weekdays at 16:15, and Sundays at 17:00.

Feast DayEdit

The church's dedication is celebrated in the general calendar of the Catholic church with an optional memoria on 5 August.

The title of the celebration is now given as the “Dedication of the Basilica of St Mary Major”. However, before 1970 the title was “Dedication of the Church of Our Lady of the Snow” in acknowledgement of the fictional foundation legend. Recommendations to change the name of the feast had been made as far back as the 18th century, but the change was delayed owing to a wish to respect the dignity of other churches worldwide with an official dedication to Santa Maria ad Nives.

Traditionally, on this day white rose petals were dropped from the dome of the Cappella Paolina during the Mass. In recent years, these have been replaced with dahlia petals.

External LinksEdit

Official diocesan web-page

Italian Wikipedia page

More pictures of the basilica at Wikimedia Commons.

Basilica's website

Museum website

Virtual Tour of the Basilica and Loggia (on the basilica's website)

"De Alvariis" gallery on Flickr -Exterior

"De Alvariis" gallery on Flickr -Apse

"De Alvariis" gallery on Flickr -Interior

"De Alvariis" gallery on Flickr -Loggia

"De Alvariis" gallery on Flickr -Museum

"De Alvariis" gallery on Flickr -Sala dei Papi

Info.roma web-page

"Romeartlover" web-page

Roma SPQR web-page

"Romasegreta" web-page

Medioevo.roma web-page

Blog by David Macchi

Description of nave mosaics on Gliscritti.

"World Gallery of Art" gallery of mosaics

The Seven Churches
San Pietro in Vaticano | San Paolo fuori le Mura | San Giovanni in Laterano | Santa Maria Maggiore | Santa Croce in Gerusalemme | San Lorenzo fuori le Mura | San Sebastiano fuori le Mura

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