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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: Patriarchal basilica
Titular church No
National church: No
Built: c. 350, present church from 18th 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 papal basilica dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The basilica is also know as Santa Maria della Neve (Our Lady of the Snow) after a miracle associated with it; and as Santa Maria ad Praesepem after the relic of the crib (presepio), which it holds.

The name of this church is confusing to many, but it simply means that this is Rome's major or principal church dedicated to St Mary.


The first church here was founded in the 350s by Pope Liberius, and financed by a Roman patrician and his wife. They were childless, and 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. It lies on the summit of the Esquiline Hill, which was mainly laid out as gardens in ancient times. Legend claims that the plan of the church was outlined by a miraculous snowfall in August (possibly in 358). The legend is commemorated every year on 5 August, when white rose petals are dropped from the dome during the Mass.

Pope Sixtus III had it restored, or more likely rebuilt, to commemorate the declaration of St Mary's Divine Motherhood by the Council of Ephesus in 431.

The church was damaged in the earthquake of 1348, and restored some years later.

As in the other patriarchal basilicas, there is a Chapter of Canons here. In addition, Redemptorists assist as sacristans, and a 'college' of Dominicans speaking several different languages hear confessions most of the day.



The Romanesque bell-tower is the highest in Rome at 75 metres. It was rebuilt between 1370 and 1378 on older foundations. The pyramidal spire was added in the 16th century.

Façade and porticoEdit

The façade was designed in 1743 by Ferdinando Fuga. He used a strong chiaroscuro effect, a play on light and shadows.

The gilded angels on top of the loggia are by Pietro Bracci and were made in 1749. They were originally placed on the canopy, but were moved here.

The mosaic behind the facade dates back to the papacy of Nicholas IV (1288-92), by Filippo Rusuti. The upper part shows Christ as Pantocrator (Ruler of All) and Teacher, in Byzantine style. He holds a book, which displays the text EGO SUM LUX MUNDI QUI, meaning "I am the light of the world who [takes away the sins of the world]." To the sides of the central images are Mary, the Apostles and saints. Closest to Christ are the Virgin and St John. The saints are identified through Latin inscriptions, but the Virgin Mary is identified with Greek lettering, a contracted form of Mater Theou, Mother of God. Further to the left are Sts Paul, James and Jerome (included because his relics are in the church). To the right of St John are Sts Peter, Andrew and Matthew. Above them are symbols of the Evangelists. Four angels hold the tondo with Christ's image. By the feet of the angels are two small figures, depicting Cardinals Pietro and Jacopo Colonna, who commissioned the mosaic. The artist has signed his work in the lower part of the band around the tondo. This was a new trend. In ancient times, artists had often signed their work, but in the early Middle Ages they had usually seen themselves as part of a workshop rather than as an individual artist.

This is a type of mosaic that is usually only found in the apse of a church; the effect was to turn the whole piazza into a church when the great pilgrim processions of the Middle Ages reached it on the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin. While the dogma of the Assumption of the Virgin dates only to 1950, the Feast and the doctrine it is based on go back to at least before the year 500, and it was one of the most important Marian feasts. In the Middle Ages, the Pope would celebrate Mass from the loggia on that day.

On the lower part is the legend of the snowfall that marked the site. The style of clothes and the papal insignia depicted belong to the 14th century, rather than to the 4th century when the events took place.

The mosaic can sometimes be seen from the outside if the light is just right, but you will then only see a small part of it. It can be viewed by joining one of the church's own guided tours of the Loggia delle Benedizioni. From the loggia, one can also see San Giovanni in Laterano at the other end of the Via Merulana.

On the left side of the portico is the Holy Door, which is only open during Holy Years.

The dedicatory inscription from the reign of Pope Eugenius III has been moved to the outside wall of the sacristy, and is well preserved.



Santa maria maggiore navata 1

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

The basilical plan has been well preserved. The columns flanking the nave are of Athenian marble. They were in all probability part of the first basilica, and are possibly reused from an older Roman building. Above them are mosaics of Old Testament history, which probably makes them the oldest Christian mosaics in a church in Rome. They were thought to be from the first church, but later research has dated them to c. 432440, in the pontificate of Sixtus III. It is hard to see them, since the light is very dim. There are now 36 panels left of the original 42. Six were lost when the Pauline and Sistine Chapels were built. Some of them were heavily restored with paint during the Middle Ages, and some were reconstructed in 1593 and later.

Originally, the basilica did not have a transept. The reason was that the main purpose of the transept was to provide space for pilgrims flocking to a saint's tomb. In the case of this basilica, the main focus was not on a grave such as the Apostles' tombs in San Pietro in Vaticano or San Paolo fuori le mura; Mary had been assumed body and soul into Heaven, and there was therefore no tomb (there is a monument in Ephesus known as the tomb of Mary, but the origin of this is unclear). The transept was added by Pope Nicholas IV (1288-1292), and as a result a new apse also had to be added.

Part of the floor is in the Cosmatesque style, but the repairs have not been altogether successful.

The ceiling is by Sangallo, and is gilded. The gold used here is said to be the first gold brought from the New World, given by Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain.

Monuments by the entranceEdit

The funerary monument of Pope Clement IX (1667-1669) was made by Carlo Rainaldi in 1671. The statue of the Pope is by Domenico Guidi.

On the opposite side is the funerary monument of Pope Nicholas IV, designed by Domenico Fontana in 1574.

Close by is a bust of Costanzo Patrizi (died 1623) by Alessandro Algardi.


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.


The baptistery was designed by Flaminio Ponzio in 1605 as the Chapel of the Winter Choir. The font is from 1825, and was made by Valadier.

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

The next room on the right side, the Chapel of St Michael and St Peter in Chains has 15th century frescoes of the Annunciation attributed to Piero della Francesca and behind this room is the column erected by Pope Clement VIII in memory of the abjuration of Emperor Henry IV during the investiture conflict.

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.

High altar and confessioEdit

The high altar is a papal altar, reserved for the Holy Father. It can only be used by others by special permission. The altar and canopy, are by Fernando Fuga, who also designed the façade. The sculpture at the high altar is by P. Bracci, made c. 1750.

In the confessio, St Matthias the Apostle is buried. He was the thirteenth Apostle, elected after Judas Ischariot had left the disciples. Above the altar in the confessio is a reliquary which holds five pieces of wood. They are said to be from the Santa Culla, the Holy Manger that Christ was laid in at Bethlehem. Pope Theodore (642-649) is said to have brought them to Rome shortly after the fall of Jerusalem in 638. The authenticity is uncertain, and it is thought that it might be the manger from one of the first Christmas cribs. The reliquary is made of gold and silver, with a figure of the Holy Child on top. The container has several crystal windows through which the relics can be seen. The relics are displayed on the 25th of each month, and large groups of pilgrims can ask at the sacristy if they wish to see them at other times. The confessio is designed by Virgilio Vespasiani in 1864. The statue of Pope Pius IX is by Ignazio Jacometti, made in 1880.

Sanctuary and apseEdit

Behind the altar are three mosaics. The two on the arches were ordered by Pope Sixtus III in the 5th century. They were ordered after the Council of Ephesus, which had proclaimed that Mary was the Mother of God, and this is emphasised in the mosaics. In the one showing the Adoration of the Magi, the Blessed Virgin is depicted as an Augusta, a Roman empress.

On the first arch behind the altar the subject is the childhood of Christ. He is followed by angels, showing his divinity. Many of the scenes are from early legends about the childhood of Christ, rather than from the Gospels. The inscription in the centre of the arch, XYSTUS EPISCOPUS PLEBI DEI means "Sixtus, bishop to the people of God". This refers to Sistus III (432-440), who rebuilt or restored the church. The arch was originally an apsidal arch, but it was transformed into a triumphal arch when Pope Nicholas added a transept and a new apse to the basilica.

The arch above the apse shows scenes and symbols from the Apocalypse, such as the Lamb of God and the seven-armed candlestick, a symbol of the seven churches John's vision was sent to.

The apse mosaic, the Coronation of the Virgin, is from the late 13th century, by Jacopo Torriti, a Franciscan friar. Traditionally, in apse mosaics Christ was shown alone as Ruler (Pantokrator) and Teacher, but here he is shown with Our Lady. He shares his throne with her and crowns her. The orb surrounding them represents the universe. At the base is the River Jordan, a symbol of baptism. It continues between the pointed windows with scenes from the life of the Blessed Virgin. Saints and two of the donors, Pope Nicholas IV and Jacopo Colonna, are also depicted.

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".

A short distance away, in the floor to the right of the high altar, is the burial place of Gian Lorenzo Bernini and his family.

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

The exterior of the apse was designed by Bernini. Carlo Rainaldi carried out the work in 1673 to his design.

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.

Opening hoursEdit

Open everyday from 07:00 to 19:00

Museum opens from 09:30 to 18:30

External LinksEdit

More pictures of the basilica at Wikimedia Commons.

Virtual Tour of the Basilica and Loggia

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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