Santa Maria Maggiore is one of Rome’s four papal basilicas. It’s also one of the earliest churches dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Although the church is in Rome, it’s owned by the Vatican. The Pope presides over special masses in this church such as on Assumption Day, the August 15 holiday.
It’s said that the original church was built on the site of a miraculous snow fall on August 5 after the Virgin Mary appeared in a dream to Pope Liberius and Patrician John asking them to build a church. This event is re-created in a beautiful ceremony each August 5 when rose petals are dropped from the dome.
The current church building dates from the 5th century while the facade dates from the 12th century. However much of the exterior is the result of an 18th century remodel. Its bell tower, dating from the 14th century, is the tallest in Rome (about 246 feet in height).
Visitors are impressed by the huge size of the church and the large amount of marble decor. Spectacular 5th century mosaics decorate the church’s interior, including images of the Virgin Mary and both Old and New Testament events. Frescoes and paintings by important artists adorn the walls and chapels. Gold, said to have been brought back by Columbus, decorates the ceiling.
Under the high altar is the Crypt of the Nativity, so named because it houses a reliquary said to hold a piece of the nativity crib. A procession of the Holy Crib is held on Christmas. It’s believed that the first Christmas mass was said in Santa Maria Maggiore.
The church’s Sistine Chapel was decorated in the 16th century and holds the tombs of two popes. Bernini’s tomb is just outside this chapel. A special guided tour includes the Sistine Chapel and Loggia delle Benedizioni with beautiful mosaics, frescoes, and views. Book at the ticket office in front of the church, the tour is well worth it.
The museum below the basilica holds several gems and is usually a good place to escape the crowds. Arnolfo di Cambio’s marble nativity sculptures, created in 1288 for the 1300 Jubilee, is believed to be the first permanent Christmas crib ever created. Reliquaries, ancient musical scores, old manuscripts, paintings, chalices, and historical objects from the church are on display.
Location: Esquiline Hill. Closest metro stop is termini station, from there walk along via Cavour to Largo Esquilino.