Surprising with this "Basilica Maggiore" (papal basilica) is its peculiar layout on the Esquiline hill. If, as most visitors, one arrives by the via Cavour, the back of the church, the apse is first to appear.
There is no entrance on this side on Piazza dell'Esquilino. Walking upwards around the church to the piazza S. Maria Maggiore, one sees a huge loggia between two palaces.
If there was not the "campanile" the medieval bell tower, the highest in Rome with 75 m, the visitor would think to be facing just another palace of the 18th c. not a basilica!
Actually the façade facing east is the work of Ferdinand Fuga (1741); it has a portico of five arcades and an upper loggia with three arches, which covers the thirteenth-century mosaics by Filippo Rusuti of the previous façade. The mosaics can only be visited on a special guided tour.
The palace flanking the façade on the right is from 1605 and the second building on the left was designed by Ferdinando Fuga in 1743 to give an overall uniformity to the site.
The layout of the church seems to find its origin I a pious legend called the "Miracle of the Snow". In 352 Pope Liberius and the patrician Giovanni had a same dream that the place for a church dedicated to the Virgin would be shown to them in a miraculous way.
On 5th of August it snowed on the Aquilino hill and pope Liberius could trace the layout of the future church in the fallen snow.
A nice legend from which derives the other name for this church: "Madonna della Neve" and the feast mass each year on 5 August.
The 4 Major basilicas of Rome benefit in agreement with the Lateran treaty of 1929 of the privilege of extraterritoriality. The large stairs outside the apse are on extraterritorial ground where Italian policemen have no right of access. They are therefore closed to the public by a high metallic fence in order to avoid incidents (see photo 1).
The inside is much better than the outside!
This was our third visit and we can confirm what I wrote a few years ago: The inside is much better than the outside !
Once my eyes got accustomed to the penumbra inside the church on that late afternoon of December, I got overwhelmed by the space and the marvellous decoration. Our last visit was in April so that there was more light Inside.
The paleo-Christian structure of the basilica divided into a nave and two side aisles by rows of Ionic columns is nearly perfect. But unique are the fifth century mosaics. The nave mosaics recount four cycles of the Old Testament featuring Abraham, Jacob, Moses and Joshua. Across the triumphal arch are scenes of the New Testament. The apse whose mosaics decoration was executed by the Franciscan Jacopo Torriti illustrates the life and death of Mary.
Unfortunately for the visitor, as the church is rather dark, the details of these mosaics are not as visible as one would like them to be. (The mosaic photo is not mine by lack of light.)
Impressive is the canopy or baldaquin over the central altar. Just before that altar is a reliquary crypt called "The Confession". It was constructed on demand of Pope Pius IX (1846-1878) to contain pieces of ancient wood which tradition holds to be part of the Holy Crib. The imposing statue is that of Pope Pius IX kneeling before the relic contained in a precious crystal urn trimmed in silver.
I will come back on two beautiful chapels "Borghese" and "Sistine" .
of this basilica.
Open (2013): 7 - 19 h (winter 18 h); Sundays 9.30 - 12 h. Free.
This chapel, on the left side of the nave of Santa Maria Maggiore, is the most beautiful chapel I have seen in Rome. It was a private chapel, still separated from the nave by a high iron forged gate, built (1606 -1612) by order of Pope Paul V Borghese and designed by Flaminio Ponzio.
In this chapel of a rare beauty is kept above the altar a famous icon of the Madonna and Child called "Salus Populi Romani" meaning Protectress of the Roman People.
The low relief, by Stefano Maderno, above the altar shows Pope Liberius tracing the perimeter of the basilica in the snow according to the legend.
The Borghese chapel (also called Pauline chapel) is shaped as a Greek cross. Powerful pilasters in Corinthian style support four large arches, upon which rests the dome with the Assumption of Mary painted by Il Cigoli. Several great artists of that time, a.o. Cavalieri d Arpino, participated to the decoration which combines art and faith in a perfect union.
The papal monument in honour of Paul V is on the left side of the chapel.
Open: 7 - 19 h (winter 18 h); Sundays 9.30 - 12 h. Free.
There is a second Sistine chapel in Rome. But if the one of the Vatican owes its name to Pope Sixtus IV della Rovere (pontiff from 1471 to 1484) this one on the right side of the nave in Santa Maria Maggiore was commissioned by Pope Sixtus V Peretti (1585 - 1590). During the five years of his pontificate Sixtus V displayed a remarkable energy. He exterminated the brigandage in and around Rome, rearranged the papal finances and spent immense sums in erection of religious and public works.
He called his trusted architect Domenico Fontana to construct a Blessed Sacrament Chapel which would house the Crypt of the Nativity. This is an ancient Nativity Oratory, 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. The crypt is not always open to the public.
Many artists worked on the Sistine Chapel. The altar is beautiful with four gold leafed bronze angels. The chapel contains the tombs of Sixtus V with his statue and the shrine of his early patron Pius V.
SINCE END 2010 THE CHAPEL IS CLOSED FOR RESTORATION WORKS. Till when? Non lo so!
Open: 7 - 19 h (winter 18 h); Sundays 9.30 - 12 h. Free.
Our hotel was located only a couple of blocks from this impressive church, so it was the first place we headed to after checking in and dropping off our bags. Santa Maria Maggiore is one of only four churches designated as major basilicas (the others being St Peter’s in the Vatican City, and St John Lateran and St Paul outside the Walls, both also in Rome) and is thus a significant place of pilgrimage for Roman Catholics. On the afternoon of our visit it was relatively quiet, but when we passed later in the day we noticed that a large group of priests and nuns from somewhere in Africa (judging by the dress of lay people who accompanied them) were gathering for a visit. I mention this so that you are prepared to find the church very busy at times, or even closed for special Masses.
We however were able to explore one of Rome’s oldest churches in peace. Its original core was built in the 5th century and parts of that still remain, so it really is pretty ancient. It is also pretty richly adorned, with mosaics of gold and other colours covering the triumphal arch above the altar. These date originally from its construction although have of course been restored several times over the ages. They offer some of the oldest still-existing depictions of the Virgin Mary in Christian art, and were the model for many future representations. They glorify her role as the Mother of Christ with scenes that include the Annunciation and the Adoration of the Magi. More mosaics in the nave focus on the stories of the Old Testament, such as Moses leading the Jews out of Egypt and parting the Red Sea to lead them to safety. The mosaics inside the apse are less old, dating from the 13th century when this part of the church was extended to form a space for the choir. Amng other scenes, they depict the Coronation of the Virgin and her death.
Many Popes are buried here, as is St Jerome (who translated the Bible into Latin) and the sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who created many of Rome’s best known fountains and other monuments, including the Fontana del Tritone and the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi in the Piazza Navona. The church also holds a relic of wood said to be from the Holy Crib of Christ’s nativity – four boards of sycamore.
The ceiling dates from the 16th century and its ornate design is gilded with gold popularly held to be Inca in origin, brought by to Europe by Christopher Columbus and presented by Ferdinand and Isabella to the Spanish pope Alexander VI – but this is not historically accurate, nice story though it may be. The marble columns that support the nave are even older than the building itself, and are thought to have come from the previous church on this spot or another ancient Roman building. Among all the ancient glories is a lovely (or so I thought) modern stained glass rose window above the main entrance door, created in 1995 by Giovanni Hajnal.
Outside, the original facade was partly covered in 1743 with a grand new one facing the Piazza Santa Maria Maggiore. The Marian Column dates from 1614.
The basilica is open every day from 7.00 am to 6.45 pm. There is no charge to visit, though it would be nice to make a donation to its upkeep. I believe there is a charge for the museum, which displays some of the treasures of the church (paintings, vestments, chalices etc) but as we didn’t have time for this and no fee is quoted on the museum website, I can’t be sure of this.
This is the largest of the 26 churches in Rome dedicated to the Virgin Mary - thus the Maggiore (Major). It's also one of four papal basilicas in Rome and the only one to retain its original paleochristian layout. Although greatly altered over time, the current structure dates from the 5th century and was constructed on the site of a 4th-century Roman basilica. As the legend goes, Pope Liberius, who'd had a vision of the Virgin, ordered the first church built on spot where she'd appeared, and the layout was dictated by a miraculous August 5th snowfall that outlined the shape. The 'Miracle of the Snow' is still celebrated in the basilica today.
Because it's so old and so important there's far too much to cover in a paragraph or two! It's primarily known for its glittering, well-preserved mosaics - 5th century in the nave and arch, and 13th century in the apse - but has many other interesting assets such as:
• Glorious baroque-style Borghese/Paolina Chapel containing a venerated icon of the Virgin known as Salus Populi Romani (Salvation of the Roman People). Some believe it to have been painted from life by St. Luke (although it's more likely 13rd century) and that it once prevented a plague.
• Impressive side chapel (Sistine) with the tombs of 2 popes, beautiful altar with bronze angels and golden tabernacle
• Cosmati marble flooring
• The tallest campanile in Rome
• The tombs of St. Jerome, St Matthew the Apostle, Gian Lorenzo Bernini and family, Paolina Borghese Bonaparte (sister of Napoleon) and Popes Nicholas IV, Sixtus V, Clement VIII, Clement IX, St. Pius V and Paul V
• Columns flanking the nave that were either original to the first basilica or recycled from a pre-Christian Roman building
This is a not-to-be-missed of Rome's churches. Admission is free and there's a VERY nice virtual tour with eight, 360-degree views on this website:
One word of caution: while the basilica itself may be open, masses may be occurring at the high altar or in any of the chapels so no sightseeing is allowed in those areas during those times; review the schedule of services before you go. Sunday is the least favorable day for a visit due to heavy mass lineup.
Hours and other info:
SM Maggiore is, simply, stunning. It should be the first Roman church you enter...........far less grandiose and 'in your face' than St Peter's, its mosaics and marbles dazzle, its complexities fascinate. If you have time to only visit one Roman basilica, make it this one.
SM Maggiore dates from the fifth century, but there was a church on the spot from around 352AD. Pope Liberius dreamed that the Virgin Mary told him to build on a place where there was no snow lying on the Esquiline Hill, and so he did: the first church was called Santa Maria delle Neve (of the snow). This event is commorated on August 5th, when a special Mass is held and white rose petals fall from the ceiling (and the firemen create artificial snow in the piazza outside in the evening!).
The original building is inside an 18th century shell, but it is still intact. There are tombs of Popes, and another Sistine Chapel (the marble in the church was 'recycled' from the ruins of ancient Rome, and is truly beautiful). Bernini is buried here, and a reliquary supposedly holds parts of Christ's crib.
The floor is decorated with swirling patterns of mosaics, there are wonderful original mosaics inside the dome and in the loggia.....so much to see that I've made a travelogue about it.
Da Vinci Code fans should not miss the 'eye in a triangle' painting, which is rather tucked away in the first chapel on the right as you enter.
Some of the photos here were taken from our hotel window - a view of Piazza Santa Maria Maggiore I never tired of. Early morning was my favourite time, the piazza slowly coming to life as early morning prayers called people to the church, workers hurried to their daily routine and the first tourists of the day drifted across the cobblestones.
Early morning was the best time to visit the great basilica too, its vast space empty of all but a few visitors. Here on the crown of the Esquiline Hill, the biggest and most populous area of Imperial Rome, the huge church we see today has a history that dates back to the middle of the fourth century. The most important of all the churches in Rome dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the first church here was built by Pope Liberius after a vision of the Virgin appeared to him. A century later that church was replaced with an altogether grander basilica that has been enlarged and become increasingly more magnificent in the succeeding centuries. Despite all that, the church retains the essential form of an Imperial basilica, an effect enhanced by the 36 marble columns supporting the nave that pre-date the church itself.
Amongst its many treasures, great expanses of glorious mosaics really are the crown jewels. The suggestion of bringing binoculars in one guide book isn't so silly - the finest - original 5th century work over the triumphal arch and along the nave - are very high up and very detailed. The depiction of the Coronation of the Virgin in the apse is much later 12th century work. In photo 3 you can see some of the 13th century mosaics that adorned the basilica's facade until the loggia was added in the 18th century.
The column in the piazza was erected in 1614 to give thanks for survival from the plague - the first of many such columns to be erected across Europe but the only one that once graced Constantine's basilica in the Roman Forum.
The Pope comes to the Basilica each year to celebrate the Assumption of the Virgin, a day of great pomp and colour. Imagine the view you would have of that day from our hotel room
Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore dates back from the time of Pope Sixtus III (432-440). (Although the first church founded here was in c. 350 by Pope Liberius - but was more a 'church' rather than the basilica you see today). This is an impressive church. The church has a bell tower that chimes every hour and ever quarter hour. There are some really good mosaics and a beautiful gilded ceiling. There are also monuments to former Popes and Costanzo Partizi (although I am not certain who Costanzo Patrizi actually was) inside the basilica.
If you get the time, take a trip to this church. I remember I had a nice time sitting out the front in the cool shade of this church and watching people walking around the piazza. I also remember looking down a side street and seeing a couple of guys playing trumpets and dancing in the street.
There are sights which definatelly deserving to have more options for the pics, I'd say like ten. Yes, the answer could be, make more tips it's allowed and I agree but what to write about if am not good in writings, lol.
Definatelly, I am not a scriboman, prefer to express my adventure with the photo, more then writing about the spot. It was said: "picture could tell more then 1000 words could say", and I second it strongly.
A legend I want to tell you...
In 356 Maria came to pope Libertus in a dream.
She told him to build a church at the place
where he would find snow in Rome.
Of course the pope obeyed this dream and
on the morning of the 5th of august he found
snow on Esquilijn. Yes in the middle of summer.
That is still memorated each year when
they trow down leafs of dahlias.
It is said that the gold plated ceiling is the
first gold that arrived from south America ,
brought along with Colombus.
It was a gift from pope Alexander VI Borgia
end of the 15th century.
Is that something to be proud of?
I don't think so? History has proven differently ,
but it is nice to know.
Btw you can build a complete page on this church
because it's history goes back so long.
It's apperance now is a summary of centuries
and styles. But it works all together.
The Santa Maria Maggiore is a major basilica located at Esquilin hill.
Legend has it that the Holy Mary appeared to pope Liberio in 356. She told him to built a church at the place it would snow. In the hot roman summer on the 5th of august there was snow at Esquilin hill. The miracle of the snow is celebrated each year, when white rose petals are dropped from the dome during the Mass.
The church built during the IV century got remodeled through the years. Therefor the building shows different architectural styles. The bell tower is the highest in Rome (about 75 meters) and in the church you can find works by many Italian masters.
There is a nice museum located in the catacombs of the church.
Not the official website, but a very good one about this church: http://roma.katolsk.no/mariamaggiore.htm
More pictures can be seen in our travelogue