Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore is one of the most beautiful and yet lesser visited churches in Rome. You will find it in the Esquilino District, actually very close to the city’s main train station Stazione Termini.
While virtually all visitors in Rome pass by the station at some point during their trip to the city, literally a fraction of them visit this church, usually heading straight for the churches in the historical center of town.
This means that depending on the day and time you visit, you will hardly find other visitors inside the church – a real bliss in a city where crowds are almost everywhere!
In this post, I will share everything you should know about Santa Maria Maggiore church – its history, its main points of interest, and practical information that will help you plan your visit.
Make sure to read my post The Most Beautiful Churches In Rome.
The History Of Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore
The history of Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore church is steeped in legend. The story goes that in 352 a wealthy Roman senator and his wife were without any children to leave their fortune to after they had died. The couple made a vow to give all of their possessions to the Virgin Mary and prayed to ask for the best way to honor her with their fortune.
That night, on August 4th, it’s said that the Virgin Mary appeared in a dream to Pope Liberius and the wealthy Roman and asked them to build her a sanctuary. The next morning, during the scorching heights of the hot Roman summer, snow was seen falling on the top of Esquiline Hill.
This was seen as a sign from the Virgin Mary herself, and it was decided that a basilica would be built on the snow-covered spot in order to honor Mary.
This legend was a popular tale for Romans, first reported after the year 1000. The real story of how the basilica came to be is a little different. Construction of the current church dates back to the 5th century and is believed to have started under the orders of Pope Sixtus III (432–440), but recently historians have indicated that it was in fact Pope Celestine I (422-423) who ushered the project through.
Whoever it was, the church was consecrated on 5th August, 434 AD, following the Council of Ephesus in 431, which decided to proclaim the Virgin Mary the Mother of God. Santa Maria Maggiore church was one of the first churches to honor Mary; its interiors coated in ornate mosaics dedicated to the Virgin were pivotal in the depiction of the Virgin.
Much of the original church remains, with numerous different parts being added throughout the centuries and an earthquake in 1348 damaging the structure. A bell tower was added in the 13th century and chapels were built in the 16th and 17th centuries.
The church’s ornate Baroque facade was constructed in the 18th century. Over the years, the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore has been known by many different names including Our Lady of the Snows, Santa Maria Lieriana and Santa Maria del Presepe.
Today, it’s an important basilica in Rome and makes up part of the Vatican UNESCO World Heritage site. Interestingly, despite being located within Italian territory, the land is in fact owned by the Holy See and in 1929 was granted immunity under international law.
What To See When Visiting The Basilica Of Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome
Before stepping foot in the Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore itself, make sure to stop and take in the church’s impressive facades. Designed by Italian architect Ferdinand Fuga and commissioned by Pope Benedict XIV in 1740, it’s a magnificent example of Baroque art.
The stonework is decorated in emblems of the architect and of the pope, including cherubs and garlands. A portico is made up of five lower arched doorways and three second-storey upper loggia arches. The arcades hide beautifully decorated 13th-century mosaics which can be viewed on pre-arranged tours.
The bell tower is also an impressive sight not to miss before entering the church. The tower is the tallest of its kind in all of Rome and stands at 246 feet (75 meters) tall. Dating back to the 14th century, it was built on the orders of Pope Gregorio XI on his return to Rome from Avignone.
The main nave of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore is flanked by two side naves which are edged by 42 original marble and granite colonnades. The structure of the church’s interior marks it out as one of the most important in Rome as it is one of the only basilicas in Rome to retain this sort of Paleochristian design.
Take a moment to look down at the floor of the nave which dates back to the 12th century. The time-worn pavement is a classic example of the Cosmati style of geometric stonework which was particularly popular in Rome in medieval times.
The Sistine Chapel
Not to be confused with the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, this Sistine Chapel was the work of architect Domenico Fontana and is named after Pope Sixtus V. The main altar of the 16th-century chapel features four golden bronze angels, which hold aloft a model of the chapel. The chapel’s Mannerist interior decorations were carried out between 1587–1589 by a team of artists led by Cesare Nebbia and Giovanni Guerra.
Just outside the entrance to the Sistine Chapel is the tomb of the Bernini family which includes Gian Lorenzo Bernini himself.
Head over to my post Where To See The Works Of Bernini In Rome.
Baldachin and High Altar
Santa Maria Maggiore basilica is a papal basilica and is often where the pope will perform religious ceremonies throughout the year, such as the annual Feast of the Assumption of Mary on 15th August. Santa Maria Maggiore church’s canopied High Altar is only reserved for the use of the pope and it is particularly ornate.
Two sets of stairs lead down below the altar where the relics of the wood from the Holy Crib of the Nativity are said to be kept. The reliquary itself is a 19th-century design by Luigi Valadier. Here you’ll also see a statue of Pope Pius IX who ordered the construction of the reliquary.
Make sure to take some time to look above the high altar. The breathtaking gold and blue of the 13th-century Coronation of the Virgin mosaics by Jacopo Torriti are particularly important in their use of this tiled art form to tell Biblical stories.
The ceiling of the Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore offers yet more opportunity to be impressed by the history of the church. The coiffured 16th-century ceiling was the design of Giuliano da Sangallo but was completed by his brother Antonio.
Featuring at its center the Pope’s heraldic coat of arms, the Renaissance ceiling is also draped in legend. It’s believed that the gold used to gild the ceiling was brought back from America by Christopher Columbus.
The Borghese Chapel / Pauline Chapel
This ornate chapel was built between 1606 and 1612 by Flamino Ponzio to house the image of the Madonna Salus Populi Romani under the orders of Pope Paul V. The chapel sits on the opposite side of the nave to the Sistine Chapel and follows a symmetrical design.
Similar to the better known Sistine Chapel of the Vatican, its floor plan is laid out like a Greek Cross with large pilasters supporting four large arches which are topped by a dome.
As it was built 25 years after the Sistine Chapel, the decoration of the Borghese chapel utilizes a more free style of design. Decorated in gilded cornices, precious marbles, bronze angels and a blue stone altar, it is an indication of the Baroque style coming into fashion.
Here is also where visitors can see the Salus Populi Romani, a Byzantine altarpiece brought to Rome in the 6th century that depicts the Virgin and Child. Legends attribute the painting to Saint Luke, an early Christian artist who is said to have painted the piece from an icon in a town in Israel. Although this story has since been debunked by historians, it’s still said to date over a thousand years old.
Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore opening hours and admissions
The Basilica is open every day from 7:00 am. until 6:45 pm. Like all churches in Rome (save for a few exceptions!) the church is free to enter and you can just walk in as you wish. Donations can be made at the entrance to the church.
Check out my post The Best Free Things To Do In Rome.
Should you get a guided tour?
Although you do not need to take a guided tour to see the real beauty of the church, tours are available and do offer a more in-depth look at the history and architecture of the building. If you are into religious art and churches, it may be a good idea to join one. Tours usually last one hour and are actually quite budget friendly.
For a guided tour of Santa Maria Maggiore church, click here.
Best time to visit Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore
Santa Maria Maggiore church church is a particularly important religious building in Rome, but it’s not nearly as busy as other sites such as the Vatican. You can visit any time throughout the day and not have to grapple with hordes of visitors. If you do (or don’t) want to visit when a mass is taking place, then it’s a good idea to check the church’s timetable in advance.
Remember that, like for any other churches in the Eternal City, you need to be dressed modestly to visit Santa Maria Maggiore church.
For more information on an adequate dress code, click here.
There are security checks in place at the entrance to Santa Maria Maggiore. There is a security tent outside the front of the church where any belongings or luggage will be screened.
Is photography allowed?
Photography is allowed inside the church except for one of the side altars and of the papal chapel. Note that flash photography is not allowed.
Although public toilets in Rome are often hard to come by, thankfully Santa Maria Maggiore has clean, spacious toilets for visitors to use.
Albeit incredibly old, Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore is actually accessible to people with disabilities – people with reduced mobility or on wheelchair will find a ramp on the right hand side of the facade in Piazza Santa Maria Maggiore.
How to get there
The nearest train and metro station is Termini Station, which is only a few minutes walk from the basilica. Around 20 different buses serve the nearby Termini bus stop which is located about five minutes away on foot.