The Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore is the largest church in Rome dedicated to the ‘Virgin Mary’. The church, which dates back to the fifth century, has a magnificent interior with a quite spectacular gilded ceiling and ornate chapels. This is one of four papal basilicas in Rome (the others are the St. Peter’s Basilica, the St. John’s Basilica and the St. Paul’s Basilica). The church is located on the Cispius, a summit of the Esquiline Hill.
The name of the church implies that it is the most important of the eighty churches in Rome that are dedicated to Mary. It is sometimes called the Santa Maria della Neve (St. Mary of the Snow) or Liberian Basilica, a reference to the medieval Legend of the Snow. According to the legend the patrician John, landowner of the Esquiline Hill, had a dream on the night of August 4 in the year 352. In the dream the Virgin Mary appeared and told him to build a church at the site where snow would fall the next day. That same night pope Liberius had the same dream. In reality the church built by Liberius was originally not dedicated to Mary and it might even have been built elsewhere.
The current church dates from the time of pope Sixtus III, who reigned from 432 to 440. It was built shortly after the First Council of Ephesus (431), where the dogma of Mary’s divine motherhood was proclaimed. The church was built in the tradition of a large Roman basilica, without a transept. In the fourteenth century a bell tower was added to help guide pilgrims to their destination. Later, in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, two large chapels were added, which changed the layout into one resembling a Latin Cross.
Over the centuries the church has undergone many changes. The facade, with its twostory arcade, was added in 1743. It was commissioned by Pope Benedict XIV and built to designs by Ferdinando Fuga. It covers an older twelfthcentury facade decorated with mosaics added in the late thirteenth century by Filippo Rusuti.
The seventyfive meter bell tower the tallest in Rome was built in 1377, shortly after the popes returned from their exile in Avignon. The pyramidal spire was added much later, in the early sixteenth century.
The basilica of Saint Mary Major is best known for its magnificent interior which still resembles that of an ancient basilica. It has a length of almost eightysix meters and is divided into three naves by thirtysix Ionic columns of marble and granite.
Location: Piazza di S. Maria Maggiore, 42, 00100 Rome
Nearby sights: Santa Prassede, Palazzo Massimo, St. Peter in Chains, Santa Maria degli Angeli
Official website: http://www.vatican.va/various/basiliche/sm_maggiore/index_en.html
How to get there: Subway: Termini (A,B), Cavour (B)
Tel.: +39 06 698 86800
Nearby hotels: Maior, Antico Palazzo Rospigliosi, Domus Liberius