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St. Mary Major Basilica: A Must-See Basilica in Rome

St. Mary Major Basilica also known as Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore is the largest Catholic Marian Church in Rome, Italy. It is one of the four patriarchal basilicas in Rome and was constructed by Sixtus III in the fifth century. Reputed as one of Pope Francis’ favourite churches, it is the only one of Rome’s basilicas still retaining its original structure. 

christ and mary mosaic 12th century santa maria maggiore basilica Rome
christ and mary -mosaic 12th century -santa maria maggiore basilica, Rome


The Basilica was built at the request of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Tradition has it that the Roman Patrician, Giovanni and his wife were not able to have any children. They prayed to the Blessed Mother to give them an heir. The Blessed Mother appeared to them in a vision stating that she would like to have a church built in her honour on the Esquiline Hill. To signify that this dream was real, the Blessed Mother claimed that the church’s prospective layout would be outlined in the snow, even though it was the month of August. On August 5, snow fell on the hill amidst a heat wave. Pope Liberius immediately ordered the building of the basilica.

holy spirit baldacchino – santa maria maggiore basilica, Rome
coffered ceiling gold santa maria maggiore roma
coffered ceiling in gold – santa maria maggiore basilica, Rome

The Façade and Interior

The façade of the Church is baroque as it contains an elegant loggia with 3 arches. Behind the arches are mosaics which depict the miracle of the snow and stem from the 2nd half of the 12th century.


baldacchino santa maria maggiore Rome
baldacchino – Santa maria maggiore, Rome

The interior of the basilica consists of 3 naves, where the middle one contains a Renaissance caisson ceiling. Decorated with frescoes picturing scenes from the Old and New Testaments, the interior of the Basilica also has a triumphal arch which consists of a mosaic from the fifth century depicting the young child, Jesus. During the Middle Ages, the cosmatesque marble floor was laid and it comes from the Lazio region.

Cosmatesque floor -santa maria maggiore basilica, Rome 


Finest artwork and architectural wonders

The ceiling of the Basilica is a masterpiece of the Renaissance created by Giuliano da Sangallo. The first gold brought to Spain from the New World by Christopher Columbus was given as a present to Pope Alexander VI and Isabella of Spain. The ceiling is gilded in this gold.

One of the most important Christian treasures are found in this basilica. A relic of the manger from Bethlehem in which the baby Jesus lain is venerated under the Basilica’s High Altar. Across from it lies a marble statue of the Pope who declared the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in 1854, Pope Pius IX.

relics of the manger santa maria maggiore basilica Rome
relics of the manger – santa maria maggiore basilica, Rome

The venerated image of Salus Populi Romani is enshrined in this breath-taking basilica. The image depicts the Blessed Virgin Mary as the protectress and health of the Roman people. The icon had helped to shield the city from the approach of the plague which was seen as a miracle. At a Canonical coronation, the image was granted by Pope Gregory XVI on August 15, 1838. This was accompanied by his Papal bull entitled Cælestis Regina.


Memorable Features

The Basilica contains a papal altar which is only used by the Pope himself or another priest who is given special permission. Preserved in the church are the relics of the True Cross as well as an urn which contains relics of St. Matthew and other ancient martyrs. A Doctor of the Church, St. Jerome who was the first to translate the Bible into Latin is buried here, along with several other popes. A museum beneath the Church holds ancient Roman ruins of two wells, a section of a Roman road, a mosaic pavement, and arches and passageways cut into the bedrock.

Tips for Getting There

You can reach the basilica via the Metro lines A or B at Termini train station.

It’s only a 5-10 minute walk from there.

  • Address: Piazza di Santa Maria Maggiore – Rome (tel. +39 06 69886800). Public transport: Metro: Termini, Vittorio Emanuele. Bus: 16, 71, 75, 105, 105L, 150F , 714, 717, C3, N1, N2, N12, N18. Tram: 5, 14.
  • 7 a.m. to 6.45 p.m.
  • Free entrance
  • The guided tour allows access to the Loggia delle Benedizioni, the Hall of the Popes, and the stairway of Bernini
    Price € 3.00

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Zephania Gangl

Zephania Gangl is a young writer from Schomberg, Ontario specializing in pilgrimages and travel destinations.
Zephania studies Human Biology and Christianity & Culture at the University of Toronto. You can reach her at

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