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The Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore

The Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore is one of Rome’s four Major Basilicas, along with the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, St. Peter’s Basilica, and the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran. Its importance is based on its size, age, and the fact that it is the largest church dedicated to the Virgin Mary and also one of the oldest. Although its architectural details span more than a thousand years, its main layout remains unchanged from when it was first built in the 5th century, making it one of the finest surviving examples of an early Christian church. Inside it’s packed with artistic and religious treasures. Aside from various relics, jaw-dropping stone-work, and the tomb of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the church’s main draws are its invaluable 5th-century mosaics depicting various scenes from the Old Testament. St. Mary Major, as it’s called in English, is a perennial draw for both religious pilgrims and lovers of the art of Late Antiquity.

The high altar sits above the reliquary in Santa Maria Maggiore.
The high altar sits above the reliquary in Santa Maria Maggiore.
The reliquary, or Crypt of the Nativity, purportedly holds pieces of the holy crib.
The reliquary, or Crypt of the Nativity, purportedly holds pieces of the holy crib.
A statue of the Virgin Mary in Santa Maria Maggiore.
A statue of the Virgin Mary in Santa Maria Maggiore.
Behind the porphyry columns you can see the ceiling mosaic by Jacopo Torriti.
Behind the porphyry columns you can see the ceiling mosaic by Jacopo Torriti.
The high altar sits above the reliquary in Santa Maria Maggiore.
The reliquary, or Crypt of the Nativity, purportedly holds pieces of the holy crib.
A statue of the Virgin Mary in Santa Maria Maggiore.
Behind the porphyry columns you can see the ceiling mosaic by Jacopo Torriti.

Visiting the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore: Things to See

The Architecture and the Belfry

Santa Maria Maggiore was designed according to the same Hellenistic principles of form and balance that Vitruvius championed in the 1st century BC, making its original structure very old indeed. However, the bones of the building were added to and embellished over more than a thousand years. Today it is a hodge-podge of different styles and influences. The interior and the facade are mostly Baroque, the belfry (the tallest in Rome at 240 feet) is Romanesque, the interior mosaics are from the 5th century while the ones on the exterior are from the 13th century. The Cosmati paving (named for the family of artists who laid it) on the floor comes from the 12th century, the Sistine Chapel from the 16th century, the ceiling is said to be gilded with gold from Christopher Columbus’ first voyages in the 15th century…and the relics packed into every corner (including inside the porphyry altar)? Those are anyone’s guess.

The Mosaics

The oldest and most famous mosaics in Saint Mary Major are on the triumphal arch in the nave. What sets these apart from the other old mosaics you will encounter during your trip to Italy? The first thing is their age: they are some of the oldest known depictions of the Virgin Mary. Next, they are also some of the best mosaic depictions from Christian Late Antiquity. They mark a period in which both the art of mosaics as well as the depiction of the Virgin flourished in the West. Also, don’t miss the mosaic of Moses Leading the Jews out of Egypt in the nave as well as Jacopo Torriti’s representation of the coronation of Mary in the apse.

The Crypt of the Nativity

Santa Maria Maggiore’s most prized relics are fragments of the manger or crib used to hold Jesus Christ when he was born. These are kept in a crystal reliquary under the high altar known as the Crypt of the Nativity.

The (other) Sistine Chapel

Unlike its more famous cousin in the Vatican (named for Pope Sixtus V), this chapel is named for Pope Sixtus the IV. It was designed by Domenico Fontana and contains Sixtus’ tomb, along with that of Pope Pius V. But these aren’t the only famous graves in the church. Just outside the chapel is the tomb of the great baroque sculptor, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, whose work is featured prominently in the Borghese Gallery, as well as many other parts of Rome.

The Miracle of the Madonna of the Snow

Santa Maria Maggiore is home to one of Rome’s most beloved legends. In fact, it owes it location to it. The story goes that on the night of August 4th AD 359, the Virgin appeared in dreams to St. Liberius as well as a wealthy Roman patrician named Giovanni and asked them to build her a church. The next day, August 5th, snow was discovered on the Esquiline Hill – as clear a miracle as you will ever see during the infernally hot Roman summer – and Liberius and Giovanni chose it as the spot upon which to build their church. Since 1983, every August 5th the miracle is commemorated at the Basilica by releasing a shower of white rose petals from the Dome – a sight that is reportedly one of the more moving religious expressions in Rome whether you believe the legend or not. It is also the basis for Santa Maria Maggiore’s other name, “Our Lady of the Snows”.

Tips for Visiting the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore

Opening Times

The Basilica is open every day from 7:00am to 6:45pm

The Sacristy is open from 7:00am to 12:30pm, and from 3:00pm (3:30 on Sundays and Holidays) to 6:30pm.

Holy Masses run weekdays at 7:00am,  8:00am, 9:00am, 10:00am, 11:00am,  12:00 pm, and 6:00 pm in the Sforza Chapel.

Sundays & Holidays: (in the Paolina Chapel) 7:00am, 8:00am, 9:00am
(on the Papal Altar)10:00am (in Latin), 12:00pm, and 6:00 pm

Sundays and Feasts:
9:00am – Liturgy of the Hours
10:00am – Holy Mass of the Canons (in Latin)
4:40pm – Holy Rosary
5:15pm – Vespers

Eucharistic Adoration run every day (except on Saturdays and Sundays) from 9:00am to 4:15 pm in the Sforza Chapel. Vespers and Eucharistic Benediction take place at 4:15pm

Holy Rosary runs on weekdays at 5:25 pm.

Sacrament of Penance runs from 7:00am to 12:30pm; and from 3:30pm to 6:45pm.

Rules

Santa Maria Maggiore is a place of worship and so proper attire must be worn inside. For both women and men; this means covering your shoulders and your legs to the knee. If you are wearing a tank top or short shorts, bring a sweater or scarf to wrap around you.

Tickets

It is free to enter Santa Maria Maggiore. but if you want to see all of Romes Major Basilicas it’s best to go with a certified tour, like the Walks of Italy Major Basilicas Tour, that can drive you to each one.

The Best Time to Visit Santa Maria Maggiore

Despite being one of the more important churches in Rome as well as a venerated Pilgrimage site, St. Mary Major is not one of the more popular tourist destinations. This makes it a delight to visit at any time of the year. Even when there are more people visiting during high season, its titanic size means you will never feel crowded for space.

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