Rome’s Saint Mary Major (Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, in Italian) is one of the four patriarchal basilicas in Rome. It was constructed by Sixtus III in the fifth century A.D. It is also reputed to be Pope Francis‘ favourite church.
Saint Mary Major Basilica Rome
Opening hours and admission (2022)
Opening hours: 07.00 till 18.45. Admission: Free (but the museum costs 3 Euros, and the Loggia delle Benedizioni, the Sala dei Papi and the Scala del Bernini together 5 Euros and the underground excavations 5 Euros. Except for the museums these can only visited in the company of an official guide).
Each August 5th, from 9 PM until midnight, there will be a reenactment of the miraculous snowfall that earned the basilica its nickname Saint Mary of the Snow.
History and description
The location of the basilica was chosen at the precise spot where, in the year 352, after an apparition of the Virgin Mary, snow fell in mid summer (August 5th). Sometimes Saint Mary Major is therefore also called Santa Maria della Neve (“Saint Mary of the Snow”).
The basilica was first constructed by Pope Liberius in the year 358. Pope Sixtus III had it completely rebuilt between 432 and 440. The bell-tower was added in 1376 and is the tallest one in Rome (75m).
In 1743 Ferdinando Fuga renovated the facade after a design he had originally created for the Basilica of Saint John in Lateran.
Apart from Fuga, several famous architects including Domenico Fontana, Arnolfo di Cambio and Giacomo della Porta contributed in the course of the centuries.
Saint Mary Major is the only one of Rome‘s basilicas still retaining its original structure.
The Maggiore part in the name refers to the basilica being the biggest church dedicated to the Virgin Mary in the city.
The first version of the church was a lot smaller than the present basilica. The steps leading up to the entrance show the exact width of the original church.
Bell tower (Campanile)
The Romanesque bell tower, with its height of 75 meters, is the tallest one in Rome. It was built between 1375 and 1376. It was raised later and completed in the second half of the 15th century, at the behest of Cardinal William d’Estouteville.
The bell tower has 5 ancient bells. The biggest one is kept in the belfry and dates back to 1289. It was cast by Guidotto Pisano for the Savelli family. The other ones were added between the 16th and 19th centuries. Another 12th century bell, donated by a cahmberlain of Pope Callistus II, was later moved to the Vatican Museums.
One of the bells got the nickname Campana della Sperduta (“Bell of the Lost One”). According to a 16th century legend, a shepherdess got lost in the dark and the bell was rung in order to guide her home. She never returned, but it became a tradition to ring the bell at 9 PM every evening. Another story claims that a lost pilgrim had prayed to Mary to guide him to Rome. Thanks to the ringing of the bell he found his way and in gratitude he paid for the bell to rung every night at 9 PM.
The clock is an early 19th century addition.
Works of art and other highlights
The baroque facade of the church shows an elegant loggia with 3 arches. The mosaics visible behind the arches picture the miracle of the snow and date back to the 2nd half of the 12th century.
The interior of Saint Mary Major consists of 3 naves, the middle one of which having a Renaissance caisson ceiling. The naves are decorated with frescoes picturing Old and New Testament scenes. The triumphal arch is adorned with 5th century mosaic showing Jesus as an infant.
The 13th century mosaics in the apse were created by Jacopo Torriti and have the “Triumph of Maria” as their theme.
The cosmatesque marble floor, which was laid during the Middle Ages, is from the regione Lazio itself.
The Madonna Altar stems from the 12th century, the Loggia and its frescoes from the 14th.
Giuliano San Gallo designed the beautiful ceiling with gilded panels. The gold was donated by Queen Isabella of Spain. It is supposed to be part of the first shipment from the newly discovered America.
The one in Saint Peter’s Basilica is not the only Sistine Chapel in Rome. Domenico Fontana designed another one for Saint Mary Major in the 16th century.
The baldachin was added in the 18th century.
Flaminio Ponzo was responsible for the baroque Capella Paulina.
The rather unadorned tomb to the right of the main altar contains the mortal remains of the sculptor and architect Bernini.
The main altar itself was designed by Ferdinando Fuga. Later it was embellished by Valadier.
Other interesting highlights are the Baptistery, the Relic of the Holy Cradle and a 13th century presepe (nativity scene) by Arnolfo da Cambio.
The door to the left of the main entrance is the Holy Door. Each one of the patriarchal basilicas has one and if, in a Holy Year, you enter through all four of them, all your sins will be forgiven.
The column on the Piazza di Santa Maria Maggiore in front of the church used to adorn the Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine. The statue crowning the column represents Mary. It is now known as the Colonna della Pace (“Column of Peace”). The fountain was added a year later.
The Porta Maggiore, one of the city’s oldest and biggest city gates, was not named thus because of its size, but because there used to be a street leading directly to the basilica from there.
The Saint Mary of the Snow nickname can be confusing, since there is a church officially called Santa Maria della Neve in Rome.
Address and public transport
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.