The Papal Basilica of St Mary Major Rome – Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore

Bazilika Marija Snežna, Piazza di S. Maria Maggiore, 42, Rim, Italija

Website of the Sanctuary

+39 06 698 868 00

Every day: from 7.00 am to 6.45 pm

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Papal Audience are held on Wednesdays if the Pope is in Rome, giving pilgrims and visitors the chance to “see the Pope” and receive the Papal Blessing or Apostolic Blessing from the successor of the Apostle Peter during their visit. Get tickets HERE

The Basilica of St Mary Major – Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore

is a Papal major basilica and the largest Catholic Marian church in Rome, Italy, from which size it receives the appellation “major”.

The Patriarchal Basilica of St Mary Major reigns as an authentic jewel in the crown of Roman churches. Its beautiful treasures are of inestimable value, and represent the Church’s role as the cradle of Christian artistic civilization in Rome.

For nearly sixteen centuries, Basilica of St Mary Major has held its position as a Marian shrine par excellence and has been a magnet for pilgrims from all over the world who have come to the Eternal City to experience the beauty, grandeur and holiness of the of Basilica of St Mary Major.


See our Top 15 catholic shrines around the world.

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The Holy Crib

In the crypt under the high altar lies the celebrated relic known as the Holy Crib. A statue of Pope Pius IX kneeling before the ancient wooden pieces of the manger serves as an example to the faithful who come to see the first humble crib of the Savior.

Pius IX’s devotion to the Holy Crib led him to commission the crypt chapel, and his coat of arms is visible above the altar. The precious crystal urn trimmed in silver, through which the faithful can venerate the relic, was designed by Giuseppe Valadier.

The Basilica of Saint Mary Major

Salus Populi Romani

Protectress of the Roman People —  venerated image of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Rome. The 5th century Byzantine icon of the Madonna and Child features holding a handkerchief and Gospel book and is permanently enshrined within the Borghese Chapel of the Basilica of Saint Mary Major.

The Basilica of Saint Mary Major

The Façade of the Basilica of St Mary Major

The façade is the magnificent work of Ferdinand Fuga (1741), and faces east, opening in a portico of five arcades on the lower story and three arches in the upper loggia, which covers the thirteenth-century mosaics of the previous façade.

Like precious gems set into the façade, the mosaics illustrate the origin of the Basilica of Saint Mary Major.

In the first scene, the Blessed Virgin appears to Pope Liberius and the Roman Patrician John in the dream that will inspire the location of the new basilica. An exceptional event would confirm the divine will – on August 5, 358, a snowfall covered the Esquiline Hill and in this snow, the Pope traced the perimeter of the future basilica.

The Basilica of Saint Mary Major

Filippo Rusuti’s majestic mosaics welcome visitors, arousing sentiments which draw man closer to the greatness of God. These precious remnants can only be visited through a special guided tour that gratifies the interest of those who contemplate these works of art.

Both in the loggia and in the façade, Fuga’s Baroque tastes and vivid sense of space are amply demonstrated by his architecture. The lower five arches form the portico and support the triple arch of the loggia. This play of open space lightens the heaviness of the columns and their decorative capitals, entablatures, cornices, garlands and cherubs.

History of Basilica of Saint Mary Major

Among the Patriarchal Basilicas of Rome, Basilica of Saint Mary Major is the only one to have kept its original structure, though it has been enhanced over the course of years.

Special details within the church render it unique including:

  • the fifth century mosaics of the central nave,
  • the triumphal arch dating back to the pontificate of Pope Sixtus III (432-440) and
  • the apsidal mosaic executed by the Franciscan friar Jacopo Torriti at the order of Pope Nicholas IV (1288-1292).

Other gems of the church include:

  • the Cosmatesque pavement donated by the Roman nobleman Scoto Paparone and his son in 1288,
  • Arnolfo di Cambio’s Nativity scene from the thirteenth century and
  • the coffered ceiling in gilt wood designed by Giuliano Sangallo in 1450.

The numerous chapels, from the most ornate to the most humble, constructed by popes, cardinals and pious confraternities, the high altar begun by Ferdinando Fuga and later enriched by the genius of Valadier, the Baptistery and finally the relic of the Holy Crib complete the array of splendors contained within these walls. Every column, painting, sculpture and ornament of this basilica resonates with history and pious sentiment.

From the devout pilgrim absorbed in prayer to the studious art-lover, every visitor to St. Mary Major finds both spiritual and visual fulfillment in this holy place. A visit to the Liberian basilica, as it is also called in honor of Pope Liberius, enriches both the mind and soul.

Every August 5th, a solemn celebration recalls the Miracle of the Snows. Before the amazed eyes of the congregation, a cascade of white petals descends from the coffered ceiling, blanketing the hypogeum. From the very beginning of his pontificate, Pope John Paul II requested that an oil lamp burn day and night under the icon of the Salus Populi Romani, as witness to his great devotion to the Madonna.

This same Pope, on the eighth of December 2001, inaugurated another precious jewel of the basilica – the museum, where a modern structure would house ancient masterpieces offering visitors a unique perspective of the history of the Basilica.

The numerous treasures contained in the museum render the Basilica of Saint Mary Major a place where art and spirituality combine in a perfect union, offering visitors a unique experience in contemplating the great works of man inspired by God.

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The Holy Crib

In the crypt under the high altar lies the celebrated relic known as the Holy Crib. A statue of Pope Pius IX kneeling before the ancient wooden pieces of the manger serves as an example to the faithful who come to see the first humble crib of the Savior. Pius IX’s devotion to the Holy Crib led him to commission the crypt chapel, and his coat of arms is visible above the altar. The precious crystal urn trimmed in silver, through which the faithful can venerate the relic, was designed by Giuseppe Valadier.

Protectress of the Roman People —  venerated image of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Rome. The 5th century Byzantine icon of the Madonna and Child features holding a handkerchief and Gospel book and is permanently enshrined within the Borghese Chapel of the Basilica of Saint Mary Major.

The Borghese Chapel

In this chapel, this jewel of rare beauty, art and faith find a perfect union. The icon of the Salus Populi Romani, recounted by pious tradition to have been painted by St. Luke the Evangelist, welcomes all who come before her with her maternal gaze. In 1605, Pope Paul V Borghese (1605-1621) was elected to the pontificate and it is to him that we owe this chapel, known as either the Borghese or Pauline chapel. The structure is symmetrical in design and architectural plan with the Sistine chapel on the opposite side of the Basilica. Like the Sistine, it is shaped as a Greek cross and articulated in the Corinthian order. Powerful pilasters support four large arches, upon which rests the dome.

Built by order of Paul V to house the image of the Madonna Salus Populi Romani, the chapel was designed by Flaminio Ponzio (1560-1618) between the years 1606 and 1612. The consecration of the site took place on January 27, 1613 but the decorative work continued into the next year. The chapel cost the Apostolic Chamber 299,261 scudi and 61 baiocchi. Executed twenty-five years after the Sistine chapel, the decoration of the Borghese chapel seems more impetuous and freer in style. From its precious marbles highlighted by gilded cornices, bronze angels radiant with light and stucco angels in lively and joyous poses, to the majestic altar, made of an intense blue stone, the refined, grandiose monuments of the Borghese chapel are indicative of the first signs of Baroque taste and spirit.

The first model for the altar was made of pear wood in 1607, and the following year the artisan Pompeo Targoni began the work on the present altar which was completed in 1612. The work glitters with gilt metals, cast in the form of airy and lively angels who support the frame, created by Camillo Mariani, which encloses the Salus Populi Romani. Its wealth of detail and strong contrasts in light and shadow are derived from the Florentine Mannerist movement led by Jacopo Sansovino and seem to lighten the heavy mass of architecture with its lyrical, expressive accents. Mariano also sculpted the figure of St. John the Baptist. Without a doubt the most interesting piece of decorative sculpture on the grand altar is the low relief on the front. This work of Stefano Maderno shows Pope Liberius tracing the perimeter of the basilica in the snow. Maderno is also responsible for the angels holding scrolls as they flank the tombs. The altar table was donated in 1749 by Princess Agnese Colonna Borghese, who is commemorated by her coat-of-arms engraved upon it.

Giuseppe Cesari, also known as the Cavalieri d’Arpino frescoed the large lunettes above the altar. On the left, the painting represents the apparition of the Madonna and St. John the Evangelist to St. Gregory the Wonderworker; on the right it shows people bitten by the serpent of heresy before the Temple of God among a crowd of true believers. The same artist also painted the great prophets in the spandrels of the cupola. Isaiah is represented with white hair and a beard, in a blue tunic covered by a red robe and bare feet. Jeremiah is depicted as bald and wearing a long grey beard and blue and gold robes that fall to his feet. Ezekiel appears more youthful, beardless with blond hair and bare-armed in a red robe with blue stripes. Finally, the artist painted young Daniel, pale-skinned with long flowing hair, seated with his sleeves rolled up on his light-blue robe trimmed with gold and engulfed in a purple mantle. The Cavaliere also painted in the arch above the altar the Bishops Ignatius, Theophilus, Ireneus and Cyprian, all of whom were canonized saints.

The Assumption of Mary was painted inside the cupola by Ludovico Cardi nicknamed Il Cigoli . Above the clouds, the Blessed Virgin is transported towards the Heavens. The moon underneath her feet was painted exactly as it had been revealed through the telescope of Galileo, who was a friend of Cigoli. The Apostles, some seated while others are standing, gaze at the triumphant Mary as she holds a queen’s scepter in her hand. Before the Virgin, who has crushed the serpent under her foot, the heavens open and the choirs of angels rejoice. From this multitude, a smaller group of cherubs draws closer to Mary, and clothed in the clouds they form a throne with their golden wings. Other cherubs blow horns, play trumpets and scatter flowers. Above them, we can see a myriad of angelic spirits, whose heads alone are fully visible.

The lantern of the cupola contains six little windows and in the very summit the Eternal Father is represented crowned by scores of seraphim.Giovanni Baglione frescoed the vault of the nave with Doctors of the Church and Evangelists and in the arch above the entrance he painted emperors Julian the Apostate, Leo IV and Costantine V, all of whom persecuted the Church. In the oval above the altar, Giovanni Baglione painted the image of St. Luke.

Guido Reni frescoed the right-hand arch with images of Saints Cyril of Alexandria, Idelphonse and John Chrysostom together with Saints Pulcheria, Gertrude and Cunegonde. On the left arch, Saints Eraclius and Narsete stand beside the powerful figures of St. Francis and St. Dominic. On this same arch, above the funeral monument of Paul V, Reni painted an image that shows the Eternal Father in anger over the wickedness of men. Several of the putti arranged on the frieze running around the chapel above the capitals were executed by Stefano Maderno. French sculptor Nicholas Cordier carved the image of David, conqueror of Goliath, pointing towards his descendant, the Messiah, as well as the statues of Aaron, St. Bernard and St. Athanasius. The sculpture of St. Joseph was done by Ambrogio Buonvicino.

The papal monuments in honor of Clement VIII (1592-1605) and Paul V were both designed by Silla di Viggiu. The caryatids on the Clementine monument to the left were carved by Pietro Bernini, father of GianLorenzo.

History of Basilica of Saint Mary Major

The Patriarchal Basilica of Saint Mary Major reigns as an authentic jewel in the crown of Roman churches. Its beautiful treasures are of inestimable value, and represent the Church’s role as the cradle of Christian artistic civilization in Rome. For nearly sixteen centuries, St. Mary Major has held its position as a Marian shrine par excellence and has been a magnet for pilgrims from all over the world who have come to the Eternal City to experience the beauty, grandeur and holiness of the of Saint Mary Major.

Among the Patriarchal Basilicas of Rome, Basilica of Saint Mary Major is the only one to have kept its original structure, though it has been enhanced over the course of years. Special details within the church render it unique including the fifth century mosaics of the central nave, the triumphal arch dating back to the pontificate of Pope Sixtus III (432-440) and the apsidal mosaic executed by the Franciscan friar Jacopo Torriti at the order of Pope Nicholas IV (1288-1292). Other gems of the church include the Cosmatesque pavement donated by the Roman nobleman Scoto Paparone and his son in 1288, Arnolfo di Cambio’s Nativity scene from the thirteenth century and the coffered ceiling in gilt wood designed by Giuliano Sangallo in 1450. The numerous chapels, from the most ornate to the most humble, constructed by popes, cardinals and pious confraternities, the high altar begun by Ferdinando Fuga and later enriched by the genius of Valadier, the Baptistery and finally the relic of the Holy Crib complete the array of splendors contained within these walls. Every column, painting, sculpture and ornament of this basilica resonates with history and pious sentiment.

 

From the devout pilgrim absorbed in prayer to the studious art-lover, every visitor to St. Mary Major finds both spiritual and visual fulfillment in this holy place. A visit to the Liberian basilica, as it is also called in honor of Pope Liberius, enriches both the mind and soul. Indeed, it is not uncommon to see visitors rapt in admiration before the spellbinding beauty of the artwork nor, at the same time, to observe the devotion of all those engrossed in prayer in search of comfort and assistance before the image of Mary, who is venerated here under the beloved title of Salus Populi Romani.

Every August 5th, a solemn celebration recalls the Miracle of the Snows. Before the amazed eyes of the congregation, a cascade of white petals descends from the coffered ceiling, blanketing the hypogeum. From the very beginning of his pontificate, Pope John Paul II requested that an oil lamp burn day and night under the icon of the Salus Populi Romani, as witness to his great devotion to the Madonna.

This same Pope, on the eighth of December 2001, inaugurated another precious jewel of the basilica – the museum, where a modern structure would house ancient masterpieces offering visitors a unique perspective of the history of the Basilica.

The numerous treasures contained in the museum render the Basilica of Saint Mary Major a place where art and spirituality combine in a perfect union, offering visitors a unique experience in contemplating the great works of man inspired by God.

The Façade

The façade is the magnificent work of Ferdinand Fuga (1741), and faces east, opening in a portico of five arcades on the lower story and three arches in the upper loggia, which covers the thirteenth-century mosaics of the previous façade.

Like precious gems set into the façade, the mosaics illustrate the origin of the Basilica of Saint Mary Major. In the first scene, the Blessed Virgin appears to Pope Liberius and the Roman Patrician John in the dream that will inspire the location of the new basilica. An exceptional event would confirm the divine will – on August 5, 358, a snowfall covered the Esquiline Hill and in this snow, the Pope traced the perimeter of the future basilica.

Filippo Rusuti’s majestic mosaics welcome visitors, arousing sentiments which draw man closer to the greatness of God. These precious remnants can only be visited through a special guided tour that gratifies the interest of those who contemplate these works of art.

Both in the loggia and in the façade, Fuga’s Baroque tastes and vivid sense of space are amply demonstrated by his architecture. The lower five arches form the portico and support the triple arch of the loggia. This play of open space lightens the heaviness of the columns and their decorative capitals, entablatures, cornices, garlands and cherubs.

The statues accentuating the outline of the façade represent saintly Popes, as well as Saint Charles Borromeo and the Blessed Nicholas Albergati. Crowning the ensemble, as if hovering over from Heaven above, are the Madonna and Child. The façade seems almost like a tabernacle, allowing glimpses of the shimmering, polychrome mosaic concealed behind it.

The foundation stone for this façade was laid on March 4, 1741 by Pope Benedict XIV. Many eighteenth-century sculptors contributed to this remarkable project. The works both within and outside of the Basilica of Saint Mary Major were completed just in time for the Jubilee Year 1750.

One hundred and fifty years separate the construction of the two palaces flanking the façade. Flaminio Ponzio built the structure on the right in 1605, while the second building was designed by Ferdinando Fuga in 1743 to give an overall uniformity to the site. Two graceful allegorical statues surmount the central entrance – Virginity by Giovanni Battista Maini, and Humility, carved by Pietro Bracci, who is also known for his sculptures at the Trevi Fountain.

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