Santa Maria Maggiore

The Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore is one of the four Patriarchal Basilicas of Rome and one of the Seven Pilgrim Churches. A patriarchal basilica (or major basilica) is a church in which the high altar is reserved only for the use of the Pope or his representative—in this case, the high altar is a magnificent canopied Byzantine work of art. In the eleven century, it was traditional after a pilgrimage on the Via Francigena that runs from Canterbury in England through France and Switzerland and on to Rome, to visit the Seven Pilgrim Churches. It was considered obligatory to at least visit the four major basilicas.

The other three major Patriarchal Basilicas of Rome are St. Peter’s (San Pietro) Basilica in Vatican City, the Basilica of St. John Lateran, and Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls. The three minor basilicas that make up the balance of the Seven Pilgrim Churches are St. Lawrence Outside the Walls, St. Sebastian Outside the Walls, and the Basilica of the Holy Cross or Santa Croce. For the 2000 celebration of his Jubilee, Pope John Paul II replaced St. Sebastian Outside the Walls with Our Lady of Divine Love, but most Catholics have simply added it to the original list of seven.

Santa Maria Maggiore is also known as the Liberian Basilica because it was commissioned by Pope Liberius in 360 AD. It stands on the site of an ancient Roman temple to the goddess Cybele. According to legend, a vision of the Virgin Mary appeared to the Pope commanding him to build the church, and the floor plan was outlined by a miraculous snowfall. August 5 continues to be the feast day celebrating this miraculous event. Other feast days (in case you want to know when to go to either join in the celebrations or avoid the crowds) are the feast day of Santa Maria Maggiore on August 15 and the procession of the Holy Crib on Christmas Day.

The Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore is considered one of the most beautiful churches in Rome. It is set atop Esquiline Hill. While some of the impact of this commanding location has been diminished by build up of the modern city, it still emanates quite a presence even though much of the exterior is from renovations in the eighteenth century. The interior, on the other hand, retains its majestic early Christian Byzantine form, including the original fifth-century mosaics. You will find more beautiful original early Christian mosaics hidden away behind the rather drab exterior of the nearby Church of Santa Pressede. Many people who visit the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore also step around the corner to visit this little hidden gem.

Three of the four major Patriarchal Basilicas of Rome are on this side (west) of the Tiber River. Only St. Peter’s within the confines of Vatican City is on the opposite side of the river. Other convenient Rome attractions to see when you visit Santa Maria Maggiore include the Pantheon, the Arch of Constantine, Circus Maximus, the Colosseum, Piazza Navonna, and more. Entry to the church is free, with a suggested donation amount posted.

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