Santa Maria Maggiore

Santa Maria Maggiore is the largest Catholic Marian church in Rome, Italy.  It is a papal basilica and often used by the pope. It is one of the four basilicas in Rome holding the title major basilica. Santa Maria Maggiore is located on the summit of the Esquiline Hill, and it is the only patriarchal basilica of the four basilicas in Rome to have retained its paleo-Christian structures.  The other three basilicas of Rome are: St. Peter’s Basilica, St. John’s Basilica and St. Paul’s Basilica. Santa Maria Maggiore (St. Mary Major) is the largest church in Rome having been dedicated to the ‘Virgin Mary’. Its name ‘major’ shows that it is the most important of the 80 churches in Rome that are dedicated to Mary.

Santa Maria Maggiore dates back to the 5th century when the landowner (according to legend the patrician John) of Esquiline Hill had a dream on the 4th of August 352. In the dream, Virgin Mary appeared to him and told him to build a church at the site where snow would fall the following day. On that same night, Pope Liberius had the same dream.

The following day, snow fell on the Esquiline Hill. The pope and the patrician quickly ran towards the site of the miracle and they found that the snow had fallen in the shape of a floor plan for a church. Pope Liberius then decided to build a basilica at that very site as an honor of the Virgin Mary. However, archeological evidence shows that the church was first built in the early 400s and was completed under the reign of Pope Sixtus III between 432 and 440. This was the time when many churches were built and dedicated to Mary.

The Santa Maria Maggiore has had many names from the time it was built. First, it was called St. Mary of the Snow (Santa Maria della Neve), after the miraculous snowfall; then Santa Maria Liberiana after Pope Liberius. After the basilica had obtained a relic of the Holy Crib, it was called St. Mary of the Crib (Santa Maria Del Presepe). Then it finally obtained its current name St. Mary Major (Santa Maria Maggiore).

Full restoration and renovation of Santa Maria Maggiore took place during the 18th century, when the facade and its interior were greatly changed. Santa Maria Maggiore is a tourist’s attraction and it is said to be the second most beautiful church in Rome second only to St. Peter’s. Among the attractions that you can see at the Santa Maria Maggiore are several mosaics (apse mosaic depicting the Coronation of the Virgin, mosaics of the triumphal arch which depicts scenes from the early life of Christ), the nave, the medieval bell tower (the highest in Rome), Athenian marble columns, the Pauline chapel, an icon of Virgin Mary known as Salus Populi Romani (Health of the Roman People), a relic of the True Cross and a museum containing Roman remains. The basilica is decorated with lots of artworks that will make your visit interesting.  The feast day of Santa Maria Maggiore is celebrated on August 15th.