Rome: The Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore

Rome’s Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore stands at the summit of the Esquiline Hill. Legend has it that this church, one of the first 5th Century churches dedicated to the Virgin Mary, was placed in this position due to an August snowfall, an event still celebrated every Summer.

The church’s main facade has changed many times since, although the internal structure retains a typically Roman basilica format.

While the back view is equally impressive…

Here’s a close up with the coat of arms of the Medici Pope (Clement X) who rebuilt parts of the church).

The basilica has elements from across the centuries, including this statue of benefactor Philip IV (of Spain), which was cast  by Bernini ( who is buried here), and completed by Girolamo Lucenti.

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And inside the styles are also varied. I immediately noticed the gold that had originally been bought back (apparently) by Christopher Columbus from the “New World” and donated by Ferdinand and Isabella to pope Alexander VI to decorate this space…

There are 27 remaining 5th century mosaics, wrapped around the building and the apse, focused on telling the Biblical stories of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob . The apse itself comes from the 13th Century.

The opulent theme extends into both the baptistery and side chapels…

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VLUU L310W L313 M310W / Samsung L310W L313 M310W

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.. and contrasts with the geometric simplicity of the  mosaic floors laid by the Cosmati family in the 13th Century…

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This was our second visit and this time we had the chance to explore the basilica’s museum, which hosts the apparent first ever sculpted Nativity scene. Dating from the 13th Century, this work by Arnolfo di Cambio was likely influenced by St Francis of Assisi’s living Nativity.

There’s also an archaeological area that can be explored via a guided tour. We’ve left that for a future visit!


  1. i didn’t realize Bernini was buried here! i was at SMM in November, and had not been since i was 16! i was surprised at the security and xray for bags-same as at the Forum. There was a confirmation ceremony going on, so we were not able to walk around much, and went to Santa Prassede. i’ll have to go back and say hi to Gianlorenzo. Ciao, Cristina

    • Hi Cristina – I also missed him the first time I went. From memory he (or at least his plaque) is quite near the front on a step to the left of the altar!

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