The Basilica of Saint Mary Major (full name, Papal Basilica of Saint Mary Major) is one of the four major basilicas of Rome. It is, at the same time, the largest Marian place of worship in the capital of Italy (though, administratively speaking, it pertains to the state of Vatican), and it is also known as the Basilica of Our Lady of the Snow, as the Liberian Basilica and as the Basilica of Saint Mary of the Crib. It is at the same time one of the first churches dedicated to Virgin Mary.

The basilica was first built under Pope Liberius in 358, but the present structure dates back, in its general lines, to the first half of the 5th century, when Pope Sixtus III commissioned the reconstruction of the former place of worship (the construction works were initiated in 432 and completed in 440). What is exceptional about this church is, unlike plenty other religious edifices in Rome, it managed to keep intact most of its original patrimony. Additions and sundry modifications have, indeed, occurred in the course of time (such as after the earthquake of 1348), but the Basilica of Saint Mary Major can rightfully boast of being one of the few churches to showcase, in its entire splendor, a wealth of antique and medieval treasures.

Built in a style consistent with the importance of the edifice, such as to inspire nothing less but veneration and respect, the basilica is one of the finest examples of classical architecture in Rome. The imposing 75 meters high bell tower (built in the 14th century) is, in fact, the tallest campanile in Rome, reinforcing the importance of the edifice amongst all the other places of worship in the capital. The facade, on the other hand, is not as spectacular as one might expect. It was built in the 12th century, but the loggia designed in 1743 by Ferdinando Fuga under Pope Benedict XIV made it barely visible, lending it the air of a palace. In front of the basilica there is a 1614 Marian column built by Carlo Maderno on top of a base fountain, it too designed by Maderno.

The inside of the edifice is of special magnificence. The church is famed, for that matter, for its 5th century mosaics which, in time, gave rise to plenty of debates aiming at interpreting the religious and social implications of the ancient art poured in creating the mosaics. Located in the nave, they depict scenes of the Old Testament in a manner unparalleled by similar vestiges of the age. Another highlight of the interior refers to the coffered ceiling, formerly gilded with gold, as the tradition maintains, brought from the New World.

A Sistine Chapel (not to be confused with the one at the Vatican Museums) was designed by Domenico Fontana (but completed under the supervision of Cesare Nebbia and Giovanni Guerra, between 1587 and 1589). It is located near the right transept of the basilica, and it contains the tombs of Pope Sixtus V (for who the chapel was built) and of Pope Pius V. The Crypt of the Nativity (located underneath the high altar) allegedly contains a piece of wood brought from the crib where Christ himself was born. The tomb of Saint Jerome can also be spotted in the crypt. The triumphal arch, covered with panels depicting Mary and Christ in sundry typical scenes inspired from the New Testament, is located at the head of the nave. The panels stand, them too, as a climax of the 5th century mosaic art.

Also worthy of attention is the tomb of the great Bernini (close to the Sistine Chapel). What is dazzling about this tomb is its decorative modesty, a feature which contrasts with all the work the architect has done for Rome, leaving his incomparable Baroque mark on the capital of Italy (his sculptural and architectural works are showcased throughout Rome, in landmarks like the Saint Peter’s Basilica and Piazza San Pietro, the Borghese Gallery, Palazzo Barberini, Palazzo Chigi, Fontana del Tritone, Fontana delle Api, Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi and Fontana del Moro, just to cite a few examples).

Basilica of Saint Mary Major (Basilica Papale di Santa Maria Maggiore)
Piazza di Santa Maria Maggiore, 00184, Rome, Italy