The Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore is one of the oldest churches in Rome and the third most important for pilgrims. It was originally built in the 4th century AD by Pope Liberius. Its grand size (and the corresponding title St. Mary Major) distinguishes it from the many other churches dedicated to the Virgin in Rome.
According to legend, in 352 AD Liberius had a dream which told him that there would be snowfall in August. This was down to a Roman patrician, John, who had prayed to the Virgin Mary that he and his wife may have a child and asked for a sign in answer to their prayers. Liberius vowed to build a church in honour of the Holy Mother should this come to pass, and so the Basilica is sometimes referred to as Santa Maria ad Nives (Saint Mary of the Snows).
Pope Sixtus had a new church built on the site in 432 AD, and rededicated it to Mary: a feast day is held each year in honour of the dedication of the Basilica on 5 August. It is located between Piazza Santa Maria and Piazza dell’Esquilino near Rome’s main Metro station, Termini, amidst the bustle of the metropolitan centre. Facing the front of the Basilica in Piazza Santa Maria is a colossal Imperial column taken from the Basilica of Maxentius in the Roman Forum
, topped with a figure of the Virgin.
The Basilica itself is striking both for its size and splendour, inside and out. The façade we see today was built in Baroque style by Ferdinando Fuga, and masks the original structure built by Pope Sixtus III 1,500 years ago. The bell tower, which was added in the 14th century, is the highest in Rome.
Inside, the coffered ceiling, supported by ancient marble columns, is radiant with Peruvian gold; some of the oldest Christian mosaics can be found here on the nave and triumphal arch, depicting stories from the Old Testament. The church is also home to many other major Christian artworks and is the burial place of some notable historical figures, including numerous Popes and the artist-architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Mass is held here daily, and to see the procession of priests make their way towards the altar through a cloud of incense is a quieting sight.