Basilica of St. Mary Major

Duration: 3 hours

This tour takes us to the world’s principal church dedicated to Mary, the Mother of God, the Papal Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, one of the holiest sites of Rome.

Nestling on the summit of the Esquiline Hill, one of Rome’s Sette colli, Saint Mary Major Basilica is a triumph of architectural and artistic ingenuity. It is also a tremendously powerful testimony to the faith that built it, being the home of the tombs and monuments of apostles, popes, bishops, martyrs, artists and doctors of the Church.

This building is also known by other names such as the Liberian Basilica after its founder, Pope Liberius (352-366 A.D.), the Basilica of Santa Maria della Neve (Our Lady of the Snow) after a miracle associated with its construction in 351 A.D., and also as Santa Maria ad Praesepem as it allegedly houses the sacred relic of the Infant Christ’s crib (presepio).While on this itinerary we will see some of the finest Christian mosaics in the world, a superb cycle from the 5th century depicting Old Testament scenes and of the most complex theological subject-matter, splendid papal funerary monuments by Carlo Rainaldi and Domenico Fontana, beautiful frescoes by Guido Reni, and other splendid sculptural masterpieces by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Pietro Bracci, Guglielmo della Porta and Arnolfo di Cambio.

We will also study the architectural morphemes of an imperial basilica lavishly decorated with Athenian marble columns, gilt-bronze capitals and a superb 16th-century coffered ceiling to a design by Giuliano da Sangallo (said to be gilded with Incan gold presented by Ferdinand and Isabella to the Spanish pope Alexander VI, though this is factually erroneous since the Incan empire was conquered during the reign of Charles V). We will also admire some of the finest baroque architecture in Rome. The 12th-century façade with its screening loggia were both added by Pope Benedict XIV in 1743 to designs of Ferdinando Fuga, and we will see the tallest campanile in Rome.

We will also visit the basilica’s museum to see the numerous treasures that render this site a place of artistic and religious union and a unique experience of the greatest works of art inspired by God. Finally, we will briefly study the socio-urban surrounds of the basilica and the history of the building’s coming into being, the legend of Salus Populi Romani (Health of the Roman People).

Overall, the Basilica of Saint Mary Major, indeed, a spectacular building from every point of view, will be revealed to us in its artistic, architectural, archeological and religious contexts, and this itinerary, the Marian Seminar, will be an experience that will open up each of these dimensions in a dynamic discovery of the finest of them all.

  • Meeting point: Piazza Santa Maria Maggiore at the front of the column.
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