Santa Maria Maggiore is one of the 4 Papal Basilicas in Rome. This means that, even though it is not within the Vatican’s borders, it falls under the direct jurisdiction of the Holy See, meaning the Pope. It is also one of the 7 pilgrimage churches in Rome. Other pilgrimage churches include the Lateran Basilica, St. Peter’s Basilica, and St. Paul Outside the Walls.
Santa Maria Maggiore is a significant church which is, therefore, lavishly adorned. It is called “Maggiore” because it is the largest among the over 40 Marian churches in Rome! Yes, you read that right: 40!
Once you’ve passed through security and entered the church through the main portal, the first thing that catches your eye is the splendid, golden-decorated ceiling! This was commissioned by Pope Alexander VI. in the 15th century and executed by Giuliano de Sangallo, who also served as a construction manager at St. Peter’s Basilica for a time.
Beneath the altar, which bears a striking resemblance to Bernini’s altar in St. Peter’s Basilica, you’ll find a small chapel, a little descent to the so-called “Confessio”, a place for prayer and confession. Here, there is a sculpture of Pope Pius IX in prayer, and perhaps he is venerating the relic located here: the remains of Jesus’ crib.
Then, there is the right-side chapel known as the “Sistine Chapel” (not to be confused with the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel commissioned by Pope Sixtus IV!). Here lies the tomb of Pope Sixtus V. This chapel is beautifully adorned with numerous ceiling and wall paintings, as well as a group of four life-sized angels carrying a decorated tabernacle, typically used to store consecrated hosts and sacramental elements.
Finally, in this church, you’ll also find Bernini’s tomb. It is located right up front, near the altar. It is quite unassuming, with an inscription that reads, “The noble Bernini family awaits their resurrection here.” It is simply a stone slab on the floor, quite unusual for this renowned artist, who is especially known for his papal monuments. In his old age, he even received the papal blessing. He passed away in 1680 at the age of 82.