When Pope Francis spoke from the loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica the night that he was elected, he said he would go to pray to Mary. The next morning he did, praying at the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome’s largest of the four Catholic churches dedicated to the Virgin Mary. I love the setting for Santa Maria Maggiore atop Esquiline Hill, even though the view caused me to get lost in June 2011. I was so busy ogling the church that I missed my turn! I finally visited the inside of the church for the first time a couple of weeks ago.
As you know, I love churches, and this one is beautiful. One of the things I like most about Santa Maria Maggiore is the tomb of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the famous Italian sculptor, artist, and architect from the mid-1600s who is credited with creating the Baroque style of sculpture and architecture. His tomb and his family’s is just to the right of the crypt under the main altar.
During his 82 years, Bernini designed hundreds of works, many of which are among the most popular sights in Rome: the Four Rivers Fountain in Piazza Navona; the throne of St. Peter behind the altar, the baldachin over the altar, and many other works inside St. Peter’s Basilica; the Piazza San Pietro in front of St. Peter’s Basilica and the colonnades on both sides; the Obelisk of Santa Maria sopra Minerva near the Pantheon; the Ecstasy of St. Therese at Santa Maria della Vittoria; and the Ponte Sant’Angelo (my second favorite bridge over the Tevere). One of my favorite works is his breathtaking Apollo and Daphne, which now stands in the Galleria Borghese (no photos allowed) along with some of his other masterpieces.
As for the church, Santa Maria Maggiore is stunning. One of the oldest and most important Christian churches, it was built from 432 to 440 AD, immediately after Mary was proclaimed the mother of God (in 431). It is one of the first churches built in honor of the Virgin Mary (Santa Maria in Trastevere was built a century earlier) and one of the four highest-ranking Catholic churches to hold the title of major basilica (the other three are St. Peter, St. John Lateran, and St. Paul outside the Walls—all in Rome). It’s well worth a trip, as are the other three major basilicas, and I will return.
In the meantime, rest in peace, Bernini. I pass your magnificent work every day, and they make my heart happy!