Rome: Santa Maria Maggiore

The Santa Maria Maggiore.

I have procrastinated the gargantuan task of writing a post about the Santa Maria Maggiore for far too long. I have mentioned this major basilica several times now in other posts, and have visited it at least half a dozen times. The church is one of four major basilicas in Rome, the others being the San Giovanni in Laterano, the San Pietro in Vaticano and the San Paolo fuori le Mura. It is also a papal basilica, which means that – save special dispensation – only the Pope himself can celebrate mass here from the high altar. The Santa Maria Maggiore is furthermore the largest and most important church in Rome dedicated to the veneration of the Virgin Mary. A great many artistic treasures have been deposited here throughout the centuries and the church is an interesting mix of many different styles. This post will be quite picture-heavy, as there is much that I would like to show my readers.

The Liberian Basilica

The Santa Maria Maggiore is also known as the Liberian Basilica and the Santa Maria della Neve (Our Lady of the Snow). The first name refers to Pope Liberius (352-366), during whose pontificate a first church was founded. The second name is connected to a pious foundation legend involving a Roman nobleman named John. John was a wealthy landowner who held the title of patricius. The Virgin Mary appeared to him in a dream and told him to build a church dedicated to her at a site in Rome where snow would fall the next day. Since it was actually August, this was a weird dream indeed. John told Pope Liberius about it and was informed that the Holy Father had had a similar dream. And lo and behold, there was indeed a miraculous case of snowfall on the Esquiline Hill. The Pope needed no more proof that this was the spot where he would build his new church. The whole story of Pope Liberius, John the Patrician and the miraculous fall of snow in high summer seems to have come into existence hundreds of years later and can be considered apocryphal. It is told in a large mosaic on the old facade of the church, which I will discuss in more detail below.

John the Patrician tells his dream to Pope Liberius (facade mosaic).

Unfortunately, Pope Liberius’ basilica no longer exists. Furthermore, it must have been built somewhere else on the Esquiline Hill, as no remains of it have been found underneath the present church. A fair case has been made that the Liberian Basilica was abandoned relatively quickly after Pope Liberius’ death in 366. His death led to the simultaneous election of two new popes, which in turn triggered a violent struggle between their supporters. One party was led by Pope Damasus, the other by his rival, who – for the simple reason that he lost – went down in history as Antipope Ursicinus (or Ursinus). Several sources describe the clashes between the two opponents and their attendants, such as the non-Christian writer Ammianus Marcellinus and the so-called Collectio Avellana. This last source is clearly hostile to Damasus. It is very interesting, because it mentions several churches which existed in Rome at that time. The Collectio claims that Ursicinus was elected in the ‘Basilica of Julius across the Tiber’, which must refer to the Santa Maria in Trastevere, presumably founded by Pope Julius I (337-352). Damasus and his supporters met at the ‘Church in Lucinis’, definitely a reference to the church of San Lorenzo in Lucina.

Snowfall in August (facade mosaic)

There seem to have been various clashes between the two parties, but Damasus quickly gained the upper hand. The Collectio at one point claims that Damasus besieged the Liberian Basilica with a gang of “gladiators, charioteers, gravediggers, and all the clergy”, and after breaking into it killed 160 people inside and wounded many more. The building was set on fire and looted. If this is all true, it might easily explain why the Liberian Basilica was abandoned: it was damaged and desecrated. Interestingly, Ammianus Marcellinus mentions an attack on the ‘basilica of Sicininus’, in which 137 people were killed. This basilica has sometimes been identified as the Liberian Basilica, but this interpretation is not very convincing as there is no reason to equate Liberius and Sicininus. Sicininus (or Sicininum) is completely unknown. Ammianus Marcellinus was perhaps referring to a separate clash in which many people were killed as well.

Founding the church

The church we see today was founded by Pope Sixtus III (432-440). Sixtus – his name was actually Xystus – was a busy little bee, who was also responsible for an extensive remodelling of the Lateran Baptistery. His decision to build a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary was influenced by the decision of the 431 Council of Ephesus to declare Mary the Mother of God or – in Greek – the theotokos. This decision kick-started the veneration of the Virgin in all parts of the Roman Empire, and the Santa Maria Maggiore was in all likelihood the first church in Rome dedicated to her (a case has been made to see the Santa Maria in Trastevere as the oldest Marian church in the city, but it seems more likely that this church was only re-dedicated to the Virgin in the eighth century).

Pope Sixtus III’s proper name – Xystus – on the triumphal arch.

Melchizedek offering bread to Abraham.

Sixtus’ church was a classical Roman basilica: a nave, two aisles, a semicircular apse and no transept. And although almost sixteen centuries have passed since Sixtus’ pontificate, parts of the original decorations of his great church are still there. The Santa Maria Maggiore is in fact one of only two churches in Italy of which the original wall mosaics have been preserved over the centuries. The other is the Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna. That is not to say that all of them have survived. Originally, there were 42 panels. Nine were lost and replaced with mediocre frescoes in 1593. Six more were then destroyed in the early seventeenth century, when entrance arches were made for the two most important chapels of the church, the Cappella Sistina on the right and the Cappella Paolina on the left (more on these chapels below). This leaves us with 27 panels, some damaged, which tell stories from the Old Testament.

The first twelve panels, on the left nave wall, feature stories from the Book of Genesis. We see Abraham, Lot, Jacob, Esau and many others. The fifteen panels on the opposite wall are about the Journey to the Promised Land. They are mostly based on the Books of Exodus, Numbers and Joshua. In the first scenes, Moses plays a prominent part. After his death, Joshua takes over and crosses the river Jordan. Although perhaps difficult to see because of the distance and no doubt heavily restored, the mosaics are very impressive. Most of them tell two or even three stories in one panel. Since these are pre-Byzantine mosaics, the people are more or less depicted realistically and the mosaics give us a fair clue as to what for instance clothing and weaponry looked like in the mid-fifth century. The daughter of the pharaoh is depicted as a Roman empress, for example.

Isaac blesses Jacob.

Moses and the daughter of the pharaoh.

Moses crosses the Red Sea.

Scouts return from Canaan (top), Rebellion against Moses (bottom).

The siege of Jericho.

The Sun stands still at Gibeon.

The fifth century mosaics of the triumphal arch have also stood the test of time. These are likewise well worth our attention. There are four registers. The top register features Pope Sixtus’ proper name: XYSTVS EPISCOPVS PLEBI DEI, or ‘Bishop Xystus (built this) for the People of God’. His name is mentioned beneath an empty throne with a cross on it, the so-called hetoimasia. The throne is flanked by Saints Peter and Paul and the symbols of the four evangelists (see the image above). To the left of Saint Peter, we see a scene of the Annunciation, and then we need to go down one register to admire an Adoration of the Magi. The register beneath that has the Massacre of the Innocents by King Herod and the lowest register features the city of Jerusalem. Then we need to look up again and continue to the right of Saint Paul, where we see a scene of the Presentation at the Temple. The scene below that shows the Holy Family seeking refuge in Egypt. Down one more register there is a scene of the Magi reporting to Herod and finally we arrive in Bethlehem in the lowest register.

Triumphal arch mosaic.

Annunciation and Adoration of the Magi.

The three Magi report to Herod.

The Middle Ages

Pope Sixtus’ basilica had no side chapels, but there was an initially freestanding external oratory next to the church in which the relics of Christ’s manger – the feeding trough which was used as a cradle – were kept and venerated. We do not know when this so-called Oratory of Bethlehem was built, but we do know that it is no longer extant. It was first converted into a chapel, the Cappella del Presepe, during the pontificate of Pope Innocentius III (1198-1216) and then accidentally destroyed when the architect Domenico Fontana (1543-1607) tried to move it to the centre of the new Cappella Sistina, a chapel he was constructing on the orders of Pope Sixtus V (1585-1590). During the process to move it, the chapel collapsed and many of its precious decorations were destroyed. Some survive, such as the beautiful crib figures sculpted by Arnolfo di Cambio (ca. 1240-1300/10) and his workshop. These can now be found in the museum of the Santa Maria Maggiore, at least that is where I found them when I last visited the church (they have reportedly been found in other places as well).

Arnolfo di Cambio’s crib figures. The Madonna and Child were added later, and were made by Giovanni Antonio Paracca (1546-1599).

The same crib figures, now in the Cappella Sistina.

Cosmatesque floor.

Several popes made changes to the church during the Middle Ages. One of them was Pope Paschalis I (817-824), who was very active during his relatively brief pontificate; his image can be found in the apse mosaics of three Roman churches, including that of the Santa Prassede close to the Santa Maria Maggiore.[1] A strange incident occurred in 1075, when Pope Gregorius VII (1073-1085) was kidnapped on Christmas Eve while celebrating mass in the adjacent Oratory of Bethlehem. He was liberated by the Roman people the next day and brought back on a white mule. Gregorius claimed that his rival, the Holy Roman emperor Henry IV, was behind the kidnapping. The two would soon be at each other’s throats in the so-called Investiture Controversy, which ultimately led to the famous Walk to Canossa in 1077. Pope Eugenius III (1145-1153) was responsible for a restoration which provided the church with a beautiful Cosmatesque floor. Parts of this floor have been preserved. Eugenius also had an entrance loggia built, which was demolished in the eighteenth century.

Pope Nicholas IV

By far the most important renovation project was executed under Pope Nicholas IV (1288-1292). Nicholas had been born Girolamo Masci and became the first Franciscan pope in history. He provided the Santa Maria Maggiore with a transept and had the original apse of the church demolished and subsequently rebuilt further back. The old fifth century apse mosaic was unfortunately lost in this process, but Nicholas had the sense to replace it with a new and very spectacular one. This mosaic of the Coronation of the Virgin was executed by the thirteenth century painter and mosaicist Jacopo Torriti. There can be no doubt about his authorship, because he actually signed the mosaic, which was completed some years after Pope Nicholas’ death, in about 1295.

Coronation of the Virgin.

Dormitio virginis.

We may speculate that Torriti and his team were inspired by the apse mosaic of the Santa Maria in Trastevere, which was executed at least a century earlier and has a similar theme. Although the latter mosaic strictly speaking does not depict a coronation, it does show the Virgin and Christ sharing a throne, and even the text in Latin in Jesus’ book is the same: VENI ELECTA MEA ET PONAM IN TE THRONUM MEUM, “come, my chosen one, and I will put you on my throne”. The Santa Maria Maggiore apse mosaic shows Christ and the Virgin in the centre, in a tondo held by groups of angels. To the left of the tondo are – from right to left – Saints Peter, Paul and Franciscus (ca. 1181-1226). The choice for Franciscus is obvious, as Nicholas was the first Franciscan pope ever. Nicholas himself is depicted as well. He can be seen kneeling to the left of a group of angels and has the label NICOLAVS PP IIII next to him. On the other side of the tondo are more saints: from left to right we see John the Baptist, John the Evangelist and Antonius of Padova (1195-1231), the second most important Franciscan saint. On this side of the mosaic, we also find another kneeling figure, in this case Jacopo Colonna (ca. 1250-1318), who was cardinal-archpriest of the church at the time.

Saints Peter, Paul and Franciscus, with a kneeling Pope Nicholas IV. Note Jacopo Torriti’s signature on the left.

We do not know what the original fifth century apse mosaic looked like. Perhaps it depicted a similar theme, perhaps not. There is no way to know, as apparently no descriptions of it have survived. It is possible that Torriti copied the vine-scrolls and animals of the current mosaic from the fifth century original, as similar examples from this century are known in Rome (see for instance the Lateran Baptistery). However, we simply cannot be certain and can only speculate. Between the Gothic apse windows are more mosaics, showing five scenes from the life of the Virgin. They are the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Dormition (in the centre), the Adoration of the Magi and the Presentation at the Temple. Again, it is interesting to compare these mosaics to those about the Virgin by Pietro Cavallini in the Santa Maria in Trastevere, which were executed in 1290-1291, so in this case almost simultaneously. The arch surrounding the conch of the apse features the twenty-four elders from the Book of Revelation, as well as the symbols of the four evangelists.

Saints John the Baptist, John the Evangelist and Antonius of Padova, with a kneeling cardinal Colonna.

Pope Nicholas IV also commissioned artists to provide the exterior facade of the church with splendid mosaics (the counter-facade inside had a fifth century mosaic, but this has not been preserved). These exterior mosaics are still there, and you can see some of them from the Piazza di Santa Maria Maggiore in front of the church. However, the light must be just right. And more importantly: the view is obstructed by the current facade of the church, which was added in the eighteenth century. It is best to join a guided tour of the Loggia of Blessings and the Sala dei Papi. From the loggia, you can get an up-close look at the colourful mosaics. As was already mentioned above, these tell the story of the founding of the Liberian Basilica in the fourth century, during the pontificate of Pope Liberius (352-366).

Dream of John the Patrician.

To be more specific, there are two registers of mosaics, of which the lower register tells the story of the Pope, John the Patrician and the miraculous snowfall in August in four separate scenes. The upper register centres on Christ the Pantokrator, who is depicted seated on a throne and inside a tondo held by angels. On either side of Christ, we see the symbols of the evangelists again, as well as several saints. These are, from left to right: Jerome, James the Great, Paul, the Virgin Mary, then Christ himself, John the Baptist, Peter, Andrew and Matthew. Unfortunately, the arches of the eighteenth century loggia still block parts of the mosaics. Saint Jerome is invisible for instance, and so is Saint Matthew.

Christ the Pantokrator.

A coat of arms with a white column against a red background features heavily in the mosaic. It is depicted four times around the central window. This is the family emblem of the powerful Colonna family. Cardinal Jacopo Colonna is depicted again, and so is his kinsman, cardinal Pietro Colonna (ca. 1260-1326). Both are apparently shown kneeling, although I have not been able to spot them and they are probably covered by the arcades of the loggia as well. The top register was certainly executed by Filippo Rusuti (ca. 1255-1325), a contemporary of Cavallini and Torriti. We know that Rusuti made the mosaic because he actually signed it: PHILIPP[VS] RVSVTI FECIT HOC OPVS. The signature is below Christ’s feet (see the image above). There is some doubt about whether Rusuti was also responsible for the lower register. His signature is absent there and some experts note a difference in style. Since I do not consider myself an expert, I will not speculate about authorship here.

Facade mosaic in the Loggia of Blessings.

Facade mosaic in the Loggia of Blessings.

Although the exterior of the Santa Maria Maggiore has been modernised and has completely lost its medieval appearance (save the mosaics by Rusuti of course), the church has kept its Romanesque bell tower, which dates from the twelfth or thirteenth century. It was restored by Pope Gregorius XI (1370-1378), the pope who brought the papacy back to Rome from Avignon in 1377. There used to be a second campanile on the left side of the church, but this was demolished in the eighteenth century.

The Renaissance

The Santa Maria Maggiore is famous for its heavily gilded and coffered ceiling, which was installed in the fifteenth century. Two popes from the Borgia family – De Borja in Spanish – played a prominent role in the process. Pope Callixtus III (1455-1458) commissioned the ceiling and it was gilded during the pontificate of Pope Alexander VI (1492-1503). The Borgia bull is therefore featured in some of the rosettes of the ceiling.

Interior of the church, with the famous gilded ceiling clearly visible.

Ceiling and dome of the Cappella Sistina.

There is a story that the first shipment of gold captured by the Spanish conquistadores in the New World was used for gilding the ceiling. Apparently this was a gift from King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella to the Pope, but whether there is any truth in the story is up for debate. Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472) is sometimes credited with designing the ceiling, but it was probably finished by Giuliano da Sangallo (ca. 1445-1516). The ceiling is no doubt splendid and among the oldest remaining wooden ceilings in Rome. The fact that it has been preserved must be attributed to restorations in the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth century.

Important changes were made to the basilica in the sixteenth century when, in 1584, Domenico Fontana (1543-1607) began construction of the Cappella Sistina off the right aisle. Fontana had been commissioned by cardinal Felice Peretti di Montalto, who one year later became Pope Sixtus V (1585-1590). As was already discussed above, construction of the Cappella Sistina led to the unintentional destruction of the famed Cappella del Presepe. This was a sad loss, but the new Cappella Sistina is a worthy replacement. It is huge, and basically a church in its own right. The chapel was completed by 1587, but the process of providing it with decorations continued until 1590. Unfortunately, the chapel is usually kept closed for visitors, but you can still see a lot by peeking through the bars of the iron gates. Pope Sixtus V was interred here, and his tomb can be found on the right side. Also in this chapel is the tomb of one of his predecessors, Pope Pius V (1566-1572), the man who had made Sixtus a cardinal in 1570. Pius was initially buried in Saint Peter’s Basilica, but later transferred to the Santa Maria Maggiore. He was ultimately beatified and canonised. Sixtus, on the other hand, was not.

Tomb of Pope Pius V.

Interior of the Cappella Paolina.

The Baroque period

In the early seventeenth century, the Santa Maria Maggiore was provided with a chapel off the left aisle, matching the Cappella Sistina on the other side. This chapel is known as the Cappella Paolina. It was commissioned by Pope Paulus V (1605-1621) and is named after him. The architect involved was Flaminio Ponzio (1560-1613). Work started in 1605 and was completed in 1611. Decoration of the chapel took another five years of work, so the chapel was only finished when its designer was already in his grave. And speaking of graves, the chapel has the tombs of two popes, the aforementioned Pope Paulus V and that of his predecessor, Pope Clemens VIII (1592-1605; strictly speaking Clemens was not his immediate predecessor, but Clemens’ successor Pope Leo XI died on 27 April 1605 after less than a month on the Throne of Saint Peter).

Pope Paulus’ tomb has some wonderful sculptures. His statue was executed by Silla Giacomo Longhi (1569-1622) and a Frenchman named Nicolas Cordier (ca. 1567-1612). Cordier was also responsible for the statues of King David on the right and Saint Bernardus of Clairvaux on the left. The large reliefs on either side of the Pope’s statue show Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor, fighting the Turks, and the Pope himself engaged in the fortification of Ferrara, which had been part of the Papal States since 1598. Rudolf, emperor from 1576 until 1612, led a coalition of nations in a war against the Ottoman Empire which would later become known as the Long Turkish War (1593-1606). Although the relief may suggest otherwise, the war resulted in a stalemate, with neither side managing to gain the upper hand. This relief was sculpted by Stefano Maderno (1576-1636), the one about Ferrara by Ambrogio Buonvicino (1552-1622). The smaller reliefs above the statue feature episodes from the Pope’s life, such as his coronation in the centre, attributed to Ippolito Buzio (1562-1634).

Tomb of Pope Paulus V.

Salus Populi Romani.

The chapel is very similar to the Cappella Sistina, the main difference being that it can usually be visited, although not during masses: in most cases the Cappella Paolina rather than the whole Santa Maria Maggiore is used for religious services. In this chapel one of the most important icons in all of Rome is kept, the Salus Populi Romani, the ‘Salvation of the Roman People’. As with so many other icons in Rome (example, example, example), there is a tradition that it was painted by Saint Luke the Evangelist, who – given his purported production – must have had a whole studio working for him. The tradition is nonsense of course, but the icon is certainly very old and there has been a lot of retouching. Another tradition claims that Pope Gregorius the Great carried the icon through the city in a solemn procession when Rome was struck by a plague in 590 (see Rome: Castel Sant’Angelo). While not completely impossible, this is still highly implausible. The icon was probably painted no earlier than the eighth century, with much overpainting in later centuries. More research is needed to get a more secure dating.

Although perhaps not as important as the addition of the Cappella Paolina, Flaminio Ponzio was also responsible for the construction of a set of rooms and apartments on the right side of the church. If we stand in front of the Santa Maria Maggiore, we notice two massive “blocks” on either side of the church facade. The right wing was designed by Ponzio and construction started in 1605. The wing comprises the baptistery (from the nineteenth century, see below), the sacristy and several other rooms, including the papal apartments or Sala dei Papi. This can be visited as part of a guided tour. The tour gives visitors a chance to admire some statues, paintings, liturgical vestments and a staircase designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680). Also on display here is an ancient Bible text. Unfortunately – shame on me – I do not recall the exact nature of the text, but it may have been a direct copy of one of the original Epistles that are part of the New Testament.

Bernini family tomb.

The aforementioned Gian Lorenzo Bernini lies buried in this church. For such a famous and prolific architect and sculptor, one would expect a grand tomb, kind of like Michelangelo’s tomb in Florence, designed by Giorgio Vasari. But Bernini was simply buried in the Bernini family tomb. An extremely modest monument – a mere step with an inscription near the high altar – was added to this tomb to commemorate the great artist. It is not entirely clear whether this was in conformity with Bernini’s own wishes. Certainly, the artist was a humble and devout Catholic, especially towards the end of his life, but there are other traditions that claim that he did want a grand monument, but simply did not get it.

The family tomb itself has a text in Latin:

(“Here the noble family Bernini awaits the Resurrection”)

The step above the tomb also has a Latin text:

(“Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini, Splendour of the Arts and of the City, rests here humbly”)

Rear of the Santa Maria Maggiore.

In 1669, Bernini had been commissioned to make a new design for the apse of the Santa Maria Maggiore, which was considered old-fashioned by that time. However, Pope Clemens X (1670-1676) then hired the architect Carlo Rainaldi (1611-1691) to execute the project on a much smaller scale (Bernini apparently liked to think big). Rainaldi started work in 1673 and the apse of the Santa Maria Maggiore became one of his best known works. Make sure you walk around the church to admire it from the Piazza dell’Esquilino. The most impressive part of it is actually not the apse itself, but the marvellous set of stairs. These are now closed off with crush barriers. Apparently people liked to sit down here and this was not appreciated by the papal authorities.

Very important changes were made to the church exterior and interior in a project started in 1741. Pope Benedictus XIV (1740-1758) had commissioned the architect Ferdinando Fuga (1699-1782) for an extensive remodelling of the ancient basilica. Work started in 1741. The church must have looked out of balance by that time, with Ponzio’s early seventeenth century wing on the right lacking a worthy counterpart on the left. It was Fuga who restored the balance by constructing a wing on the other side as well. This was in all respects a reasonable intervention. However, Fuga then also added a new Late Baroque facade to the church, which involved destruction of Pope Eugenius III’s twelfth century entrance loggia. The new facade, completed in 1743, has two storeys, and the second storey is the Loggia of Blessings that was already mentioned above. It connects the two wings, but it also obstructs the view of the late thirteenth century mosaics. Not even the Pope seems to have liked the result. However, Fuga at least had the sense to preserve the mosaics, so we can luckily still admire most of them, provided that we join a guided tour.

Baldachin and crypt.

In about 1749, Fuga started working inside the church. One of the things he did was replace the old fifteenth century baldachin with a new one. The original baldachin had been commissioned by a French cardinal named Guillaume d’Estouteville (died 1483), who was cardinal-archpriest of the Santa Maria Maggiore from 1443 until his death forty years later. Some of the reliefs from the old baldachin have been preserved and can now be found in the apse below the windows. They are attributed to either Mino da Fiesole (ca. 1429-1484) or Mino da Reame, or to both if they are in fact the same person. Fuga’s new baldachin is impressive, but it must be added that it was truncated in 1932 to improve the view of the apse mosaic behind it. Some of the stucco angels were moved to the Loggia of Blessings, where they are clearly out of place. Fuga can also be credited with restoring the Cosmatesque floor of the church, with saving the wooden ceiling and with rearranging the columns in the nave. Work was completed before 1750, which happened to be a Jubilee.

Recent history

The nineteenth century baptistery in Ponzio’s seventeenth century right wing is a creation of Giuseppe Valadier (1762-1839). The baptismal font is slightly sunken and surrounded by a balustrade. It therefore somewhat resembles an ancient baptismal pool. The early Christians practiced baptism by full immersion, which was gradually phased out in favour of baptism by affusion. Valadier’s arrangement is a reminder of the ancient tradition. A similar arrangement can be found at the Lateran Baptistery. The baptismal font of the Santa Maria Maggiore is composed of an ancient basin with a modern bronze cover. The statue of Saint John the Baptist is by Giuseppe Spagna. Of greater interest is the large marble relief behind the font which serves as an altarpiece. It depicts the Assumption of the Virgin and is the work of Pietro Bernini (1562-1629), Gian Lorenzo’s father.


The crypt or confessio is also basically a nineteenth century creation. Guillaume d’Estouteville’s fifteenth century crypt was remodelled in 1864 by Virginio Vespignani (1808-1882). The project had been initiated by Pope Pius IX (1846-1878) – Pio Nono – which explains the presence of a large statue of this pope down here. The statue is the work of Ignazio Jacometti (1819-1883). Note that Pope Pius IX, the longest-reigning pope in history, was not buried here. Those wanting to visit his tomb should go to the San Lorenzo fuori le Mura; visit the crypt if you want to see the relics of the Manger, which are kept there.

The Santa Maria Maggiore seems to be in excellent condition today, and for this we may credit Dilwyn Lewis (1924-2000). Lewis was a colourful figure. An orphan, he sold clothes before becoming a man of the cloth. Ordained as a priest in 1974, he became a canon of the Santa Maria Maggiore in 1984 and was subsequently appointed as Vicar Capitular by Pope John Paul II and charged with restoration of the basilica, which was in a serious state of disrepair at the time. The restoration project continued until well into the twenty-first century, but during my most recent visits all the scaffolds seemed to have been removed.

Miscellaneous tombs

Tomb of cardinal Gonzalo.

The Santa Maria Maggiore has a great many funerary monuments. Among the most interesting medieval monuments is the tomb of a Spanish cardinal from early fourteenth century. The name of this cardinal was either Gonzalo García Gudiel or Gonzalo Rodríguez Hinojosa; different sources mention different names, and the tomb only has his Latin name GONSALVVS. Cardinal Gonzalo was archbishop of Toledo in Spain and Pope Bonifatius VIII (1294-1303) had appointed him cardinal-bishop of Albano in 1298. The cardinal died in Rome the next year. He was given a lavishly decorated tomb in the Santa Maria Maggiore, although his body seems to have been repatriated to Spain some years later. The tomb can be found near the Cappella Sistina; Ferdinando Fuga moved it from the high altar to its current position.

The monument is attributed to the school of Arnolfo di Cambio. The Cosmatesque decorations and the large mosaic are, however, the work of Giovanni di Cosma (died ca. 1305). His signature can be found near the bottom of the tomb, where he refers to himself as:

(“Giovanni, son of Master Cosma, Roman citizen”)

We have seen Giovanni’s funerary monuments in Rome before: here and here. The mosaic of Cardinal Gonzalo’s tomb features a Madonna and Child in the centre, with Saints Matthias and Jerome on either side. Matthias was the apostle elected after Judas’ death or suicide. He is holding a scroll which claims – in Latin – that his remains are beneath the high altar. Jerome’s scroll claims that his relics are kept near the Cappella del Presepe. The basilica indeed asserts to have relics of both saints. Cardinal Gonzalo himself can be seen kneeling at the Virgin’s feet.

Tomb of Agostino Favoriti.

One of my favourite monuments in the church is that of a man appropriately named Agostino Favoriti (1624-1682). The monument was designed by a painter, Ludovico Gimignani (1643-1697), and executed by one Filippo Carcani, who had previously worked for Bernini. Monsignore Favoriti’s friend Ferdinand of Fürstenberg (1626-1683), Prince Bishop of Paderborn, wrote the epigraph. Since Favoriti was considered a man of culture and a scholar, he was portrayed sitting behind his desk, with a huge pyramid-shaped slab of dark yellow marble from Siena behind him. The large statues on the left and right represent Religion (the woman with the crucifix) and Fortitude (the woman with the lion).

Near the entrance of the church, we find the tombs of two popes, that of Pope Clemens IX (1667-1669) and that of Pope Nicholas IV (1288-1292), already mentioned above. Pope Clemens used the Latin motto “Aliis non sibi Clemens” – “clement to others, not to himself” – which was a pun on his name. He died in December 1669 after receiving the terrible news that the Turks had taken the city of Candia (now Heraklion) on Crete after a 21-year siege. The Pope’s tomb was commissioned by his successor, Pope Clemens X, and designed by Carlo Rainaldi (see above). The statues were sculpted by Domenico Guidi (1625-1701), Cosimo Fancelli (1618-1688) and Ercole Ferrata (1610-1686).

Tomb of Pope Nicholas IV.

Pope Nicholas IV’s tomb is not a contemporary tomb, but a sixteenth century monument for a pope who was buried in the church almost three centuries previously. Nicholas made important changes to the church structure in the thirteenth century, adding a transept and moving the apse further back, as well as commissioning Jacopo Torriti and Filippo Rusuti to lay splendid mosaics. This has all been discussed above. The monument for Nicholas was made by Domenico Fontana in 1574. The sculptor Leonardo Sormani (died ca. 1590) provided the statues of Religion and Justice. The Pope himself would probably have disapproved of this monument. As a humble Franciscan, he had asked to be buried in an antique urn which was to be placed under a floor slab, so that churchgoers could walk over him. His wish was initially granted, but ignored when the urn was rediscovered centuries later.

Although I have seen the Santa Maria Maggiore several times now, the church continues to amaze. I recently read about an interesting bust that I seem to have missed on all of my previous visits. It can be found near the baptistery and represents an African man. He has been identified as Antonio Emanuele Ne Vunda or Antonio Nigrita, ambassador of the Kingdom of Kongo to the Pope. He died in Rome in 1608. The bust is attributed to Francesco Caporale, although some like to see it as a work by Stefano Maderno. I will no doubt return to the Santa Maria Maggiore some day and will keep an eye out for the bust (update: see below!).

Antonio Emanuele Ne Vunda or Antonio Nigrita.


  • Capitool Reisgidsen Rome, 2009 Dutch edition, p. 169 and 172-173;
  • Robert Hughes, De zeven levens van Rome (Dutch translation of Rome: A Cultural, Visual and Personal History), p. 175;
  • Luc Verhuyck, SPQR. Anekdotische reisgids voor Rome, p. 221-228;
  • Santa Maria Maggiore on Churches of Rome Wiki.

Updated 9 March 2024.


[1] The others are the Santa Cecilia in Trastevere and the Santa Maria in Domnica.


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