In earlier years, churches were the target of the majority of visitors to Rome. The faithful from all over Europe made the long and arduous journey to Rome to worship at seven specific sites designated as pilgrimage churches. These include the four patriarchal basilicas (San Giovanni in Laterano, San Pietro in Vaticano, San Paolo fuori le Mura and Santa Maria Maggiore) and three others: Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, San Lorenzo fuori le Mura and San Sebastiano. Today’s tourists are still pilgrims, but many more visit Rome’s churches as attractions, to admire their architecture and art treasures. In them you will find works of some of the greatest masters: Michelangelo, Raphael, Bernini, Caravaggio, Sansovino, Filippo Lippi and many more unnamed masters of mosaic art,
1 Basilica di San Pietro in Vaticano (St. Peter’s Basilica)
The most famous church in Christendom, St. Peter’s is dedicated to the apostle, who is believed to have been the first bishop of Rome, and as such the first pope. The original Church of St. Peter was dedicated in 326, built under the patronage of Emperor Constantine. In 1452, Pope Nicholas V decided to build an entirely new church, which was not completed until the late 18th century. Immediately upon entering the vast interior of the basilica is Michelangelo’s famous Pietà, completed in 1500 and protected by a reinforced glass panel. Other highlights of St. Peter’s include the lavishly decorated Chapel of the Lord’s Supperwith works by both Bernini (the tabernacle) and Borromini (the bronze grille); the great dome designed by Michelangelo; the beloved bronze statue of St. Peter Enthroned; and over the tomb of St. Peter, the papal altar, with a bronze baldacchino – canopy – created by Bernini when he was barely 25 years old and a masterpiece of baroque sculpture. In the left aisle are tombs of famous popes made by leading artists of their time, including Bernini. More papal tombs are in the crypt.
Address: St. Peter’s Square, Rome
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2 St. John Lateran (Sint-Jan van Lateranen)
Before the popes established their residence in the Vatican after returning from exile in Avignon, the Basilica of St. John Lateran was the papal residence. St. John Lateran has remained the episcopal church of the pope, so the inscription on the main facade: “Mater et caput omnium ecclesiarum urbis et orbis” (mother and head of all the churches of the city and the world). Started in 313 with the construction of a large church, it was repeatedly enlarged and modified and almost completely rebuilt in the 16th and 17th centuries. But the basilica plan of the original Constantine church was respected in this baroque reconstruction by Borromini.
The wide facade with its huge statues created by Alessandro Galilei around 1735 is a masterpiece of late baroque architecture. The bronze doors came from the ancient Curia in the Forum. Inside, the beautiful wooden ceiling dates from the 16th century. In the apse, behind the presbytery, there are some fine mosaics, faithful copies of early Christian originals. From the left aisle you can see the Cloister , a masterpiece of 13th-century architecture by the Vassalletti, a family of Roman artists. The octagonal baptistery, San Giovanni in Fonte, was built by Constantine on the site of a Roman nymphaeum in the Lateran Palace. It is the oldest baptistery in Christendom and provides a model for later baptisms, not only in Italy, but throughout Europe.
Diagonally across the spacious Piazza San Giovanni in Laterano is the church of the Scala Santa with the Holy Stairs, a flight of 28 marble steps (now clad in wood) believed to have come from Pilate’s palace in Jerusalem, brought to Rome in the fourth century by St Helen. The faithful climb it on their knees in memory of Christ’s agony. The Egyptian obelisk standing in the Piazza San Giovanni in Laterano is the tallest as well as the oldest in Rome, brought from Thebes in a purpose-built ship in 357.
Address: Piazza San Giovanni in Laterano 4, Rome
3 Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore
One of Rome’s four patriarchal basilicas and an important pilgrimage church, Santa Maria Maggiore has the distinction of being the only church in Rome to have celebrated a mass every day since the fifth century. The location of the basilica was determined by a vision of the fourth century pope Liberius, in which the Virgin ordered him to build a church where the snow fell the next day. When snow fell on Esquiline Hill the next morning on August 5, the pope ordered the church built. Additions were made in later centuries: a new apse in the 13th century, Rome’s tallest campanile in 1377, and in the late 15th century, the gold coffered ceilingby Giuliano da Sangallo, decorated with the first gold from America. Two side chapels, added in the 16th century, form transepts; Cappella Sistina, on the right, contains a bronze tabernacle and the tombs of two popes, while Cappella Paolina has a richly decorated altarpiece. On the roofed high altar, a highly venerated image of the Virgin is traditionally attributed to St Luke, but is in fact a work of the 13th century.
This 86-meter interior is one of the most beautiful and majestic in Rome, the three aisles separated by 36 marble and four granite columns. Rome’s oldest mosaics , from the fourth or fifth century, decorate the upper part of the walls, and an intricate geometric inlay of colored stone known as Cosmatesque work, from the mid-12th century, covers the floor. Try to come early in the morning for the best light on the 13th-century mosaics in the triumphal arch and apse, depicting the themes of the Old and New Testaments; they are considered the ultimate achievement of the art of the Roman artisans in mosaic.
Address: Piazza di Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome
4 San Pietro in Vincoli (St. Peter in Chains)
St. Peter in Chains, begun in 431, is one of the oldest churches in Rome. Preserved as a precious relic on the high altar are the chains, which Peter believed to have been worn in Mamertine Prison. The church, like most others of its age, has undergone significant alterations through later additions. Twenty columns with Doric capitals line the nave, and in the north aisle is an outstanding 15th-century tomb of Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa. But the main work of art here is Michelangelo’s early 16th-century monument of Pope Julius II in the south transept. It was originally conceived by Michelangelo on a larger scale for St. Peter’s. Only three figures of the sculpture he originally planned, were made by Michelangelo himself – the central figure of Moses and Rachel and Leah, Jacob’s two wives. The statues of Rachel and Leah are notable late works by Michelangelo, but the figure of Moses ranks among the finest achievements in world sculpture. Moses is shown just as he has received from God the tables of the Law and sees his people dancing around the golden calf, his face reflecting both divine relief and anger at the people’s unbelief.
Address: Piazza di San Pietro in Vincoli 4A, Rome
5 Santa Maria sopra Minerva
Santa Maria sopra Minerva
Built on the site of the former Temple of Minerva, which explains its name, Santa Maria sopra Minerva is the largest Gothic church in Rome. Begun about 1280 and completed in 1453, its central location and service by the preaching order of Dominicans made it popular with the people of Rome, and as you can see from the number of tombstones in the floor and on the walls, it has an important role played in the religious life of the city. The most famous of the funerary chapels in this three-aisled basilica is the Carafa Chapel at the end of the south transept, also known as the Chapel of the Annunciation of St. Thomas, famous for its frescoes by Filippo Lippi (1489). These glorify both the Virgin and Saint Thomas Aquinas, a member of the Dominican Order, with scenes from his life.
The main altar contains the relics of Saint Catherine of Siena, and in front of the altar, on the left, is a 1521 statue of the Risen Christby Michelangelo. Although criticized during Michelangelo’s lifetime for appearing more like a pagan god than the founder of Christianity (the loincloth was added later), the masterful skill in creating sculptures continued to impress other artists – the painter Sebastiano del Piombo claimed that Christ’s knees in this work were worth more than all the buildings in Rome. In a passage to the left of the presbytery is the tomb of the Florentine painter Fra Angelico, a member of the Dominican order. In the Piazza della Minerva, behind the Pantheon, stands Bernini’s beloved marble elephant, later used as the basis for a small sixth-century BC Egyptian obelisk.
Address: Piazza della Minerva 42, Rome
6 Santa Maria del Popolo
Legend says that this church behind the Pincio Gardens was enlarged from a chapel built to drive away the evil spirit of Nero. As the church of the Augustinian Canons, with a fine Renaissance facade, dome and campanile, it was enlarged in 1505 by Bramante and later restored by Bernini. Martin Luther, who was an Augustinian, lived in the house of the order during his visit to Rome in 1510-11, and after the Reformation, the altar on which he had celebrated Mass was shunned by other members of the order. The three aisles and side chapels contain a number of tombs, including two in the choir of Andrea Sansovino. The vaults of the choir are frescoed by Pinturicchio depicting the Coronation of the Virgin. The side chapels are particularly good:Conversion of St. Paul and Crucifixion of St. Peter .
Address: Piazza del Popolo, Rome
7 St. Clement
One of Rome’s oldest and most beautiful churches, San Clemente was built before 385 by early Christians, on the site of a house containing a shrine of Mithras – now well below street level. After this church was destroyed by the Normans in 1084, a new basilica was built over the ruins at the beginning of the 12th century. The upper church reflects the old basilica form with an entrance hall; atrium with a fountain; the nave where the congregation worshiped; and the high altar and apse, areas reserved for the clergy. Note the ancient columns and the beautiful inlaid marble work in the floor, the screens, the Easter candlestick, the tabernacle and the bishop’s throne. The triumphal arch and apse are the most richly decorated in Rome, covered with mosaics of scenes from the Old and New Testaments, with the tree of life, saints and symbols, animals and plants are intricately combined. Of interest are the early Renaissance frescoes by Masolino, completed before 1431, in the small St. Catherine’s Chapel on the west side of the north aisle. These scenes from the life of St. Catherine of Alexandria are especially significant because they show the earliest use of perspective painting in Rome.
The lower church, a fourth-century pillared basilica, has frescoes from several centuries in the Romanesque period of New Testament scenes and from the life of St. Clement. An underground passage leads to the excavated foundations of a second-century Roman house with the sanctuary of Mithras in a vaulted chamber. A relief on the altar shows the Persian sun god Mithras slaying a bull.
Address: Via San Giovanni in Laterano, Rome
Official Site: https://basilicasanclemente.com/eng/
8 Santa Maria in Cosmedin
At the southern end of Piazza Bocca della Verità , Santa Maria in Cosmedin is one of the finest examples of medieval church architecture in Rome. Begun in 772 and completed around 1124, this architectural gem has a seven-story campanile and a wide two-story porch with a projecting canopy. The interior is decorated with inlaid marble work by the Roman Cosmati family, including the floor, marble screens of the sanctuary, the marble pulpits and the bishop’s throne. The aisles are frescoed and several of the columns have been recycled from ancient sites, including a stadium. In the crypt are early Christian tombs and the foundations of a pagan temple.
Unfortunately, the fame and popularity of this church does not rest on its glorious interior or harmonious architecture, but on the large stone mask in the porch known as the Bocca della Verità, the mouth of truth. Tour buses line the street – one of the few places in Rome where they can park – as tourists line up for hand-to-mouth photos. Guides claim that this was where Romans swore oaths (the mouth supposedly bit the hand of someone telling a lie). It is much more likely that it was a wall fountain or possibly a screen concealing an oracle, who spoke through the mouth for greater effect. The Piazza Bocca della Verità offers one of the most beautiful views in Rome, admiring both Christian and ancient buildings (including two temples) and the Baroque Fountain of the Two Tritons.
Address: Piazza della Bocca della Verita 18, Rome
9 Santa Maria in Trastevere
Santa Maria in Trastevere (the populous neighborhood on the right bank of the Tiber) is perhaps the first place in Rome where Christians were able to hold public services. Building began about 221 and was completed in 340; it was rebuilt in the 12th century and redecorated in the Baroque period. The church has a Romanesque campanile, a facade decorated with mosaics and a portico with early Christian sarcophagi. Inside, it’s hard to know where to look first – with the beautiful marble inlay in the floor, the gilded coffered ceiling or the mosaics in the apse, which are masterpieces of medieval art. These portray Christ, the Virgin, and saints above a family of lambs, and below are scenes from the life of the Virgin by Pietro Cavallini in the late 13th century.
Address: Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere, Rome
10 Santa Sabina
Built by Peter of Illyria in 425-432, both the interior and exterior of Santa Sabina retain the character of an early Christian basilica, although it was embellished in 824. On the wall above the entrance is one of the oldest mosaics in Rome, of two female figures, and the central doorway in the porch has the oldest carved wooden doors in Christian art, dating from 432. Carved by unknown artists from African cedar, illustrating their delicate and expressive reliefs depict Old and New Testament scenes. Eighteen of the original 28 panels survive. In the church, the nave is flanked by 20 Corinthian columns of Parian marble and the choir has beautiful marble screens with inlaid marble decoration. Adjacent to the church, a Dominican convent in which St. Thomas Aquinas was a monk, has a beautiful Romanesque monastery. From the terrace next to the church here, you can enjoy a beautiful view over the Tiber towards Trastevere, Piazza Venezia and the Vatican City.
Address: Piazza Pietro d’Illiria, Rome
11 St. Paul Outside the Walls (St. Paul buiten de muren)
The original basilica built here in the fourth and fifth centuries and dedicated to St. Paul was, until the rebuilding of St. Peter’s, the largest church in the world. It was rebuilt after being completely destroyed by fire in 1823 and resumed its position as one of the four patriarchal churches of Rome and one of the seven pilgrimage churches. Some of the original interior art was saved and although heavily restored, it decorates the new church. The mosaics high up on the main facade are 19th century, but inside the Holy Door you can see the ancient bronze door, cast in Constantinople in the 11th century. The huge nave – 12 meters by 60 meters – is divided into five aisles by a grove of 80 columns that lead your eye to the triumphal arch, lined with fifth-century mosaics, and to the altar and apse.
Apart from the 13th-century Venetian mosaics, which were extensively restored, the decorations in the apse, including the bishop’s throne, are copies from the 19th century. Note the beautiful five-meter Easter candlestick to the right of the altar, the chapel of the crucifix and the baptistery. In the sacristy you will find the entrance to the cloister of the Benedictine abbey, decorated with early 13th century mosaics by the Vassalletti family. The variety of the columns and the color of the mosaics make this one of the most attractive monasteries in the western world .
Address: Piazzale San Paolo, Rome
12 Sant’Andrea al Quirinale
In any other city, this Bernini masterpiece would be full of tourists, but in Rome it is often overlooked due to the abundance of churches. The interior is an exuberant expression of baroque style, in which art, architecture and design blend seamlessly; it’s no wonder this was Bernini’s favorite of all his works, though the cardinal who commissioned him to build it never paid him for the work. Notice how the oval ground plan, further opened by eight side chapels, creates the sense of space and movement as it rises from an elliptical space to the circular gold dome overhead. In true Baroque style, the structural design is hard to separate from the lavish decoration of pilasters and friezes; arches and niches; cornices and windows; sunken domes; and marble and stucco flourishes of rose, white and gold.
Address: Via del Quirinale 29, Rome
13 Saint Praxedes
Dedicated to the holy daughter of a Roman, St. Prassede has preserved the character of an early Christian basilica through a number of different construction phases. The tall pillared nave opens into the presbytery where the ninth-century mosaics on the triumphal arch and apse are among the finest in Rome. Those on the triumphal arch represent heavenly Jerusalem; in the apse is the apocalyptic Lamb of Revelation. Above a family of lambs are several saints. These, like other mosaics and frescoes, were intended not only as decorations that glorified Biblical events and saints, but as picture books to instruct the largely illiterate medieval worshipers in the doctrines of the faith. The chapel of St. Zeno in the south aisle,
Address: Via San Martino ai Monti, Rome
14 San Lorenzo fuori Muri (St. Lawrence Outside the Walls)
One of Rome’s seven pilgrimage churches, this early Christian basilica was founded by Constantine the Great. Despite frequent alterations and restorations, most recently after the Second World War, it has retained its original basilica, with its porch, its high nave with narrow aisles, the choir on a higher level and its handsome columns. Look for the particularly fine inlay of colored stones in marble on the two marble pulpits; the one on the right is considered the best example in Rome, which is saying a lot in this city of so much excellent inlay work. Look for more in the floor, the tabernacle, the bishop’s throne, the Easter candlestick and the tomb of Cardinal Fieschi. The mosaics on the triumphal arch show Christ surrounded by saints, flanked on the sides by extensive renditions from Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Below, on the level of the first basilica, is the tomb of Pope Pius IX, who died in 1878. The simple cloister dates from the end of the 12th century.
Address: Piazza San Lorenzo, Rome
15 Santa Costanza
Another of Rome’s finest church interiors is in the round church of Santa Costanza, built at the beginning of the fourth century as a mausoleum for Constantine’s daughter Constantia and Helen, wife of Julian the Apostate. This small architectural masterpiece, measuring only 22.5 meters in diameter, is simple in design with a plain brick exterior. But this does not prepare you for the inside, built from rare and precious materials. The delicate mosaics that decorate the walls feature both sacred Christian and pagan figures, with intricately carved animals and birds playing among the vines. In the church, the Roman architecture, consisting of 12 double columns with capitals,
Address: Via Nomentana, Rome