The Eternal City is awash with Christian churches at every twist and turn, but none rival the four famous papal basilicas in Rome. These places of pilgrimage double as wonderful tourist destinations, providing the pinnacle of Roman Christian architecture and art.
Yet, it is not simply the stunning works of Renaissance and Baroque icons that lay within these iconic walls, but pieces from the infancy of Christianity in Rome. Traversing the mudded line that separates the city of the Caesars and the Rome of the popes, these four landmarks represent a timeline through the city’s post-pagan era.
Each of the basilicas remains open to the public today and contains a complete variety of fantastically diverse features, from grandiose frescoes to intricate mosaics and everything in between.
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St. John Lateran
Acting as the seat of the pope, St. John Lateran is arguably the most important of the papal basilicas in Rome. Much like its counterpart that sits within the Vatican (more on this later), what you see today dates from the 16th century. However, St. John Lateran was first built in the 4th century, during the reign of Constantine.
Situated in the San Giovanni region, the basilica is composed of a unique blend of artistic styles. Whilst shaped in the obvious influence of Borromini, the church also incorporates many relics from antiquity, including its central doors taken from the Roman Forum’s ancient Curia (Senate House).
The Lateran Obelisk sits on the northwest side of the basilica, whilst close to St. John Lateran are the famed Holy Stairs. The steps Jesus supposedly climbed to face his trial by Pontious Pilate, these stairs were transported from the Holy Land to the Eternal City in 326 AD. Today, thousands of Christians pay a visit as they complete their pilgrimages to different sites in the city.
Santa Maria Maggiore
For those wishing to immerse themselves in the history of Christian Rome, look no further than the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. As the largest Catholic Marian church in Rome, the basilica represents an extraordinary holy site. A mix of Roman and Baroque architecture, the basilica houses some of Rome’s best apse mosaics, which depict scenes from the Old and New Testaments, as well as other important Christian moments in history.
With perhaps the shortest queues of all the papal basilicas in Rome, the treasures of Santa Maria Maggiore lay in wait to be discovered by visitors to the city. Enshrined within is the Salus Populi Romani, an extremely important venerated image of the Blessed Virgin Mary acting as protectress and health of the Roman people.
Elsewhere, visitors can expect to see anything from miracle-working icons to relics like the Holy Crib and the impossibly ornate Oratory of the Nativity.
St. Peter’s Basilica
Like St. John Lateran, St. Peter’s Basilica looks completely different today as it would have upon its 4th century creation also carried out under the Roman emperor Constantine the Great. With Michelangelo, Bramante, and Bernini all leaving their trace on the basilica today, it is no secret why this remains such a popular basilica to visit.
Ironically the world’s largest church in the world’s smallest state, St. Peter’s Basilica was built on the site of the martyrdom of Peter the Apostle, putting it at the center of the Christian world.
However, it is not simply its size that encapsulates every one of its visitors, but the splendor that waits within. Each and every detail, from Michelangelo’s Pieta to Bernini’s Baldachin at the altar, enchant onlooking eyes and maintain the reason that this basilica remains the most visited of the four papal basilicas in Rome.
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St. Paul Outside the Walls
For our final of the famous four papal basilicas in Rome, we have to travel a little further from the city center. Just south of the city, the San Paolo district houses St. Paul Outside the Walls.
A piece of the Holy See on Italian territory, the basilica is said to have been built upon the burial site of Saint Paul the Apostle – an important difference from the place of his martyrdom some two miles away. Again created in the 4th Century under Constantine, the basilica has of course received many reworks and additions since its formation.
As is the case with the other four papal basilicas in Rome, St. Paul Outside the Walls contains the all-important Holy Door, opened ceremoniously in Jubilee years. Whilst this tradition was altered in 2015 by Pope Francis, the symbolism and aura of the door remain for all to see.
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