Major basilica is a name given to the four most highly ranked Roman Catholic churches. Although they are all located within the diocese of Rome, St Peter’s Basilica is the only one actually located in Vatican City, within the jurisdiction of the Holy See, while the other 3 are in Italian territory (receiving extraterritorial status under the Lateran Treaty). These grand churches, some of the most extraordinary in the world, each house a set of Holy Doors that are opened for each Jubilee Year. The art and architecture within them is enough to inspire pilgrims and tourists from every corner of the world – whether they are religious or not. What’s more, each basilica is free to enter and explore, making them un-missable highlights for your next Roman holiday!
Archbasilica of St. John Lateran (Arcibasilica di San Giovanni in Laterano)
Piazza di San Giovanni in Laterano 4
Archbasilica of St. John Lateran
This 4th century basilica, built by Rome’s first Christian Emperor Constantine I, is the oldest and most highly ranked basilica in Rome. It’s importance shows in its full name: “The Sacrosanct Papal Cathedral Greater Roman Archbasilica of the Most Holy Savior and of Saints John the Baptist and the Evangelist in the Lateran, the Mother and Head of all the Churches of the City and the World”. The Altar of the Holy Sacrament contains the table that is said to have been used by Jesus and his Apostles for the Last Supper.
St Peter’s Basilica (Basilica di San Pietro)
Piazza San Pietro
St Peter’s Basilica
The magnificent basilica which towers over St Peter’s Square today was built between 1506-1626, that’s right – it took 120 years to build! It is widely accepted as the largest church in the world, covering over 15,000 square meters. A whopping 85% of its facade was made from stone which was sourced from the Colosseum. Michelangelo Buonarroti designed the dazzling cupola, or dome, which tops the church, housing his iconic sculpture of “La Pieta” inside. At the high altar, located directly above St Peter’s tomb, Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s bronze baldachin canopy can be found. Bernini is also responsible for the design of the colonnades in St Peter’s Square, which surround the Egyptian obelisk at its centre. Explore every facet of St Peter’s Basilica and other treasures on our Vatican tours.
St Paul Outside the Walls (San Paolo Fuori le Mure)
Piazzale San Paolo 1
St Paul Outside the Walls
This 4th century neoclassical church, founded by Emperor Constantine I over the burial place of St Paul, is the 10th largest in the world, covering over 8,500 square meters. It is truly grand with glimmering mosaics on its façade and enormous colonnades lining the inside. The beautiful monastery cloister was erected in 1220 and 1241. The church was almost completely destroyed by fire in 1823, but was reconstructed identical to its previous form and reopened in 1840 as a result of Pope Leo XII’s outreach for donations. In 1891, a gunpowder explosion destroyed the church’s stained glass windows, which have since been replaced with more durable copies of translucent alabaster.
Papal Basilica of St Mary Major (Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore)
Piazza di Santa Maria Maggiore 42
Papal Basilica of St Mary Major
The largest Catholic Marian Church of Rome is located on the summit of the Esquiline Hill. The classical structure was built under Pope Sixtus III between 432 and 440, following the 431 proclamation that Mary was indeed Mother of God. The “Crypt of the Nativity”, or “Bethlehem Crypt”, located beneath the high altar, boasts a crystal reliquary which is said to contain wood from the Holy Crib of Jesus Christ. Athenian marble columns support the nave where a triumphal arch can be found, as well as mosaics, which are considered to be the oldest representations of the Virgin Mary in Late Christian Antiquity. The 14th century bell tower, reaching 246 feet in height, is the tallest in Rome.
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Author: April Nicole
April is an American writer and photographer who has lived in Rome since 2013. She enjoys exploring the museums of the city, as well as indulging in authentic Italian cuisine!