Do-It-Yourself Tour Itinerary-St. Mary Major
Half the fun of Rome is discovering things on your own. Here is an intinerary that will get you to important sites, but leave room for exploration. Bring a map and don’t be afraid to ask for directions e.g. “Mi scusi, dov’è Piazza Navona?” (Excuse me, where is Piazza Navona?). Romans are generally helpful, speak a little English, and of course are quite eloquent in the language of gesture.
Start your tour at the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, which was the first church dedicated to the Virgin Mary to be built in the West. It was the labor of love of Pope Sixtus III in 432 after the Council of Ephesus declared Mary “Mother of God" (by the way, did you know all popes named Sixtus were builders while we usually get invaded when the Pope is named Pius). It is a basilica with 1600 years of devotion to the Blessed Virgin, which radiates from every mosaic tile and gilt leaf. There are mosaics made in the 5th, 13th and 14th centuries and stunning chapels by Popes Paul V and Sixtus V (yes, another builder) where most of Bernini’s best ideas can be seen in embryonic form. Speaking of Bernini, the famous artist is buried next to the high altar so that he could be close to the celebrated relic of the cradle of the Christ Child. Other important devotional spaces include the Madonna Salus Popoli Romani (The Madonna of the Health of the Roman People), an icon dating back to the earliest ages of the church, and the modern Mary, Queen of Peace sculpted by Guido Galli at the end of World War II. Both of these spaces have been sites of special prayers for Pope Francis as he travels around the world as he seeks to bring healing and preach peace. The basilica is open every day from 7am to 7pm.
From there, you can go to Santa Prassede (open 7:30am-noon and 4:00pm-6:00pm). It is out the front door of Santa Maria Maggiore, across the Piazza to the right. Walk down the Via di Santa Prassede and you will see the unobtrusive door to the church. Beyond being the site where traditionally St. Peter first found welcome in Rome, and where two sister saints, Prassede and Pudenziana, collected the blood of the first martyrs, it also has the breathtaking 9th century St. Zeno chapel. This is the only mosaic chapel in Rome and was built by Pope Paschal in honor of his mother. The chapel contains the supposed relic of a fragment of the column that Christ was tied to during his scourging. The crypt – at present it is closed for restoration - was where Christian archeology was born in the 19th century, thanks to a providential conversation between a priest and a young archeology student named Giovanni Battista de’Rossi.
Don’t forget to drop by the sister church of Santa Pudenziana (open 8:00am-noon and then 3:00-6:00pm)! It is at Via Urbana, 160, across Via Cavour, which runs along the apse side of the church. As you descend the steps to the front door, you can see how high the ground level has risen since the construction of the church which occurred around 385 A.D. Excavations have revealed the remains of a 1st century house under the church, believed to be the home of Senator Pudens, who gave hospitality to St. Peter when he first came to Rome. There is an altar behind the apse which is believed to contain the ancient altar of the Prince of the Apostles. The church also contains the earliest Christian mosaic in Rome – an image of seated Christ surrounded by apostles with the first representation in the history of art of the evangelists as their apocalyptic animals.
From there, if you are still feeling adventurous and energetic, you can walk farther down Via Cavour. About a ten minutes walk down the road on the left, there is a steep staircase leading up to San Pietro in Vincoli (St. Peter in Chains). It is open 7:00am-12:30pm and then again from 3:30pm-6:00pm. This church contains the two sets of chains that bound St. Peter in Jerusalem and in Rome (the chains from Jerusalem were a gift of the Empress Eudoxia to Pope Leo the Great in the mid-fourth century who built the church to house them). The church is most famous for Michelangelo’s Moses - the only completed element of his grand tomb project for Pope Julius II. Looking at the dynamic between the tight niche and the powerful statue is excellent preparation for a visit to the Sistine chapel, as you will recognize the same sculptural vision of space and the body in the massive ceiling fresco. From there, it is only a short walk to the Coliseum, which has a metro and buses for the return home.