The Papal Basilicas in Rome, what makes them so unique?

A look inside one of the Papal Basilicas in Rome.

For centuries, Rome has been the repository of countless works of art, as well as Christian shrines and relics. Already as of the first centuries AD, Rome and its basilicas could count on welcoming many visitors. Not always tourists though, exclusively pilgrims first, in search of spiritual blessings.

Pilgrimages used to end with a visit to the graves of the apostles Peter and Paul in Rome. Traditionally the very first pilgrims were carrying a palm branch from the Temple of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, to the place of martyrdom and repose of the Holy Apostles – the word “pilgrimage” is derived from the word "palm". And like this it went for centuries, with thousands visiting the basilicas of the Eternal City.

Whereas the basilicas of Rome are generally known to be stunning, four of them stand out. They are the most revered, and distinguished as the "Papal Basilicas". Why are these basilicas so special? Continue reading to learn more about these extraordinary basilicas, their magnificent treasures and how to make the most of your visit.

How did the Papal Basilicas get their special status?

The concept of Papal Basilicas was born with the introduction of the "Jubilee year" in 1300, as approved by Pope Boniface VIII. It was determined that a Jubilee year, or a "Holy year", would happen only once every hundred years, when the world entered into a new century. The tradition of the Jubilee year still exists nowadays, although it is determined to happen once every 25 years now.

A Jubilee year meant that Catholics who repented and confessed their sins whilst visiting cathedrals in the names of the Apostles Peter and Paul, could receive papal indulgence. For Catholics this initially meant that they could visit the St. Peter's Basilica or the Basilica of San Paolo Fuori le Mura in Rome, in order to receive forgiveness for their sins.

The list of basilicas with a special status was extended in 1350 by Pope Clement VI, who added the Basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano, followed by Pope Gregory XI who added the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in 1390. Up to today these four special basilicas are under the direct jurisdiction of the Holy See, and are better known as the "Papal Basilicas". Read on to learn more about these four Papal Basilicas and their magnificent treasures!

The Basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano

In the hierarchy of Catholic churches, the Basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano stands at the highest level, surpassing even the St. Peter's Basilica. This is because it contains the pulpit and the throne of the Pope, for which it carries the name "archbasilica".

The facade of the San Giovanni in Laterano in Rome.
An inscription above the entrance of the San Giovanni in Laterano reads “mother of all churches in Rome and the world,” leaving no doubt that this is the most important church of all.

Its founder was the Roman emperor Flavio Valerio Costantino, known as Constantine the Great. Constantine was one of the two emperors of that time who fought for exclusive power over the Roman Empire. The other emperor was Maxentius. The key event in their fight was the battle that took place at the Milvian Bridge in Rome, on 28 October 312. On its eve, Constantine had had a prophetic dream. He saw a monogram of Christ's name and a cross of light in the sky, which could be nothing else but a clear sign that foreshadowed his victory. After this fateful prophecy and his brilliant victory over Maxentius, he became the sole ruler of the empire. And as a sign of respect and worship to Christ, he recognized the freedom of religion, was baptized, and officially allowed to preach Christianity. By the order of Constantine, the first church was erected in Rome in 324, known today as the San Giovanni in Laterano.

From the 4th until the 14th century, the San Giovanni in Laterano remained the only papal church, with its adjacent buildings serving as the papal residences. The basilica has witnessed 5 ecumenical councils – known as the highest church congregations where cornerstone religious issues were addressed, as well as other important matters such as devastating fires or major reconstructions.

Massive statues of the Twelve Apostles adorn the 30-metre high central nave of the San Giovanni in Laterano.
Massive statues of the Twelve Apostles adorn the 30-metre high central nave of the basilica.

The Basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano amazes and fascinates with the beauty of its interior. Some of the most valuable Byzantine mosaics have been preserved in the apse above the altar of the temple. There, the golden church tabernacle stores invaluable ancient Christian relics: the skulls of the apostles Peter and Paul.

Another shrine of the basilica is the Scala Sancta, or the Holy Staircase. According to the legend, this is the very staircase that Jesus Christ went up when he visited Pilate’s house in Jerusalem. It is believed that those who ascend the stairs on their knees will be given a complete remission of sins.

The nave of the temple strikes with its rich decoration. Mosaic floors are dotted with contrasting circles and squares, characteristic for the Cosmatesque Style. And it is of course impossible not to notice the majestic figures of the apostles, standing in niches on both sides of the central aisle.

Where to find the San Giovanni in Laterano?

The Basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano is located out of the main tourist areas, on the borders of the lovely Monti neighborhood and the multicultural Esquilino – get directions. The metro station of San Giovanni provides for a good connection with the centre of Rome. If you are into markets, don't forget to check out the Mercato di Via Sannio, which is only a stone's throw away from the Basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano. Also the Basilica di San Clemente and the Colosseum are within walking distance.

For a better understanding of the area around the Basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano, have a look at our map of Rome.

The Basilica of St. Peter

In the time of Emperor Nero, there was nothing more than a circus on the site of the present Basilica of St. Peter. According to the legend, it was here that the emperor ordered to crucify St. Peter for preaching Christianity. After the fall of Nero and up to the 3rd century, merely a small sign indicated the apostle's grave. It was only after Emperor Constantine had legalized Christianity, when the first basilica arose on this place in 326. This first version of the St. Peter's Basilica very soon became the centre of pilgrimage, as well as the place of coronation of the Pope. Following the example of the Popes, Charles the Great wanted to be crowned here too in the year 800.

The magnificent St. Peter's Basilica with its majestic dome rising to a height of 136 meters.
The magnificent St. Peter's Basilica with its majestic dome rising to a height of 136 meters.

At the beginning of the 16th century, Pope Julius II decided to demolish the old basilica to make way for a new, grandiose building. Its construction began on April 18, 1506, and lasted for more than a century. During this time, the project was repeatedly changed. The final version which we can see today, was developed by the great master Michelangelo, and finished by his students after his death. The St. Peter's Basilica was eventually consecrated on November 18, 1626.

A look inside the majestic dome of the St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.
Bernini’s bronze Baldachin towers above the grave of St. Peter. In order to make this masterpiece, all the bronze from the roof of the Pantheon was ordered to be removed.

In addition to being the pearl among Roman churches and the highest good for pilgrims around the world, the basilica is also an amazing museum, boasting a collection of unique masterpieces. What to think of the delicate and touching sculpture of Pietà, made by a 24-year-old Michelangelo, or Bernini's majestic Baldachin, towering above the tomb of St. Peter.

If you are interested in learning more about the St. Peter, be sure to read The highlights of the St. Peter’s Cathedral, one of our recent stories devoted exclusively to the wonders of the Basilica of St. Peter.

Where to find the St. Peter?

St. Peter's Basilica is located in Vatican City, an amazing little city-state filled with wonders – get directions. This is the place to explore the gorgeous Vatican Gardens, the fascinating Sistine Chapel, or one of the greatest art collections in the world at the Vatican Museums.

For a better overview of Vatican City and its greatest treasures, check out our map of Rome.

The Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore

The Papal Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore was founded in the early Christian period of the 4th century. The history of its construction has become known as a beautiful legend.

On a summer night the Roman Bishop of that time, Liberius, had a wonderful dream in which the Blessed Virgin appeared to him and ordered him to build a temple in the place where the snow would fall the next morning. With the advent of a new day, the Pope was informed that the Esquiline Hill was covered in snow. So this magical place was where the first stone of the basilica was laid.

The facade of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome.
According to the legend, the Santa Maria Maggiore was built on the spot where it miraculously started to snow in summer.

In the 5th century, the temple was significantly renovated and expanded at the behest of Pope Sixtus III, who also used these events to dedicate the basilica to the Mother of God. Centuries passed, of bishops adding new sparkle and beauty to the Santa Maria Maggiore, enriching the basilica with even more relics. In the 14th century, a new 75-metre bell tower arose over the extraordinary three-nave basilica.

The interior of the Santa Maria Maggiore shows plenty of gold, as mostly donated by the Spanish monarchs Isabella and Ferdinand in the 15th century.
The interior of the Santa Maria Maggiore shows plenty of gold, as mostly donated by the Spanish monarchs Isabella and Ferdinand in the 15th century.

The layout of the cathedral has not changed much since its foundation, even though every generation of believers has tried their best to further polish its interior. As a result, the basilica has become one of the most beautiful temples in Rome.

The hall is richly decorated with bright mosaics from the 4th century, the floors are covered with marble slabs forming a Cosmatesque ornament, whilst the ceiling above the altar shines with colourful Biblical scenes. The interior decoration palette is dominated by a golden colour, which is primarily due to a donation of gold from the Spanish conquerors of Latin America. A priceless relic in the basilica is the Holy Cradle, a precious crystal urn painted with silver and treasuring fragments of the wooden manger in which the baby Jesus once laid. The Holy Cradle is kept underneath the main altar of the Santa Maria Maggiore.

Every year on August 5 the snow miracle is celebrated, with thousands of snow-white petals whirling inside the Santa Maria Maggiore, reminding us of the prophetic snowfall.

Where to find the Santa Maria Maggiore?

The Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore is located right on top of Esquiline Hill, not far from the Termini Station – get directions. Here you literally find yourself in the heart of Rome, with plenty of cool things to do.

If we may give you one suggestion, be sure to walk the charming streets of Monti, filled with lovely boutiques and cafés. With the help of our map of Rome you can easily walk your way from the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore to the nearby shopping streets of Monti.

The Basilica of San Paolo Fuori le Mura

In 67 the Apostle Paul was subjected to numerous tortures before being executed by Emperor Nero for being a preacher of the new faith. Back then, Christianity was still considered illegal. Paul was buried three kilometres from the place of his death, with his grave only marked by a small sign initially. Many believers came to visit the grave from the very beginning on, and over time the small sign on his grave was replaced by a memorial plate.

Under the rule of Emperor Constantine the Great, a church was built over the tomb of St. Paul, in a further attempt to honour the secluded apostle. The basilica was located beyond the Aurelian wall, which meant officially outside of the city of Rome by the standards of that time – this explains why the basilica carries the label “outside the walls” (or “fuori le mura” in Italian).

Parishioners and visitors are greeted by a sculpture of the Apostle Paul in the courtyard of the San Paolo Fuori le Mura.
Parishioners and visitors are greeted by a sculpture of the Apostle Paul in the courtyard of the San Paolo Fuori le Mura.

Through the years, the appearance of the basilica has been changed many times. It was expanded and decorated by Theodosius I by the end of the 4th century, and was enriched with amazing mosaics by Pope Gregory the Great in the 5th century. It got badly damaged during the Arab raid against Rome in the 9th century, and survived the earthquake of 1348 and the fire of 1823. Being tormented by such a hard fate, Pope Pius IX called upon believers all around the world to restore the former greatness of this basilica. And with the help of their donations, the basilica was reconsecrated in 1855 and shines today in full beauty again.

Inside the Basilica of San Paolo Fuori le Mura in Rome.
The basilica stores invaluable pieces of the Cross of Christ and the walking stick of Saint Paul.

From the outside the San Paolo Fuori le Mura resembles an ordinary fortress, keeping its main decorations inside its walls. The interior of the Cathedral is richly decorated in the style of Classicism and Neoclassicism. In the centre of the church visitors can see its main Christian treasure, a sarcophagus with the relics of St. Paul. As with all Papal Basilicas, the altar atop these relics is called "papal", meaning that only the pontiff has the right to celebrate a mass on this site.

Above the columns, you can see images of all the Popes in the history of the Catholic Church, starting with the Apostle Peter. A portrait of each new Pope fills an empty medallion, and this tradition still holds today with a little more than 20 empty spots left. They say that when all the voids are filled and the last Pope pictured on these walls dies, the end of the world will come...

Where to find the San Paolo Fuori le Mura?

The Basilica of San Paolo Fuori le Mura is located in the Ostiense district of Rome – get directions. Once an industrial area, today Ostiense is better known as an artistic hub. If you are interested in classical sculptures, consider visiting Centrale Montemartini, an art museum located in a former power plant – get directions.

To get a better picture of the things to do near the Basilica of San Paolo Fuori le Mura, check out our map of Rome!

Explore the other great basilicas of Rome

Rome contains incredibly beautiful churches, with ancient temples dating from the early Christian era, or elegant basilicas with roots in the Renaissance. To explore the 23 greatest basilicas of Rome and their invaluable treasures, check out our travel guide to Rome, where we have listed the most beautiful churches of the Eternal City.

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