If you have been to Rome, you have likely visited St. Peter’s Basilica. Interestingly enough, it’s one of the four major Catholic Basilicas located in Rome, with the other three being St. John Lateran, St. Mary Major, and St. Paul Outside the Walls. The major basilica is the title given to these four highest-ranking Roman Catholic Church buildings, all of which are also called “Papal Basilicas.” The two things that the four basilicas have in common are the holy doors and for being prescribed as destinations for pilgrimage. Only the Pope and his delegates may celebrate mass at the high altar of Major Basilicas. Even if you are not a pilgrim, it’s worth seeing all four Major Basilicas while in Rome because of their outstanding historical and artistic value. So here you go!
St. Peter's Basilica
Official name: the Papal Basilica of Saint Peter in the Vatican
St Peter’s Basilica also houses a range of smaller artworks, the most notable of which is Michelangelo’s the Pietà. It was carved from a single block of marble and depicts the body of Jesus in the lap of his mother, Mary, following his crucifixion. Did you know that Michelangelo was only 24 years old when he sculpted La Pietá?
How to get to St. Peter's?
Board metro on Line A and alight at the Ottaviano station located right outside Vatican City. From here, St. Peter’s Square and St. Peter’s Basilica can be reached in less than 5 minutes on foot. If you take bus 40, alight at Piazza Pia from where St. Peter’s Square is at a short walking distance.
Saint John Lateran
Official name: the Major Papal and Roman Archbasilica of the Most Holy Saviour and Saints John the Baptist and the Evangelist in Lateran, Mother, and Head of All Churches in Rome and the World
Most people probably think that St Peter’s is the Pope’s main church in Rome. In fact, Saint John Lateran as the cathedral of the Bishop of Rome, containing the papal throne (Cathedra Romana), ranks above all other churches in the Roman Catholic Church. There is an inscription in Latin on the façade of the basilica that reads: ‘’mother and head of all the churches of Rome and the world.’’ St. John Lateran is the oldest church in the western world. Built according to the wishes of Emperor Constantine, it was consecrated in 324 AD. The Basilica of St. John Lateran has played an important role throughout history as all popes were enthroned there up until 1870. Nowadays, the Pope, as the Bishop of Rome, celebrates Holy Thursday Mass at Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano. The present Lateran Basilica was erected in the middle of the 17th century. On top of its façade are 15 large statues representing Christ, John the Baptist, John the Evangelist, and twelve Doctors of the Church.
The great statues of the Apostles in the niches inside the basilica were made by sculptors of the late baroque at the beginning of the 18th century.
Above the sacramental altar, there’s a fragment of the table on which Jesus consumed the last supper. The cathedral also exhibits Jesus’ blood, brought to Rome by centurion Longino. Numerous are the chapels of noble families like Orsini, Torlonia, Massimo, among the others. They are made by some of the best artists of the different epochs. While St Peters’ Basilica in the Vatican houses the tombs of dozens of former popes, Saint John Lateran is the final resting place of 6 popes.
Make sure to stop at San Giovanni in Laterano Square and admire the oldest obelisk in Rome, which is also among the tallest in the world. Built in the 15th century, it’s 45.70 metres tall, including the cross on top.How to get to the Saint John Lateran
Take metro line A and get off at the San Giovanni stop. From there, it is about a five-minute walk.
Santa Maria Maggiore
Official name: the Papal Basilica of Saint Mary Major
How to get to Santa Maria Maggiore
The closest metro stop is Termini on lines A and B. Buses: 16, 70, 71, and 714.
St. Paul Outside the Walls
Official name: the Papal Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls
The Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls was the largest church in the world until the construction of St Peter’s in the 16th century. The old church was damaged several times by earthquakes and fire. In 1823, the basilica was burnt to the ground entirely. The reconstruction was carried out following the original design, and the new building was consecrated 30 years later.
The way to the church leads through a colonnaded atrium and a narthex, decorated with 19th-century mosaics on the upper part of the façade, and onto the Holy Gate, the inside of which is adorned with the original bronze door, cast in Constantinople in the 11th century.
The centre of the portico houses a colossal statue of St. Paul.
How to get to St. Paul Outside the Walls
Metro Line B, stop St. Paul's Basilica. Bus lines 23 and 271 are going to St. Paul Basilica directly.
It’s possible to see all 4 basilicas in one day. There will most likely be queues at St. Peter's, so start with it in the morning, then continue your way to Santa Maria Maggiore and Saint John Lateran, and finish with St. Paul Outside the Walls. Check also the map enclosed.
Entrance in all 4 Major Basilicas is free. Be prepared for a security check before entering. Many of the churches in Rome have dress codes, so don't wear flip-flops and be sure to cover your knees and shoulders.
Love sacral architecture? Think about visiting Siena
and its Cathedral!
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What did you think? Have you visited Rome and its Major Basilicas? I’d love to hear from you so please add your comment below.
Published by Anita on October 29, 2021
Author: Anita Sāne
About the author
Anita is a part-time traveller, passionate photographer and a retired career woman from Latvia, travelling mostly solo for more than 15 years. She is a skilled travel planner who plans and executes her travels by herself. Anita wants to show you how to travel the world and open your mind to new experiences. Follow her on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter and Bloglovin.