Rome, the eternal city, also is eternally Catholic. It is home to the pope, though technically the head of the church resides in Vatican City, which is a tiny, separate country surrounded by Rome. Travelers, however, don’t need to be Catholic to admire the fabulous art and architecture these centuries-old churches contain. Attending mass at one of these churches in Rome can be both a cultural experience for non-Catholics and a religious experience for Catholics and will provide a new perspective on what makes Rome tick.
Of all the churches in Rome, the Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo is said to contain the best examples of works by Renaissance artists, including Raphael, Bernini and Caravaggio. The church was constructed in 1099 to combat residents’ beliefs that the ghost of Nero was haunting the area near the north gate to Rome because evil-looking crows lived in a tree; the tree was chopped down and the church built. The church has several chapels, all of which contain work by leading artists of the day.
Santa Maria in Trastevere is one of the oldest churches in Rome, with most historians believing it was first built about 350. The church has impressive mosaics from the 12th and 13th centuries; it has been enlarged and restored over the years. The church was destroyed when Rome was sacked in 410, but was rebuilt. The head of St. Apolonia is kept as a relic as is a section of the Holy Sponge. One legend associated with the church is that oil flowed from the earth the day Christ was born; Santa Maria in Trastevere was later built on that site.
Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, a church operated by the Dominicans, stands on the site that was once a temple to the Egyptian goddess Isis, though at the time it was thought to be to the Greco-Roman goddess Minerva. Built in 1370, it is located about a block from the Pantheon. Considered a minor basilica, the church is said to be the only remaining example of an original Gothic church in Rome. It contains a statue by Michelangelo as well as impressive 15th century frescoes.
The Pantheon is one of the few major religious structures in Rome that didn’t start out as a Catholic church. This most influential building in ancient Rome was, instead, a temple to Rome’s pagan gods. It was built by the Emperor Hadrian about 118 to replace a pantheon that was destroyed by fire in 80. It turned into a Catholic church in the early 7th century. The Pantheon is most noticed for its architecture, especially the dome that is supported by arches. Two kings and Raphael, a Renaissance artist, are buried here.
The Basilica of San Clemente is named after St. Clement, who was the third pope after St. Peter. Located just a few blocks from the Coliseum, the present church is built over four layers of buildings, including other churches, beginning with a Christian home that was destroyed in 64 during a fire most closely associated with the Emperor Nero. At one time, the church was a pagan temple; it also has been both an Augustinian and Dominican facility, and today is operated by Irish Dominicans. The church is noted for its fabulous frescoes and mosaics.
San Giovanni in Laterano (St. John Lateran) is one of four major basilicas in Rome. Dedicated to John the Baptist and John the Evangelist, it is the home cathedral for both the archbishop of Rome and the pope. It is known as “the cathedral of Rome and of the world.’ It is believed to be the first Catholic church built in Rome. Its exterior doesn’t seem as ornate as other churches, but step inside, and wow! It is very ornate, with wall decorations, columns, mosaics and paintings; even the candlesticks bear images of the prophets.
The Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore (St. Mary Major) is considered one of the most important Catholic churches in Rome, which is to say, a crown jewel. The church contains an impressive array of artifacts and art that represent Rome’s Christian art civilization. Pilgrims from throughout the world come here to pay homage to the basilica, where every stained glass window, column or fresco has a religious history. Travelers who are in Rome on August 5 may want to attend the Miracle of the Snows celebration when thousands of white petals are dropped from the ceiling.
It may not be the oldest Catholic church in Rome, but St. Peter’s Basilica is definitely the most famous, perhaps in all the world. The basilica is built on the site where the first pope, St. Peter, is believed to have been crucified. The present basilica took more than 150 years to build, but the wait was worth it. Works by such famous Renaissance artists as Michelangelo, who also designed the dome, can be found throughout its ornate interior. The basilica and its associated chapels and museums are to be savored, not rushed through in a blur.