Rome boasts over 900 churches and visiting them isn’t a new concept invented by tourists. The Seven Pilgrimage Church of Rome tour dates to 1552. Filippo Neri led six or seven people on the first tour while around 6000 people did the tour a decade later.
For many, the most obvious churches to visit are St Peter’s Basilica and the Pantheon. The latter is a must-see destination for fans of Dan Brown’s thriller, Angels and Demons. This pagan structure dates to around 118 AD and later became a Catholic church. It boasts the single largest unreinforced dome in the world.
But what if you want something a little different from your ecclesiastical tour? Here are five awesome churches to visit next time you’re in Rome.
1. San Sebastiano fuori le mura (St. Sebastian Outside-the-Walls)
St. Sebastian Outside-the-Walls lies outside the Aurelian walls, hence the name. It lost its position in the Seven Pilgrimages list in 2000. Pope John Paul II swapped it for the shrine of Our Lady of Divine Love.
This 4th-century church stands over the catacombs where devotees interred St. Sebastian. The Emperor sentenced him to death in the 3rd century for his Christianity. He survived the first ordeal, execution by archery. The Emperor’s men bludgeoned him to death instead.
Sts. Peter and Paul lay in the catacombs too. Followers moved their remains to their respective basilicas. Scholars argue over the final resting place of St. Sebastian’s remains. Some say he’s now in St. Peter’s Basilica where he has a chapel, but others think he’s still in the catacombs. Visit the catacombs and see for yourself.
Saracens destroyed the original church in 846 AD. This version dates to the 13th century but suffered extensive damage during the Sack of Rome in 1527. Remodeling work in the 16th century explains its Baroque appearance.
2. San Giovanni in Laterano (St. John Lateran)
Another of the Seven Pilgrimages churches, St. John Lateran is Rome’s official cathedral. After all, St. Peter’s is in the Vatican City and so in its own jurisdiction. That makes St. John Lateran the seat of Rome’s bishop – the Pope.
Built in the 4th century, St. John Lateran suffered damage from earthquakes and fires. Much of what you see today comes from 16th- and 17th-century restoration work.
Its Giotto column fresco is a must-see. Meanwhile, many believe the tabernacle on the altar to contain the heads of Sts. Paul and Peter. The Baptistery dates to 313 AD and the reign of Emperor Constantine. The Baroque rebuild preserved the layout of the original church.
St. John Lateran is one of the oldest Christian structures in Rome. It also boasts six papal tombs and huge statues representing the twelve apostles. A different prince paid for each statue in the 18th century. They commissioned the top sculptors of the day who competed to create the best statue.
Don’t miss the Egyptian obelisk outside in the Piazza San Giovanni in Laterano. The oldest in Rome, it arrived in 357 AD from Thebes.
3. Santa Maria sopra Minerva
If you know your Roman mythology, you’ll recognize the name, Minerva. Goddess of wisdom and warfare, she also lends her name to Sulis Minerva, the patron deity of the Roman city of Bath.
This 13th-century Dominican church stands on the ruins of three temples. Followers dedicated them to Minerva, Egyptian goddess Isis and Greco-Egyptian god Serapis. The proximity of the temples shows the tolerance of the different pantheons.
Work started on Santa Maria sopra Minerva in 1280 and finished in 1453. It’s a rare example of Gothic church architecture in Rome, among the more usual Baroque buildings. Its good location and Dominican services made it popular with the local population.
It’s a must-see for art lovers. Enjoy frescoes by Filippino Lippi and sculpture by Michelangelo. The church also houses the tomb of Italy’s patron saint, St. Catherine of Siena. Some of St. Catherine’s remains lie in this tomb. But you’ll find her head at San Domenico Basilica in Siena and a rib in Florence.
4. The Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore (St. Mary Major)
The Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore is another of the Seven Pilgrimages churches. It’s also Rome’s largest church dedicated to the Virgin Mary. While it looks Baroque, the church dates to around 440 AD. The priests have celebrated mass there every day since the 5th century. They’re the only church in Rome to do this.
Unlike many other churches in Rome, St. Mary Major hasn’t been rebuilt or remodeled over the years. It gives a good idea what an early Christian basilica looked like.
It’s also home to the Salus Populi Romani. This image of the Virgin Mary that apparently works miracles for those who pray before it. A gold reliquary houses the crib in which believers think Jesus once lay.
You can also marvel at the 5th-century mosaics. And according to legend, Columbus brought back the gold for the ceiling from the New World.
If you visit in August, pop in on August 5th for the Miracle of the Snows celebration. According to legend, in 358 AD the Virgin Mary appeared to Pope Liberius in a vision. She predicted a snowfall the following day and told him to build a church on the site of this snowfall. When the snow came as predicted, Pope Liberius ordered the church’s construction. Now they shower the church with white petals to commemorate the legend every August 5th.
5. The Basilica of San Clemente (St. Clement’s Basilica)
The Basilica of San Clemente lies some 300 yards from the Colosseum. It’s worth seeing for its archaeological value.
The current basilica dates to the 12th century. But it stands on top of a 4th-century church abandoned in 1100 AD after the Normans destroyed much of the local area. Below those ruins lie the site of a 1st-century building. Excavations in the early twentieth century revealed a fourth layer dating to 64 AD.
The basilica’s construction shows the layer-based approach to building in Rome. For each of the churches, the builders filled in the old site with rubble and built on top. The ground level in the 1st-century building is almost 60 feet below the modern ground level.
Start off with the marvelous 12th century mosaic in the apse on the top floor. Then descend to the Mithraeum below, a 2nd-century shrine dedicated to Mithras. Leaders outlawed this Persian cult in 395 AD.
The Mithraeum follows the traditional style. Bench-like steps line a long, narrow chamber, with an altar in the center. The relief on the side of the altar depicts Mithras slaying a bull, known as the Tauroctony.
Which of these awesome churches will make it onto your list?
With over 900 churches to choose from, picking five is no easy task. How about the bone displays of 4000 Capuchin friars at Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappucini? Or Santa Maria del Popolo, built to allay the fears of residents who thought Nero’s ghost haunted the area?
Whichever one you choose, visit with an open mind and a willingness to be awestruck.
If you enjoy thrillers featuring Rome, check out Stone of Fire, an ARKANE thriller, by J.F.Penn.