There’s probably no better time to explore the great cathedrals and churches of Europe than the Christmas season. Aglow with holiday decorations, these art treasures are often second thoughts as places to visit when abroad. In Rome, where religion has long been intertwined with the cultural history of the city, a traveler is spoiled for choice.
This article looks at just a few of the city’s outstanding churches, many dating back to the Renaissance, Middle Ages, or even earlier. While the selections chosen here are all outstanding examples in their own right, this list is by no means exhaustive. It’s closer to the truth to say that there are countless churches filled with priceless artistic treasures awaiting the visitor to Rome, rather than to assert that the average traveler will likely see more than just a glimpse of the riches that lie within the Eternal City.
St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican
Of all the churches in Rome, travelers are most likely to visit this one, and for good reason. As the world’s most famous church (and epicenter of the Catholic Church), its artistic treasures are legendary. Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel alone is likely the most important work of Renaissance art ever created.
St. Peter’s dates back to 349 AD and took nearly a century to complete. Dating from the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine, who first built it the church over the tomb of St. Peter, its true flowering came about in the 16th century, when Bramante’s version began to be built. No less than five of Italy’s greatest artists (Bramante, Michelangelo, Peruzzi Raphael, and Antonio Sangallo the Younger) died trying to complete this structure.
Today, visitors will be enthralled by its beauty and majesty. Highlights include the “Loggia delle Banedizion,” from which the Pope issues his papal blessings; the bronze doors by the Sculptor Filarete, which contain scenes from the martyrdom of Saints Peter and Paul; Bernini’s bronze “Baldacchino,” a huge spiral columned canopy above the papal altar (with bronze taken from the original Pantheon); and the central entrance’s 14th century mosaics by the painter Giotto.
Santa Maria, Trastevere
Located at the end of a busy shopping street in a picturesque piazza, Santa Maria will hold any visitor’s attention with its stunning Byzantine mosaics. This 12th century church welcomes visitors with its Medieval façade, whose frescoes of the “Wise and Foolish Virgins” tell the legend of the discovery of oil on this site, thought to have happened in 39 BC.
Inside, the “Fons Olii” marks the spot where the oil first flowed. The main attraction of Santa Maria, however, are its golden mosaics by Pietro Cavallini (“The Life of the Virgin”) behind its altar, dating to 1291, which mark a turning point in art’s development by their use of perspective. This is undoubtedly one of Rome’s oldest churches, and its visually arresting giant columns were taken from ancient Roman temples, some say the Baths of Caracalla. The gilded ceiling is a later addition (1617) designed by Domenichino.
Once the chapel of the Collegio Romano, this dazzling fantasy of a church is a Baroque spectacle that is meant to counterbalance the 17th century’s Counter Reformation impulses. The largest Jesuit church in Rome, which honors the order’s patron saint, it contains Fra Andrea Pozzo’s famous “Allegory of the Missionary Work of the Jesuits” (1691-1694).
What is truly stunning about Sant’Ignazio (in addition to its gilt ceilings and bejeweled interior) is the use of trump l’oeil to create the illusion of a dome, where there is none. Standing on a marble disk marking the spot inside the church, visitors are able to get the maximum effect of the illusion.
Santa Maria, Cosmedin
Originally built in the 6th century for the city’s Greek population, this Roman church is perhaps most famous for another reason. Its portico is the location of a stone fragment, “Bocca della Verita” (Mouth of Truth), which legend has will crush the hand of any liar in its stony grasp.
The church’s interior is moody Medieval, a Romanesque creation that, while a typical Roman church, also contains elements from the East, such as an altar screen. Located across from what was once an Ancient Roman cattle market (later a spot for public executions), this church has a haunting quality.
Santa Maria, Aracoeli
Designed in 1348 to celebrate the end of the Black Death in Europe, this Romanesque-Gothic church is located on Capitoline Hill at the end of a 137-step entrance. These stairs are where Gibbon is said to have been inspired to write his famous tome about the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.
The church is built on the site of an Ancient Roman temple, dedicated to Juno Moneta and housed a mint (hence, the origin of the word money from “moneta”). According to legend, a female prophet predicted the coming of a “Redeemer” to the Emperor Augustus, and he in turn built the “Ara Coeli“ (Altar of Heaven).
Today the church of Santa Maria is best known for its “Santa Bambino” (a wooden replica of a 15th century Baby Jesus statue). During the Christmas season, the children of Rome come to visit him and recite poems from a miniature pulpit inside the church.
Other unique features of the church include its classical columns and its 13th century Cosmatesque pavement (which uses recycled fragments of Ancient Roman marbles to create a pattern), as well as its gilded Renaissance ceiling, and a chapel noteworthy for its Pinturicchio frescoes of Siena’s San Bernardino, dating to 1486.
As apparent from just the brief descriptions of these magnificent structures, many of the city’s most stunning churches reveal rich layers of its history. No matter what time of year visitors come to Rome to visit these unique buildings, it’s clear that they are in for some awesome exploration.