Rome’s Churches: you don’t have to be religious to enjoy them

I returned last week from another wonderful week in Rome and will now be giving this blog some much-needed attention. As it’s Easter, I thought I’d start with a post about my favourite churches in Rome, because I’ve now visited about 30 of them and have a reasonable idea of which I would recommend people to visit. 

I was originally going to set myself the challenge of seeing how many churches I could visit in one day – I read that Rome actually has three churches for every day of the year! – but in the couple of weeks prior to my trip I was struck down with a nasty virus, from which I was still recuperating by the time I reached Rome. Having visited the majority of the publicly accessible archaeological sites in the centre of Rome (and, thanks to the BSR, some of the ones which are closed to the public as well), I visited a lot of churches this time in search of new sights, though actually ended up going back to a lot of the ones I’d been to before. I would like to stress that I am not religious at all, but you really don’t have to be – it’s interesting enough visiting Roman churches without having to be into all that!

So here are a few particularly interesting churches I would recommend you visit (by no means an exhaustive list of course!) – I’m not including the Pantheon or St Peter’s here because they are just too obvious!

Santa Maria Maggiore

Cosmati flooring in Santa Maria Maggiore

Characteristic marble flooring in the Cosmati style, Santa Maria Maggiore

One of the four Papal Basilicas (the others being San Paolo fuori le Mura, St John Lateran and St Peters), Santa Maria Maggiore sits on the Esquiline Hill not far from Termini Station and is easily accessible from either Termini or Cavour Metro stations. The legend goes that the Virgin Mary appeared to Pope Liberius in around AD 358 and told him to build a church corresponding to the area which he would find covered with snow the following morning – for which it was originally known as Santa Maria della Neve, i.e. of the snow. It also houses an important relic (if you believe in that sort of thing) – a piece of the crib of the Infant Jesus, which is displayed on Christmas morning every year. The basilica is lavishly decorated, and as with many early churches in Rome (including the majority in this blog post), its floor is in the so-called Cosmati style, developed in the 12th and 13th centuries, with the marble having come from ancient Roman buildings.

Santa Prassede

Santa Prassede Rome

The light interior of the Basilica di Santa Prassede

Nestling in a little side street a stone’s throw from Santa Maria Maggiore is a smaller but equally wonderful basilica, Santa Prassede, which is well worth a visit if you’re in the area. Its inauspicious entrance belies an impressive but not over-the-top interior, the walls of which are decorated with frescoes for a more subtle and I suppose more ‘airy’ look than the lavish Santa Maria Maggiore. It’s not without the gold mosaics, however; those of particular interest are in a tiny chapel to the left as you go in, and can be illuminated with a coin-operated light.  The mosaics here – which, uniquely, cover the entire chapel – date from the early 9th century, and are incredibly well preserved. You can go down into a small crypt beneath the altar of the main church to see the tomb of Santa Prassede, as well as a 13th century altar decorated in the Cosmati style.

Santa Maria in Cosmedin

Santa Maria in Cosmedin

Santa Maria in Cosmedin - rather plainer than a lot of churches in Rome!

If you’ve seen the film Roman Holiday then you will at least recognise the outside of this church, which is frequented by tourists on account of the so-called ‘Mouth of Truth’, an ancient Roman drain cover with a rather creepy face thought by some to depict the god Oceanus. It’s mounted on the wall outside and is said to bite off the hands of liars; cue long lines of tourists waiting to be photographed with their hands in its mouth. If you’re an Audrey Hepburn or Gregory Peck fan then by all means do the same, but otherwise I’d say skip the queuing and go straight into the church, which is a lot more interesting. It’s actually structured around a Roman administrative building and an early Christian welfare centre. Its association with the Greeks began in the 8th century and the name “Cosmedin” is thought to come from the Greek word meaning “to adorn”. It has a bit of a Greek Orthodox feel about it, and sacred music played on a sound system adds to the atmosphere.

Santa Maria in Ara Coeli

Santa Maria in Ara Coeli

Santa Maria in Ara Coeli, flanked to the left by the vast Vittorio Emanuele Monument.

If you stand at the bottom of the Capitoline Hill you’ll see Michelangelo’s gentle cordonata on the right, and on the left you’ll see a dauntingly steep staircase up to the plain brick facade of a church – Santa Maria in Ara Coeli. The staircase was built in 1348 to give thanks for deliverance from a plague, and if you’re not feeling up to the climb, you can also access the church from the side entrance from Piazza del Campidoglio, on the top of the hill. The name ‘Ara Coeli’ means ‘altar of heaven’, and derives from a medieval legend that this was where the Tiburtine Sybil prophesised the coming of Christ to Augustus. It occupies the spot where the ancient Roman Temple of Juno would once have stood (famous for its sacred geese). The most interesting thing about it (I think) is that the columns don’t match – they’re taken from ancient Roman buildings, and one even has an inscription – ‘a cubiculo Augustorum’, possibly suggesting that it came from a Roman public building.

Santi Quattro Coronati

View from Santi Quattro Coronati

The view from outside Santi Quattro Coronati - an unexpectedly rural part of Rome.

I was introduced to this gem on the Caelian Hill by a friend of mine, and it’s definitely worth knowing about. It’s in a part of Rome which has a surprisingly rural feel to it, making it a good place to head if you get sick of the crowds (as I frequently do). The basilica and its surrounding monastic buildings are occupied by a closed order of Augustinian nuns, and on several occasions I have been lucky enough to have heard them singing in the basilica – a beautiful sound. The real wonder is the small Chapel of St Sylvester, on the right as you approach the basilica, which is decorated with a marvellous series of frescoes dating to the chapel’s founding in 1246, depicting the life and conversion to Christianity of the Roman emperor Constantine. This chapel is one of Rome’s innumerable hidden treasures and perfect if you’re after something a bit different after the bustle of the usual sights.

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About Rachel Ingram

I graduated from Oxford University in 2009 with an MA in Classical Archaeology and Ancient History from St John's College. After graduating I worked as a Geographic Researcher at Holidaylettings.co.uk, spending lots of time researching and writing travel guides to worldwide destinations, developing my copywriting skills. After working as a copywriter and content consultant at White.net (formerly SEOptimise), where I most enjoyed working with travel clients, I went self-employed. I now divide my time between freelance copywriting and running the business I set up with my boyfriend - AirExperiences.co.uk - selling aviation gift experiences. In my spare time I'm training for a Private Pilot's Licence, and I also enjoy travelling, wine and baking. My favourite authors are Charles Dickens, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Bill Bryson.
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3 Responses to Rome’s Churches: you don’t have to be religious to enjoy them

  1. sartenada says:

    Churches in Rome are really gorgeous, I agree that with You. In Your post I loved Your texts. You had done great job when digging info concerning to those churches You presented here.

    I hope that You have visited in other countries in churches. In the Mediterranean area and in Central Europe there are glorious churches also. They have one common thing – they are crusted with gold. Is it good or bad thing I do not say, but that is the fact.

    For example if You visit churches in Nordic countries like in Finland, our churches are different. Most beautiful are those wooden churches.

    Some examples:

    http://sartenada.wordpress.com/category/churches-wooden/

    This kind of churches You do not find in Rome. Now You ask if I have visited in Rome. Oh yeah and in many other towns in Italy. If You check my About me page, then there I have photos from Italy also as from Rome too.

    I wish to You happy blogging and a very Happy Easter.

  2. fran sansom says:

    This is excellent too . I intended to re-read ( only a trip to Rome would make me do so!) Dan Brown’s ‘Angels & Demons’ and race around Rome dragging husband and friends ,following the ‘quest’ viewing Churches in a very different light, However, I think I will print this and aim for some ‘gems’ instead.!

    p.s ever read any Lindsey Davis ‘Falco’ series? I highly recommend esp ‘3 Hands in the Fountain’.

    • Hey Fran, thanks so much for your lovely comments – glad you enjoyed reading the blog and I hope you have a wonderful trip! Let me know how it goes! 🙂 I haven’t read any Falco, no – if it’s about Rome I’ll give it a try though!

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