The Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere is often referred to simply as the Basilica of Our Lady, and it is said to be the oldest church dedicated to the Virgin Mary in the city of Rome. While this title has historically been contested by the Basilica of Saint Mary Major, the episcopal throne which can be found inside the church does bear an inscription suggesting that this basilica was chronologically commissioned first.
Established in the 3rd century by Pope Callixtus the First, the church’s exterior is notable for the massive golden mosaic on its main façade, as well as its Romanesque bell tower, which was added much later, roughly sometime in the 12th century.
As the name suggests, Santa Maria in Trastevere is situated in the heart of the lively Trastevere district of Rome, and thus it is a focal point of the piazza of the same name. The central fountain is an associated historical piece which draws many visitors to the district each day, and it is believed to be the oldest fountain in the city, dating back as far as the 8th century.
While the basilica has technically existed since the 3rd century, it was, like many Roman churches, entirely rebuilt during the Middle Ages. It was during this process, and at the direction of Pope Innocent II, that the 22 granite columns were taken from the ancient Baths of Caracalla and used to line the nave of the new church, resulting in the design that we see today.
The grandiose octagonal ceiling was added in the 17th century, while the Swiss architect Carlo Fontana restored the façade and added the portico entrance, cementing the church’s present-day structure.
Connecting the granite columns to the golden ceiling are a series of massive paintings depicting a variety of early Christian saints, many of whom can be identified as martyrs owing to the symbolic palm branches carried in hand.
Unlike other Roman churches, the Basilica in Trastevere doesn’t embellish its own side altars very heavily. Instead, it focuses your admiration primarily on the main altar, and more specifically on the stunning mosaic behind it. Strongly inspired by the Byzantine artwork from the east, this massive depiction of the Queenship of Mary is flanked by several smaller mosaics which illustrate various scenes from her life. Underneath all of this is the ancient episcopal throne mentioned earlier.
Above the main altar, gazing down from the magnificent ceiling, is a rather unique representation of Our Lady with a pair of angels on either side. It’s one of those of those designs that could easily be overlooked if you didn’t think to look up while standing in this exact spot.
A small side chapel to the left rounded off my journey through this church, and provided a convenient space for some quiet reflection. Of all the churches I visit, those dedicated to Our Lady are often the richest, in both history and elegance. And this church in particular is certainly no exception.