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Five Historic Churches in Rome

by Suzanne Fluhr on September 25, 2013 · 16 comments

When we finally took our sons to Europe, Italy was the first country we visited. Even as surly teenagers, they could not contain their amazement at the abundance of art, and especially, ecclesiastical art. Rome is so rich in places to see, it can be a daunting task to plan your visit. This guest article by Ryan Little shares information with Boomeresque readers about five places of worship, outside the Vatican, that are worthy of  attention because of their historic and artistic significance.


Home of the Vatican and the Papacy and the center of the Catholic Church from the late Roman period to today, Rome is filled with churches and monuments. Whether you’re walking, taking public transportation or using services such as Avis car hire, in Rome you’ll be able to enjoy visiting some of the historic churches. This list covers only a handful of the most interesting.

Pantheon interior showing domed ceiling and oculus

Interior of the Pantheon showing the oculus in the famed domed ceiling. Painting by Giovanni Paolo Panini (1691-1765).



The Pantheon

Originally built as a temple to the pagan gods of the Roman Empire, the Pantheon was rebuilt in the 2nd century by the Emperor Hadrian and has remained in use ever since, although not for its original purpose. It has been consecrated for Roman Catholic worship since the 7th century and also serves as a tomb for artists such as Raphael, the composer Corelli and for several Italian kings. The Pantheon is a stunning example of Roman architecture; for centuries, architects were unable to recreate its massive dome. It stands not only as a well preserved monument to Roman engineering, but as a fascinating example of how structures change and grow over time, being adapted to new and different uses.


Archbasilica of Saint John Lateran

St. Peter’s Cathedral is more famous than the Cathedral of St. John, but unlike St Peter’s, the Archbasilica of St John Lateran is actually in Rome rather than in the tiny Papal enclave of Vatican City. This historic church was the main seat of the Papacy from the 4th century until the Middle Ages; the Pope’s residence was next door. Tradition has it that this church was built on the site of Rome’s first church, although nothing of the original building remains today. The current building is lavishly decorated in the Baroque style. Like many of Rome’s most famous churches, it is also a museum.

Detail showing the 12th century mosaics in the apse of the Basilica of San Clemente, Rome (Photo credit: Jastrow-Public Domain).

Detail showing the 12th century mosaics in the apse of the Basilica of San Clemente, Rome (Photo credit: Jastrow-Public Domain).

Basilica of San Clemente

Less ostentatious than either the Pantheon or the Basilica of St. John Lateran, the Basilica of San Clemente is located near the Colosseum. The current church itself is less interesting than the many years of history revealed by the archaeological finds beneath it. The present church was built after the original was sacked by forces commanded by the Norman warlord Robert Guiscard during the late 11th century. Beneath it are the remains of a very early 4th-century Basilica. Visible to visitors, the remains of this early Basilica include wall paintings depicting the life of Pope Clement I and contain some of the first examples of written Italian. Going even further back in history, below the ruins of this Basilica are the remains of a Mithraeum, a temple to the Roman god Mithras. The cult of Mithras is believed to have been an important influence on early Christianity. In addition to containing one of the earliest examples of the written Italian vernacular, outside the Basilica, among the various gifts and monuments on display, is an inscription in Glagolitic, an early precursor of the modern Cyrillic alphabet.

St. Peter's chains on display in the Church of San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome (Photo credit: Camelia.Boban, Wikimedia Commons)

St. Peter’s chains on display in the Church of San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome (Photo credit: Camelia.Boban, Wikimedia Commons)

Church of San Pietro in Vincoli

The Church of Saint Peter in Chains is also located near the Colosseum, west of the Colle Oppio park. This Church was founded to hold the chains with which Saint Peter was imprisoned by the Romans. Today, it is best known for housing Michelangelo’s statue of Moses, one of the sculptor’s most celebrated works. The statue is part of a structure called the Tomb of Julius II. The name persists despite the fact that Julius II – the famous “warrior pope” – is actually buried alongside other popes at Saint Peter’s. Like many of the other churches of Rome, this Church underwent renovations and additions throughout its history, starting with its consecration in the 5th century.


Rose window in the Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome (Photo credit: Wikimedia )

Rose window in the Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome (Photo credit: Wikimedia )

Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore

The Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, or Saint Mary the Major, was constructed soon after the Church declared Mary to be the mother of Christ. It is Rome’s largest church devoted to the Virgin Mary. Originally built in the 5th century, the church was substantially remodeled after being damaged by an earthquake in 1348. It is particularly known for its fifth century mosaics which are not only beautiful works of art from Late Antiquity, but which provide important insights into the art of the period, representing a variety of different mosaic styles. The mosaics are also notable for containing significant representations of the Old Testament. The column in the square, topped by a statue of the Virgin Mary, was part of an ancient Roman building destroyed by another earthquake. Although the column itself is ancient, it has only been in its present position since the 17th century. The practice of using Roman columns as bases for religious statues can be seen throughout the city.

Rome’s churches represent a wide swath of the city’s history through their architecture and art. You can travel through the ages as you visit them.

Ryan Little, the author of this post, enjoys travelling through Europe and is intrigued by the history he learns from visiting European cities. 

Boomeresque was compensated for editing and publishing this post.

Have you ever visited these churches in Rome? What were your impressions?  Do you have another favorite Rome church, museum or monument that you consider a “must see” for Boomeresque readers?

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Neva September 25, 2013 at 5:28 pm

We read Rick Steeves travel books on Rome and then visited this amazing city. We luckily found a tour guide that took us to various church sites and most importantly the Vatican. So much to see and impossible to enjoy without a guide to tell you what you’re seeing.


Suzanne Fluhr September 25, 2013 at 5:58 pm

When we were there with our sons, we splurged on two tours led by Scala Reale guides. That outfit is now called “Concept Travels”. For our tour of the Vatican museum, it was just the four of us and our guide who was from New Zealand and was studying for a doctorate in divinity in Rome. Coincidentally, he had earned his M.Div. at a university in Philly. For our four hour tour of the Forum and environs, our guide was an Italian woman who spoke excellent English and had doctorates in architecture and archaeology. I was really proud of our boys who were ages 19 and 15 at the time, but who listened in rapt attention — most of the time 😉


Patti September 25, 2013 at 6:19 pm

As you probably know, Italy is WAY up at the top of my “must see” list. One day!


Suzanne Fluhr September 25, 2013 at 6:34 pm

Patti- You should definitely keep it on your list. The wealth of historic art and architecture there is quite amazing. The Catholic Church must have had money to burn. There were scandals, but no lawsuits back in the day.


Agness September 26, 2013 at 1:11 am

These photos and descriptions remind me a lot of my latest journey to Rome. I remember how fascinating and interesting Roman churches were. I couldn’t take my eyes off their windows, ancient doors and stunning painted walls. Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore is definitely my favourite one.


Suzanne Fluhr September 26, 2013 at 9:58 pm

Although there are beautiful churches throughout Italy, and indeed, throughout Europe, the concentration of exquisite design and workmanship in so many churches in one city is what sets Rome apart. Thanks for sharing your experience, Agness.


Jacqueline Gum (Jacquie) September 26, 2013 at 4:52 pm

This post made me want to go back! Oh how I loved these cathedrals! I also visited the Vatican mosaic school where they train artisans how to repair the mosaics in churches all over Europe. Fascinating stuff and becoming a lost art.


Suzanne Fluhr September 26, 2013 at 10:02 pm

Jacquie, thanks for sharing. I have a friend who earned a degree in painting conservation and restoration at the Sorbonne. If you think about it, there were many types of skilled crafts that went into each of these buildings. I would have liked to have seen the Vatican mosaic school—next time 😉


Arleen September 26, 2013 at 8:58 pm

I love Italy from their food, people, cathedrals. I would like to go back. When I read the by Dan Brown “Angels and Demons” I took out a map and books from my trip to Rome to see if I could find all the churches. I think it would be fun one day to find them when we go back. We did put coins in the Trevi Fountain and we have been back several times.


Suzanne Fluhr September 26, 2013 at 10:04 pm

I think they used to have “Angels and Demons” tours in Rome just like they have Lord of the Ring tours in New Zealand. Thanks for stopping by.


Mike October 1, 2013 at 6:57 pm

Suzanne, I’ve not yet been any of these churches but I definitely want to visit the Pantheon. And next would likely be the Basilica of San Clemente. If you had to pick one of these which one would you pick to go see? 🙂


Suzanne Fluhr October 1, 2013 at 11:29 pm

I was very fortunate to be able to visit the Pantheon with my husband and our sons. It is very well preserved and gives one an idea of what Imperial Rome must have been like. If I am lucky enough to revisit Rome some day, I agree with you that the Basilica of San Clemente would be my first choice to visit among these. I hope you go some day — and of course, don’t skip the Vatican!


Linda Bibb October 4, 2013 at 4:18 pm

When my husband Dan and I were in Rome we spent much of our time wandering through back streets and walking into open churches. It’s amazing how much world-class art is hanging on their walls!

One church we missed – but that I really want to see – is called St Paul’s Outside the Walls. It’s one of four ancient papal basilicas and is the traditional burial site of the body of St. Paul. (His head, however, is not there; according to church tradition it is buried at the Lateran.) Stories like that make travel so much more interesting.


Suzanne Fluhr (Just One Boomer) October 7, 2013 at 11:33 pm

Back in the day, the Catholic Church was one of the few institutions wealthy enough to commission the best artists—-and musicians—for that matter. But even in little out of the way places, one stumbles upon fine art. The painted church on the Big Island of Hawaii comes to mind.


Federico November 29, 2013 at 2:10 am

I’ve recently been in Rome (and it wasn’t the first time) but St Peter’s in Chains sounds totally new to me: I’ll surely note it down for next time. If I had to pick a favourite that you didn’t listen I’d probably go with the *other* St Peter…even though technically it’s located in the Vatican City ^^


Len Dozois April 17, 2014 at 8:04 pm

Hi there! Great Blog!
Rome is definitely one of our favorite cities. Been there a few times and always find something new to enjoy.
I’m just getting my blog off the ground. We have done quite a bit of traveling and have many stories to tell. We absolutely love Italy, and our next trip there may include Venice. Haven’t been there yet. We have enjoyed Rome, Florence, Naples, Sorrento, and of course the Amalfi coast.
Next on my Bucket List is Liverpool :). Always loved the Beatles and will probably get to London again with a couple of days in Liverpool for sure.
I would appreciate some feedback from you on my blog. If you have the time please stop by. My blog of course gets into travel, and also technology. Let me know what you think!


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