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  • Writer's pictureAman Mehta

A Brief History of The Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere

What is Santa Maria in Trastevere?

The Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere, also known as Our Lady in Trastevere, is a 3rd-century church in Rome that was originally founded by Saint Calixtus, and features beautifully preserved mosaics from the 12th century.

The Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere

Santa Maria in Trastevere History

Widely esteemed as one of the first churches in Rome, Santa Maria in Trastevere was the first to be dedicated to Mary, mother of Jesus. Primarily medieval in style, the basilica (completed in the 1140s) survives with its charming bell tower. Somehow the 12th-century aura has lingered, despite later additions such as Domenichino’s gilded, coffered ceiling and Carlo Fontana’s portico with its statues of four saints, including Pope Calixtus I, who commissioned the first sanctuary on this site in the 3rd century AD.

Prior to the church’s foundation, the site was a hospice for wounded soldiers and veterans. According to Saint Jerome, in 38 BC an oil spring gushed from the ground, a sign that God’s grace would soon flow into the world and a Messiah would be born. As a result, the site became an important meeting point for Christian converts. On the church floor to the right of the altar, you’ll find an inscription that supposedly marks the spot of this miracle.

The church is notable for its use of classical Roman architectural forms. The 22 columns in the nave, of various dimensions, types of stone, textures, and colours, were appropriated from ancient ruins. The straight beam, or architrave, resting over the columns evokes classical Roman construction. It demonstrates an experimental rejection of the arches preferred by earlier and later architects.

The Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere

What truly sets Santa Maria in Travestere apart is its glowingly beautiful mosaics, which mark a return to a neglected tradition. For this revival, we can probably thank Abbot Desiderius of Monte Cassino who, towards the end of the 11th century, brought mosaic workers from Constantinople and used them to train local artisans.

The mosaics on the façade date from the 12th or 13th century and show the Madonna and child flanked on either side by five women. They might represent the Wise and Foolish Virgins from the Gospel of Saint Matthew, although some historians believe that the scene depicts a procession of eight virgins and two widows. The widows, they argue, are the women whose lamps have gone out. The two tiny figures at the Madonna’s feet represent the donors who financed the piece.

The mosaics inside the church are even more exceptional. Those in the half-dome of the apse date from the 12th century and show Mary, enthroned, next to Jesus, who has his arm around his mother’s shoulder. They are flanked by a collection of saints including Pope Innocent II, the donor for the mosaics, who holds a model of the church. The prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah are on the two sides of the apse. Below the frieze of lambs are Pietro Cavallini’s masterful 13th-century mosaics illustrating the life of Mary.

The sumptuous Altemps Chapel, on the church’s north side, has an ornate ceiling and numerous frescoes, including a wonderful depiction of the Council of Trent, a major event in the Roman Catholic Church’s ‘Counter-Reformation’ in response to the rise of Protestantism.

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