No other city is as strongly associated with the Catholic faith as Rome, so it is no surprise that the city has over 900 churches. It is impossible to describe them all, but several of these important Rome churches and cathedrals are certainly worth noting.
Four papal basilicas
The four most important churches of Rome are the papal basilicas. These four patriarchal basilicas each have their own ‘Holy Door’. These Holy Doors are opened once every 25 years during the so-called jubilee. The faithful can earn an indulgence by walking through all Holy Doors during a jubilee:
- St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, the most famous Rome church.
- San Giovanni in Laterano (St John Lateran in Rome).
- Santa Maria Maggiore.
- Saint Paul Outside the Walls. Before St Peters Basilica was built, this was the largest church in Rome. The church built in honour of the apostle Paul was originally constructed during the time of emperor Constantine, but had to be rebuilt in the 19th century after a devastating fire. The Rome church is called ‘Fuori le Mura’ because it was built outside the city walls at the site where Paul the apostle was buried. The basilica contains medallions decorated with mosaics for all 265 different popes.
Seven pilgrimage churches
When pilgrims visited Rome, they were expected to visit seven churches in order to earn the indulgence that related to their pilgrimage. The number seven symbolises the seven hills of Rome, as well as the ‘list of seven’ within the Catholic Church. In addition to the four papal basilicas we have discussed, the following three churches are considered pilgrimage churches:
- Basilica di San Sebastiano fuori le Mura, the Basilica of Saint Sebastian Outside the Walls. This church lies along the Via Appia or Appian Way, a famous road outside the city walls lined with many catacombs. More info.
- The Santa Croce in Gerusalemme. This church of ‘The Holy Cross in Jerusalem’ lies near the Saint John Lateran and has several cross relics. It is said the empress Helena brought parts of the Holy Cross to Rome in the 4th century.
- Basilica di San Lorenzo fuori le Mura, or the Basilica of Saint Lawrence Outside the Walls. Lawrence was one of the first Christian martyrs in Rome. The church is located next to Rome's oldest cemetery, the Campo Verano. The church was rebuilt many times, including once after a destructive air raid during the 2nd World War that destroyed many frescos. Unfortunately, that means it is now the least interesting church to visit of the seven pilgrim churches.
Other remarkable churches in Rome
- The Pantheon: It might not be a building you would expect on a list of churches, but the Pantheon is an official church.
- Basilica di San Clemente al Laterano: This church consists of multiple layers of churches that were built on top of each other. Here, you can visit the excavations that tell you all about the history of the church.
- San Pietro in Vincoli: This church lies on the Esquiline Hill in Rome and the name ‘Vincoli’ refers to the chains that bound Peter and that are venerated underneath the high altar. The main attraction in this 5th century church is one of the most famous sculptures by Michelangelo; the 1513 statue of Moses next to the tomb of Emperor Julius II. The statue shows Moses descending mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments.
- San Luigi dei Francesi: Highlight of this 16th-century basilica for the French community is the Contarelli chapel with paintings of the Mattheus cycle by Caravaggio.
- The Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere: This church is located in the popular district of Trastevere and was originally the oldest Marian church of the city. After several renovations and restorations, the church has retained much of its medieval character, in part thanks to the many authentic mosaics. More about Trastevere.
- Chiesa di Sant’Ignazio di Loyale: This 17th-century on the Piazza Sant’Ignazio is dedicated to the founder of the order of the Jesuits, Ignatius van Loyala. The figurative and literal highlight of this baroque church is the ceiling fresco by Andrea Pozzo. The ceiling – a false dome – appears to open up to the Saint Ignatius in this remarkable painting.
- Santa Maria in Cosmedin: This church became famous for the ‘mouth of truth’, or the ‘Bocca della Verità’ (see picture). Originally used as drain cover for the Cloaca Maxima, it displays a river god. The myth says that the mouth will bite off the hand of any liar who sticks his hand in. Today it is a popular photo op (Address: Piazza della Bocca della Verità).
- Santa Maria della Minerva: This 13th-century church from the dominicans lies near the Pantheon and was built on the foundations of a temple for Isis. It is also special since it is the only gothic church in Rome. Left of the main altar, you can see the ‘Cristo della Minerva’, a famous work by Michelangelo from 1521. The square in front of the church is the site of the famous statue ‘Elephant and Obilisk (see picture)’ by Bernini.