Did you know that the stairs Jesus walked up to face Pontius Pilot are now located in Rome? Did you know that you can see relics of the Passion of Christ, including thorns from the Crown of Thorns and pieces of the Holy Cross in Rome? Did you know that wood from the crib of Jesus from Bethlehem is located in central Rome? Of course, you can’t miss the Mamertine Prison where Saint Peter and Saint Paul may have been imprisoned. So, if you are in Rome, don’t just visit the two major Christian sights of the Vatican and St. Paul’s Outside the Walls. Add to your visit by using this guide with maps, walking directions, and podcast link to discover nine major, often overlooked, Christian sights in central Rome, Italy!
Follow the suggested 3.5 mile (5.5 km) walking route, by beginning at the Pantheon in central Rome at Piazza della Rotonda, 00186 Roma RM, Italy. See each of the nine major central Rome Christian sights in one day, or break up the visit over two days to proceed at a more leisurely pace. Follow along with the pictured maps below, or use the more detailed, interactive map I have created on the website, www.walkli.com, by searching for Rome and clicking on the title of this particular route, “9 Major Central Rome Christian Sights” or just click here. Directions from each sight to the next are also described in the article below. Remember to click on the audio bar at the end of this post if you would like to listen to an accompanying podcast with more of my personal reflections included.
Pantheon – Raphael’s Tomb and the Tomb of Christian Martyrs – Major Central Rome Christian Sights Map Point A
You may have seen the famous Raphael Rooms when you visited the Vatican in Rome, but did you know that the Vatican Renaissance artist is buried in the Pantheon? Although the Pantheon was originally built to honor all gods, in 609 AD the Pantheon was consecrated as a basilica to honor Saint Mary and the Martyrs, and the remains of Christian martyrs who were persecuted in Rome were buried under the altar.
The Catholic Church honored Raphael upon his death at the age of 37 by having him buried in the Pantheon after his death on Good Friday in the year 1520. He is buried in a niche on the left side of the Pantheon as you enter beside his fiancée, Maria Bibbiena, who died of the plague before Raphael. The epitaph, written by the poet Pietro Bembo, translates to English as:
“Here lies Raphael, by whom, while he lived, Nature feared she would be outdone and, as he died, feared she herself would die.”
The Pantheon is free to visit, although there has been some discussion that admission may be charged in the future. Usual hours are 8:30 am until 7:30 pm Monday through Saturday, with last admission at 7:15 pm. The Pantheon is open on Sunday from 9 am until 6 pm, with last admission at 5:45 pm. It is closed on January 1st, May 1st and Christmas Day. Visits are not allowed during Masses. Mass is usually held Sundays at 10:30 am and Saturdays at 5 pm. Check the website for updates here: http://www.polomusealelazio.beniculturali.it/index.php?it/232/pantheon
Michelangelo’s Christ the Redeemer Statue and the Tomb of Saint Catherine of Siena in the Basilica di Santa Maria sopra Minerva – Major Central Rome Christian Sights Map Point B
Just around the corner from the Pantheon, don’t miss seeing one of Michelangelo’s great works of sculpture, Christ the Redeemer, often overlooked by tourists flocking to the Pantheon. To get there, exit the Pantheon to the right and immediately turn right to walk along Via della Minerva about two blocks to reach Basilica di Santa Maria sopra Minerva facing Bernini’s Elephant and Obelisk in front of it in the Piazza della Minerva. Bernini’s last work commissioned by the Pope, was unveiled in the year 1667. It was constructed of the elephant, probably sculpted by Bernini’s assistant, holding an ancient Egyptian obelisk that was excavated near this area.
It is free to enter the Basilica di Santa Maria sopra Minerva. Walk inside and approach the main altar to see Michelangelo’s large sculpture of Christ the Redeemer to the left of the altar. The sarcophagus of Saint Catherine of Siena is below the main altar.
Opening hours of the Basilica di Santa Maria sopra Minerva are usually 10:00 am until 12:30 pm and 3:30 pm until 7:00 pm daily. Check for updates at the website here: https://www.santamariasopraminerva.it/en/
Walking Directions to the Mamertine Prison from Basilica di Santa Maria sopra Minerva
To reach the Mamertine Prison, turn left out of the Basilica di Santa Maria sopra Minerva and walk along the side of the church on Via della Santa Caterina da Siena. Turn right on Via de Gesù. Continue onto Piazza del Gesù and then continue onto Via d’Aracoeli. Continue onto Piazza d’Aracoeli, and take a slight left to stay on Piazza d’Aracoeli. Turn right onto Via del Teatro di Marcello. Turn left onto Piazza del Campidoglio and take the wide, sloping steps to the top of the Capitoline Hill.
While you slowly walk up the wide staircase, reflect on the history of the hill you are climbing, the Capitoline Hill, which gives the word “capitol” its meaning. The steps and the entire trapezoidal plaza, Piazza del Campidoglio, were designed by Michelangelo in the mid-1500’s, although they were mostly built after his death. The work was a Renaissance renovation of Rome’s most ancient and sacred hill that had linked the Roman Forum to the most holy temples of Rome, including the temple of Jupiter. In Michelangelo’s time, the senate operated from the area, mostly under the authority of the pope. Michelangelo reoriented the Capitoline Hill to focus toward the Vatican rather than to the Roman Forum, even though he would still connect the site of government on the Capitoline Hill to both.
Today the Capitoline Museums and the civic building housing the Mayor of Rome operate from Capitoline Hill, and the steps provide a steep shortcut to the Forum area. There are two black basalt Egyptian lions at the base of the staircase and marble statues of two mythical brothers, Castor and Pollux, with their horses at the top of the staircase, perhaps because the steps were designed to allow riders on horseback to climb the wide, gently sloped stairs without having to dismount their horses.
When you reach the top of the stairs, turn left onto Via di San Pietro in Carcere. Take a sharp right and follow the signs to reach the entrance of the Mamertine Prison.
Mamertine Prison of St. Peter and St. Paul – Major Central Rome Christian Sights Map Point C
The Mamertine Prison was possibly the place where the apostles St. Peter and St. Paul were incarcerated as they each awaited their deaths on the orders of the Roman Emperor Nero in the latter half of the first century. After the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD, Nero was being criticized for building his huge palace on the lands that had formerly housed many of the people of Rome. In fact, some of the displaced citizens whispered that Nero himself had set the fire. Nero decided to blame the fire on Christians, and St. Peter and St. Paul were both in Rome, and they were very public Christian targets.
While there is little first hand account of St. Peter’s imprisonment in the Mamertine Prison, it makes sense that he was housed here before he was crucified, since it was the only single-celled prison for incarcerated high profile prisoners considered threats to the state. Saint Paul’s imprisonment is well referenced by his Roman citizenship and decree of execution by Nero, so he might, too, have been housed here before he was beheaded outside the walls of Rome. Some historians say that Paul, as a Roman citizen, would not have been housed in Mamertine Prison, since it was so horrific. He was even afforded the “benefit” of being beheaded instead of the more tortuous death of crucifixion due to his citizenship.
In any case, both Saints Peter and Saint Paul are listed on the plaque of notable prisoners that you see listed on the walls of the prison. Carefully walk down the stone steps to see the lowest level where the prisoners were held. There is today an altar on this level. Look for the ancient spring in the floor of the dark prison that was likely used by the apostles to baptize prison converts to Christianity.
The Mamertine Prison is usually open 8:30 am until 4:30 pm daily, and sometimes later in summer. There is an admission charge of 10 Euros per adult and 5 Euros per child ages 6-17 and for students through age 25. The ticket office closes one hour prior to closing time. Plan on an hour to see the prison.
Walking Directions from Mamertine Prison to Saint Peter in Chains (San Pietro in Vincoli)
Walk back to Via di San Pietro in Carcere and turn right. Then, turn right onto Via del Fori Imperiali. Take a left on Largo Corrado Ricci. This road will become Via Cavour. Turn right onto Piazza di San Pietro in Vincoli to reach Saint Peter in Chains Basilica.
Chains of Saint Peter and Michelangelo’s Moses in San Pietro in Vincoli – Major Central Rome Christian Sights Map Point D
Saint Peter in Chains Basilica (San Pietro in Vincoli) was built in the middle of the fifth century to house the chains of Saint Peter that bound him when he was a prisoner in Jerusalem. Empress Eudoxia, the wife of Roman Emperor Valentinian III, gave the chains that had been kept in Jerusalem to Pope Leo I as a gift. According to legend, when the pope received the chains he held them next to the chains from Peter’s first imprisonment in the Mamertine Prison and the chains fused together miraculously in the one chain you see here today.
To the right of the main altar is the huge Tomb of Pope Julius II designed by Michelangelo. The most famous part of the sculpture is the figure of Moses. Michelangelo believed this was his most lifelike creation. Supposedly, when he completed the work he said to Moses, “speak,” and he threw a hammer at the statue as he did so. Look for the scar on the knee of Moses that is purportedly the mark of Michelangelo’s hammer.
It is free to visit the church. It is usually open daily from 8:00 am until 12:30 pm and from 3:30 pm until 6:00 pm.
Walking Directions from San Pietro in Vincoli to the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore
Return to Via Cavour and turn right. Turn left at the fork in the road to stay on Via Cavour. Turn right onto Via di Santa Maria Maggiore, and then turn right onto Via Liberiana. The entrance to the basilica will be to your left at the Piazza di Santa Maria Maggiore.
Wood from the Crib of Jesus in the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore (Saint Mary Major) – Major Central Rome Christian Sights Map Point E
The Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, Saint Mary Major, is one of the four most revered churches, or papal basilicas, of Rome and the world as designated by the Catholic Church. It is officially part of the Vatican even though it is physically located within the city boundaries of Rome. (The two papal basilicas located outside the official walls of Rome are St. Peter’s in Vatican City and St. Paul’s Outside the Walls, just outside of the old city walls of Rome. Read about visiting St. Paul’s Outside the Walls in my blog here. The fourth papal basilica is St. John Lateran that is included below on this tour of major central Rome Christian sights.)
Santa Maria Maggiore is Rome’s largest church dedicated to the Virgin Mary. It contains the tomb of St. Jerome, the fourth century writer who translated the Bible into Latin. It also contains pieces of wood from the crib of the infant Jesus brought to Rome by pilgrims from Jerusalem in the 7th century.
Pope Francis frequently visits the famous Madonna icon here, a painting of Mary and the Christ Child that was carried in a procession by Pope Gregory in 593 AD to pray for an end to the plague of Rome. As the procession approached St. Peter’s, passing by the mausoleum of Hadrian, St. Michael appeared and the plague was over. The mausoleum was renamed, Castel Sant Angelo, after this.
Pope Pius XII celebrated his first Mass here, long before he was pope. This was long before he helped steer the Church and Rome through World War II.
If you happen to be in Rome on August 5th, be sure to visit when white rose petals are dropped from the ceiling during Mass in honor of a legend associated with the building of the church. According to the legend, in the year 352 AD a childless couple prayed about how they should spend their riches. That night, on August 5th, it snowed on this hill in Rome. On the same night, Pope Liberius dreamed that the Virgin Mary would indicate by a miracle where to build a church to bring the needs and prayers of the people to her. So, the couple left their money to build the church in honor of Virgin Mary on the hill where it had snowed. The church was dedicated on August 5th, and each year on that date white rose petals are dropped to symbolize the miracle.
The basilica is free to visit. It is open daily from 8:00 am until 6:45 pm. For more information, check the website here: http://www.vatican.va/various/basiliche/sm_maggiore/index_en.html
Basilica di Santa Praxedes – Major Central Rome Christian Sights Map Point F
Walk back to Via Liberiana and turn left onto via Santa Prassede. The Basilica di Santa Praxedes (Prassede) will be on the right. This ancient church dates to the year 780 AD. It was built over an earlier structure dating to the 5th Century designed to house the bones of Saints Praxedes (Prassede in Italian) and Pudentiana (Pudenziana in Italian), the daughters of Peter’s first convert to Christianity in Rome, St. Pudens. The daughters were martyred for providing burial for early Christians, in defiance of early Roman law at the time of the beginning of Christianity.
Be sure to notice the mosaics in the basilica. In the apse mosaic, Jesus is in the center, flanked by Saints Peter and Paul who present Saints Prassede and Pudenziana to God. Another beautiful mosaic is the St. Zeno Chapel mosaic.
Do not leave without seeing the segment of the pillar upon which Jesus was flogged and tortured before his crucifixion in Jerusalem. The relic was retrieved in the early 4th century by the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine I, Saint Helena, who at the age of eighty undertook a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, where she brought back relics of Jesus that had been kept there since the time of Christ.
The Basilica of Santa Praxedes is usually open daily from 7 am until 12 pm and from 3 pm until 6:30 pm. It is free to visit.
The next three sights are grouped together near the San Giovanni Metro Station, so you could take a metro there and/or save these for another day if you wish. From Saint Praxedes, save about 10 minutes of walking by taking the Metro Line A from Vittorio Emanuele to the San Giovanni Metro Station.
Walking Directions from Basilica of Santa Praxedes to San Giovanni in Laterano
Turn right out of the church on Via di Santa Prassede. Turn left onto Via di S. Martino Ai Monti. Turn right onto Via Merulana and continue walking to Piazza di San Giovanni in Laterano where you will see the basilica.
Archbasilica de San Giovanni in Laterano (St. John Lateran) – Major Central Rome Christian Sights Map Point G
San Giovanni de Laterano is the highest-ranking of the four Papal basilicas, and the oldest Christian church in the world. It was built under the orders of Constantine and dedicated in the year 318 AD. When you arrive, look to the left end of the portico stands where you will see the Roman statue of Constantinethat was found in the ruins of the Baths of Diocletian.
San Giovanni in Laterno, not St. Peter’s Basilica, is considered the cathedral of Rome and is the official seat of the pope. Like all the papal basilicas, St. John Lateran falls under the jurisdiction of the Vatican See and not the government of Italy.
Do not miss seeing the statues of Saint Peter and Saint Paul encased in the baldacchino above the high altar. The actual heads of Saint Peter and Saint Paul are housed in the statues. Beneath the baldacchino is the High Altar, which can only be used by the Pope. It contains a relic that is purported to be part of St. Peter’s communion table.
The Basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano is open daily from 7:00 to 19:00, while in winter only until 18:00. Free entrance.
Scala Santa (Steps Jesus Walked in Jerusalem) – Major Central Rome Christian Sights Map Point H
Walk diagonally across the street from San Giovanni in Laterno to the right to see the Scala Santa, the Holy Stairs. Amazingly, Saint Helena even brought back from Jerusalem what is claimed to be the stairs that Jesus walked upon as he was brought before Pontius Pilot on his way to trial. Pilgrims come to the Scala Santa to walk up the steps on their knees as they pray. It is also possible to kneel on the first step, and then walk up one of the side staircases to reach the top. The stairs are made of marble, but they are covered in wood to protect the marble. In July of 2018, the Scala Santa is closed for restoration, but it is possible to walk up the side stairs.
Walking Directions from Scala Santa to Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, Church of the Holy Cross
Exit to the left and turn left on Piazza di San Giovanni in Laterano. Turn left onto Viale Carlo Felice and walk alongside or through the park. Continue onto Piazza di Santa Croce in Gerusalemme.
Relics of the Passion of Christ in Basilica di Santa Croce in Gerusalemme (Holy Cross in Jerusalem) – Major Central Rome Christian Sights Map Point I
The beautiful Church of the Holy Cross was built over a Roman imperial estate and is built into part of the palace that was owned by the empress St. Helena, Constantine’s mother. Walk down the stairs to the right of the high altar to the Chapel of St. Helena. The chapel and its two adjacent rooms are part of the palace complex owned by St. Helena. The floor level in the chapel is the original floor level of the Roman palace.
The first room of the chapel has a Roman-era statue of St. Helena holding the cross. Note the floor in front of the statue, covered with glass. The glass covers what is believed to be soil brought back by St. Helena from the Holy Land.
Walk into the Gregorian Chapel, adjacent to the Chapel of St. Helena. The marble relief of the Pietà dates to 1629.
At the top of a wide staircase off the left aisle of the basilica is the Chapel of the Holy Relics. Notice the Stations of the Cross as you climb the stairs. Perhaps you will want to view these and reflect on Christ’s journey to Calvary as you prepare to see some of the relics of the Passion of Christ.
At the top of the stairs on the right, notice the brick with the inscription, Titulus Crucis, or Title of the Cross, that was found sealed behind this brick in the year 1492. The Title of the Cross is one of the relics that you will see in the next room, the Chapel of the Holy Relics. The faded words translate to, “”Jesus the Nazarene king of the Jews”.
Initially, The Title of the Cross was believed to be a medieval forgery, but some findings point to its possible authenticity. A travelogue of the Spanish pilgrim, Egeria, who traveled to the Holy Land in the late 4th century that was found in the 19th century describes the veneration of the Title relic at Jerusalem. Also, the Latin and Greek script is written from right to left, possibly indicating that the inscription was made by a Hebrew accustomed to writing in that direction, not a medieval Latin-speaker.
Other important relics brought back by St. Helena that are displayed here include small pieces of the Cross of Jesus Christ, a large piece of the cross of the Cross of the Good Thief, pieces of the Crown of Thorns of Jesus Christ, nails from the crucifixion, and even the preserved finger of the Apostle Thomas who did not believe in the resurrected Christ until he put his finger in his wounds. While some question the authenticity of each and every relic, there is no doubt that St. Helena did go to Jerusalem and did bring back relics from the Passion of Christ. Here, in this place that was her palace, it is said that she kept the holiest of the relics in her home.
Be sure to see the exact replica of the Shroud of Turin that is in a side room of the Chapel of the Holy Relics. The statue of Jesus in the same room reflects his wounds based on the Passion.
The church is usually open daily from 7 am until 12:45 pm and from 3:30 pm until 7:30 pm. It is free to visit.
If you want to return to your hotel via Metro, walk back alongside the park on Viale Carlo Felice, with the park on your left toward Scala Santa and San Giovanni in Laterano. The San Giovanni Metro Station is just past the park on the left at the intersection with the old Roman gate of Porte San Giovanni (San Giovanni Gate) and Piazzale Appio.
Whenever I visit Rome, I try to visit some of these special Christian sights to reflect on my faith and the history of Christ’s presence on Earth. While I know that some may question the authenticity of particular relics or artifacts, I like to think about the history of each place I visit and the symbolism of each relic and what each means to me as a Christian. For example, when I see the relics and artifacts of the Passion of Christ, it helps me better understand the suffering of Jesus at Calvary. It helps me realize that any suffering I have pales in comparison to the suffering that Jesus endured for me.
“If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.” John 15:18-20
On my most recent visit to Rome in May and June of 2018, I visited many of the sights discussed here with the non-profit tour company, Eternal City Tours of Rome. Although I had visited most of the sights on earlier trips to Rome, I appreciated the vast knowledge of the tour guides as I visited the sights. Their tour, “In the Footsteps of Peter and Paul,” includes a visit to the Mamertine Prison, St. Peter in Chains, St. Paul’s Outside the Walls, and more. Their “Passion of Christ” tour includes visits to St. Maria Maggiore, St. Praxedes, St. John Lateran, Scala Santa, and Santa Croce in Gerusalemme and more. I do not receive any commission or other compensation for my recommendation, but if you want to have an informed, interesting guided experience while you visit Christian sights in Rome, you may want to check out list of Eternal City Tours here: https://eternalcitytours.com/en/2/Christian-Pilgrim-Tours-Of-Rome-Italy
Remember to click on the audio bar below listen to the accompanying podcast. I would love to hear from you about your personal reflections, as well!
Until next time, I hope all of your travel days are just perfect!
One Perfect Day in Travel podcast