Rome: The Basilica of Santa Maria in Ara Coeli
This church has a past that contains an interesting story, although one that has not been substantiated so far as we can tell. It is said that the Emperor Caesar Augustus received a prophecy from a prophetess here that a Hebrew child who had been sent from heaven and born in Judea would one day become the ruler of the world. He then erected an altar here that read “This is an altar to God’s first-born son”.
About the Basilica of Santa Maria in Ara Coeli:
The church is famous today for housing the statue of the Baby Jesus, Bambino Jesu. This statue was carved from the trunk of an olive tree in the Garden of Gethsemane by a Franciscan monk sometime in the 15th Century. This image has been venerated throughout the world and many miraculous cures have been credited to Bambino Jesu.
Unfortunately, the original statue was stolen from the sanctuary in 1994 and has never been recovered—the image you see in the Church today is a replica. It is kept in a side chapel off the main altar, as shown on the left. In the past the statue was often taken to the sick in hospitals throughout Rome.
The Church of Santa Maria in Ara Coeli is also known for the many steps leading up to the the entrance, which are actually the 124 marble steps leading up to The Temple of the Sun on Quirinale Hill were moved to Santa Maria in Ara Coeli, in gratitude to the Blessed Virgin Mary from the people of Rome who credited her intercession for helping Rome to survive an epidemic of the plague.
Here you will also find the relics of Saint Helena, mother of Constantine the Great. Born in present-day Turkey around 248 AD, Saint Helena was married to Roman Emperor Constantius, the first Roman emperor to become a Christian. Their son would become Constantine I, also known as Constantine the Great. Saint Helena traveled from Rome to Jerusalem in search of the True Cross. Upon her arrival, the local Christians brought her to a pagan temple, which she destroyed and had excavated. There she found the empty tomb, the True Cross, the Crown of Thorns, the spear that pierced Christ’s side, and the titulus (INRI).
She brought these relics, along with the stairs Christ climbed when He was condemned to death (Scala Santa) with her to Rome and placed them in the Pope’s private chapel…where you can still climb them today. Before she left the Holy Land, she had a church built over Calvary and the empty tomb, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. She also had a church built over where Christ was born, the Church of the Nativity.
St. Helena died around 328 AD.
In addition the church contains the the tomb of Saint Juniper, one of the original followers of Saint Francis of Assisi. Pope Honorius IV and Queen Catherine of Bosnia are also entombed here.
124 steps lead up to the front of the church, which appears to be fairly plain. But once inside, you will find one of the most amazingly and richly decorated churches in all of Rome.
At Christmas time these steps are lined with candles and make an impressive display. In addition, you will find bagpipes being played on Christmas Eve as well as other unique traditions. The Church is also noted for its display of manger scenes (Presepi) that draws thousands each Christmas season. The main nativity scene features the statue, having been taken from the side altar and place in the manger scene on Christmas Eve, being held by the Blessed Mother.
The Church is open daily from 9:00 to 12:30 in the mornings and again in the afternoon from 3:00 to 6:30. Typical of many Roman churches, it closes for the traditional siesta time. Closes one hour earlier in the winter. Extended hours during the season of Christmas
Finding the Basilica of Santa Maria in Ara Coeli:
The Basilica is located on the highest summit of Capitoline Hill (hence the many stairs leading up to it)
Address: Scala dell’Arcicapitolina, 12, 00186 Roma, Italy
GPS coordinates: 41° 53′ 38.3964” N, 12° 28′ 59.6388” E
Tel: (+39) 06 6976 3839
We are not aware of any official website for the church at this time.