St Paul Outside the Walls was founded in the 4th century and built over the supposed burial site of St Paul. It underwent various periods of construction work and expansion over the centuries. Legend has it the ancient basilica was even grander than the old St Peter’s basilica. Tragically, the actions of a careless workman in 1823 led to a catastrophic fire that almost completely destroyed the basilica. Donations were sent from all over the world; including alabaster from Egypt, precious jewels from Russia. Today, the vast majority of the basilica, from the artwork to the neoclassical façade, is a product of the 19th century restoration work.
Santa Maria Maggiore was built in the 5th century and is known as ‘Our Lady of the Snows’, because of its association with a legend about a miraculous snowfall in August. It was built on the site of a previous basilica, known as the Liberian Basilica after Pope Liberius. Santa Maria Maggiore was one of the first churches built in honor of the Virgin Mary, and its opulence is a reflection of its symbolic importance (as well as the wealth of the Church at that time). The church still retains its original structure, and periodic restoration work has helped to preserve its splendor.
The present-day St Peter’s Basilica is completely different from the original 4th century basilica, which was built on the site of St Peter’s burial on the orders of the Emperor Constantine. By the 15th century the old basilica was in desperate need of renovation, and Pope Julius II decided it would be better to demolish it, replacing it with a larger, grander basilica, to house his tomb.
Building work took place over 120 years, and involved the contributions of numerous artists and architects, including Michelangelo, who designed the dome. The travertine façade was designed by Maderno, while Bernini contributed important artistic details including the vast baldachin over the altar. The basilica that you’ll see on your Vatican tour is therefore mostly a Baroque creation, and the grandest of all the papal basilicas.