The practice of early Roman Christians of visiting the tombs of the martyrs became the Lenten “statio” of processing and gathering at a different church each day. This gives us the name “Stational church”
— Dominica Secunda in Quadragesima — Statio ad S. Mariam in Domnica —
The Basilica was founded as a small oratory in the seventh century. It lies at what was a major crossroad of ancient Rome, and was close to several military posts. Most likely, it was built on the ruins of a Roman fire-fighting station, where Christians used to gather.
From the beginning the Church was dedicated to the Mother of God. It was also a site dedicated to the ministry of the assistance to the poor.
The nickname ‘Navicella’ derives from the adjacent fountain that appears as a small boat.
We find one of the famous apse mosaics in this church, a 9th century mosaic, commissioned by Pope Paschal I.
The triumphal arch at the apse is flanked by two porphyry columns. The mosaics of the apse from the 9th century depict Christ with two angels, and the twelve Apostles, with Moses and Elias depicted underneath. In the semi-dome, Pope Paschal (with a square halo, signaling he was alive, and as was common the patron would be included in their commissioned works). Paschal is kissing the foot of the Blessed Virgin Mary, vested as a Byzantine noblewoman, seated on a throne with the Christ Child, and surrounded by a multitude of angels.