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San Giovanni in Laterano (St. John Lateran), Rome

Dedicated to John the Baptist and John the Evangelist, the Basilica of St. John Lateran (Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano) is the first among the four major basilicas of Rome.

It is also the cathedral of the bishop of Rome, the Pope, and is thus known as Omnium urbis et orbis Ecclesiarum Mater et Caput: "Cathedral of Rome and of the World."

Built by Constantine the Great in the 4th century, San Giovanni in Laterano was the first church to be built in Rome. It contains several important relics, a lovely 13th-century cloister and an ancient baptistery (San Giovanni in Fonte).

History

In ancient times, the site of San Giovanni Laterano was occupied by the palace of the family of the Laterani. Their 1st-century mansion has been located 5.55 meters below the nave of the church. In the 2nd century, the mansion was replaced by the barracks of the mounted Imperial Guard.

On the pretext that the Imperial Guard had fought on the side of Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge (312), Constantine razed the barracks and filled in the basement to form a foundation for a church that was to be the cathedral of Rome.

The Lateran Palace next to the barracks came into the hands of Constantine through his second wife Fausta, sister of Maxentius. This was used in 313 for the First Lateran Council, a church council that condemned the Donatist schism. A porticoed structure found in front of the palace has frescoes from the late 4th century depicting the Resurrection of Lazarus, Christ and the Samaritan, the Multiplication of the Loaves, and three saints: Vitus, Modestus and Crescentia.

The cathedral was dedicated to the Savior on November 9, 318. It was embellished with beautiful decorations given by Constantine, including seven silver altars with seven gilded candlesticks inlaid with images of prophets; 111 chandeliers; and gold voil for the apse vault. Constantine also built the baptistery on the northwestern corner of the church, which still survives in its original form.

From the fifth century there were seven oratories surrounding the basilica. These before long were incorporated in the church. The devotion of visiting these oratories, which held its ground all through the medieval period, gave rise to the similar devotion of the seven altars, still common in many churches of Rome and elsewhere.

In the 10th century, Pope Sergius III (904-911) added John the Baptist to the basilica's dedication, and in the 12th century, Pope Lucius II (1144- 1145) added John the Evangelist.

A Benedictine monastery of St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist adjoined the basilica and its members were charged at one period with the duty of maintaining the services in the church.

A great many donations from the popes and other benefactors to the basilica are recorded in the Liber Pontificalis, and its splendour at an early period was such that it became known as the "Basilica Aurea", or Golden Basilica. This splendour drew upon it the attack of the Vandals, who stripped it of all its treasures.

Pope Leo the Great restored it about 460, and it was again restored by Pope Hadrian, but in 896 it was almost totally destroyed by an earthquake — damage so extensive that it was difficult to trace the lines of the old building, but the reconstruction was of the same dimensions as the old.

This second church lasted for 400 years and before suffering extensive damage from a series of fires, the worst of which was in 1308. It was rebuilt by Pope Clement V and Pope John XXII, only to be burnt down once more in 1360 and again rebuilt by Pope Urban V.

When the popes returned to Rome from their long absence at Avignon in 1377, they found the city deserted and the churches almost in ruins. Great works were begun at the Lateran by Pope Martin V and his successors. The palace, however, was never again used by them as a residence, the Vatican, which stands in a much drier and healthier position, being chosen in its place.

Pope Sixtus V replaced most of the remaining structure with work by his by his favorite architect Domenico Fontana, and a further renovation of the interior ensued, carried out by Francesco Borromini for Pope Innocent X (1644-55). This is the definitive remodeling that created the present church.

Finally, Pope Clement XII (1730 - 1740) launched a competition for the design of a new facade, which was completed by Alessandro Galilei in 1735.

What to See

The two-storied portico that makes up the facade of the basilica dates from the 18th century. It is from here that the Pope gives his benediction on Maundy Thursday. Large statues of Christ and the saints, also dating from the 18th century, top the facade:

The central bronze doors are Roman originals from the Curia (Senate House) in the Imperial Forum. At the left end of the portico stands a Roman statue of Constantine the Great, which was found in the ruins of the Baths of Diocletian.

Inside, despite many alterations over the centuries, the Basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano still retains its original plan: a nave flanked by two aisles and ending in a semi-circular apse to the west. Unusually, the basilica is oriented to the west instead of the east: this is because it was built before the tradition of east-orientation had taken hold.

Some of the original decoration survives as well, although not in its original position. Parts of the 4th-century nave colonnade can now be seen supporting the triumphal arch (two red granite columns), flanking the Altar of the Holy Sacrament (four bronze columns), and flanking the statues of the apostles in the nave (24 green-speckled marble columns).

The Cosmatesque pavement in the nave is from the 14th century, making it a late example of this technique. It was paid by the Colonna family, and attained its present form in 1425 under Pope Martin V Colonna. The family's coat-of-arms can be seen in sevaral places on the floor.

The statues in the nave date from the time of Pope Clement XI (1701–1721) and depict Apostles and Evangelists. Closed doors painted on the wall behind the statues represent the gateways to Heavenly Jerusalem. Above the statues are 17th-century relief panels with Old Testament scenes on the left and related scenes from the New Testament on the right. Above are oval paintings of prophets, also from the 17th century.

The graceful baldacchino over the high altar, which looks out of place in its present surroundings, dates from 1369. At the top is a reliquary said to contain the heads of Saints Peter and Paul, but these may have been removed during the French occupation of Rome in the 18th century.


Beneath the baldacchino is the High Altar, which can only be used by the Pope. It contains a relic said to be part of St. Peter's communion table.

The Altar of the Holy Sacramentcontains a cedar table that is said to be the one used by Christ at the Last Supper. The marble and bronze columns are said to have been taken from the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill. The bronze columns in that temple had been recast from the bronze prows of Cleopatra's ships, taken in battle by Emperor Augustus.

The stercoraria, or throne of red marble on which the popes sat, is now in the Vatican Museums. It owes its name to the anthem sung at the papal enthronement, "De stercore erigens pauperem" ("lifting up the poor out of the dunghill", from Psalm 112). The episcopal throne in San Giovanni dates from the late 19th century rebuilding.

The cloisters, all that remain of the Benedictine monastery, date from the early 13th century. Their design, by Vassellectus and the Cosmati brothers, is an intermediate style between Romanesque and Gothic. They are surrounded by graceful double columns of inlaid marble and contain many early Christian fragments from the basilica. A porphyry slab in the cloister is believed to be the surface on which Roman soldiers cast lots for Christ's robes.

The old Lateran Palace was demolished by Pope Sixtus V (1585-1590), but the apse of the papal dining hall, the Triclinium Leoninum, has been preserved on the outside of the remains of the building. The mosaic in the apse dates from 800, the year Charlemagne was crowned in Rome. It depicts Christ with the Apostles in the center; Christ with Constantine and Pope Sylvester I on the left; and St Peter, Pope Leo III and Charlemagne on the right. Pope Leo III has a square nimbus, showing that he was alive when it was made.

Quick Facts on San Giovanni in Laterano (St. John Lateran)

Site Information
Names:Archbasilica of the Holy Savior; Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano; Basilica of St. John Lateran; San Giovanni in Laterano; San Giovanni in Laterano (St. John Lateran); San Giovanni in Laterano (St. John Lateran), Rome
City:Rome
State:Lazio
Country:Italy
Categories:Cathedrals; Shrines; Catholic Shrines
Faiths:Christianity; Catholic
Styles:Paleochristian; Baroque
Status:active
Visitor and Contact Information
Location:Rome, Italy
Coordinates:41.885825° N, 12.505521° E  (view on Google Maps)
Lodging:View hotels near this location
Note: This information was accurate when first published and we do our best to keep it updated, but details such as opening hours can change without notice. To avoid disappointment, please check with the site directly before making a special trip.

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References

  1. Personal visit (July 2006).
  2. Matilda Webb, The Churches and Catacombs of Early Christian Rome (Sussex Academic Press, 2001), 41-44.
  3. Saint John Lateran - Catholic Encyclopedia
  4. Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano - Frommers
  5. San Giovanni in Laterano - Churches of Rome Wiki

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Article Info

Title:San Giovanni in Laterano (St. John Lateran), Rome
Author:Holly Hayes
Last updated:10/20/2009
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