The Basilica of St. John the Lateran
The history and development of the Basilica of St. John the Lateran and the Holy Steps as well as useful information for the visitor about accommodation and activities in the area.
The Basilica of Saint John the Lateran or Archbasilica Papale Romana Maggiore del Santissimo Salvatore e dei Santi Giovanni Battista ed Evangelista al Laterano Madre e capo di tutte le chiese di Roma e del mondo to give it its full title, is dedicated to Jesus the Savior and to Saint John the Baptist and Saint John the Evangelist. It is not at the top of the list of things to see in Rome for tourists and neither is it as famous a pilgrim site as the Vatican and St. Peter’s, yet it remains to this day the Cathedral of Rome and as the pope is the bishop of Rome, it should be home to the papal palace. The name archibasilica means that it is ranked above all other churches because of its status as Cathedral. For the first 400 years of its life, from the 4th to the 9th century it was nicknamed Basilica Aurea or ‘Golden Basilica’ due to its beautiful decorations and vast store of artistic and cultural treasures. In the 17th century the artist and art historian Giovanni Baglione wrote a guidebook entitled The 9 Churches of Rome, which includes the 7 traditional pilgrim churches that are still visited today. In this book Baglione wrote “the first church in the world, and head of all churches is San Giovanni Laterano”, so why is the Lateran no longer considered as important as it was in the past?
The Lateran basilica was finished in AD 318 and was the 1st of the Emperor Constantine’s great Roman churches. In comparison to St. Peter’s Basilica, or St. Paul’s Outside the Walls, the Lateran was not created on the site of martyrdom or built around the relics of a saint, the location was strategically chosen. Constantine was faced with two problems: the first was that Christianity, although by this time legal, was not particularly popular with the Roman elite; the second was that by the 4th century AD the city of Rome had over a million residents and there was very little free space to plan a new build on the scale of the basilica. The Lateran is located just inside the city walls to the south-east of the city limits, and this site was chosen as it was relatively empty at the time. In fact, the Laterani family used to own this area of land, but having upset Constantine early in his reign had had their lands confiscated. It was convenient for the clergy as the early bishops of Rome, which are now considered the 1st popes, lived in a palace that Constantine had given them, right next to the Laterani’s plot. It was also far enough away from the city center so as not to cause offence to the old Roman aristocrats who had considered Christianity nothing more than a subversive and illegal cult for nearly 300 years.
Despite its rather out of the way location, the basilica was to be large enough to rival the ancient Roman pagan monuments, and up until the middle ages the Lateran was a legitimate rival to St. Peter’s Basilica in terms of size, splendor and artistic decoration. The popes did, in fact, live at the Lateran until they moved to Avignon in 1309. However, when they returned to Rome in the latter part of the 14th century the palace at the Lateran was in a sorry state, having been seriously damaged by fire in 1308 and generally seen to be in disrepair, so it was decided to move the papal court to the Vatican. The basilica itself had been damaged by an earthquake in AD 896, destroyed twice by fire in the early 14th century and subsequently rebuilt, but by the 17th century was also showing its age and was in serious need of restoration.
Once the rebuilding and redecoration of St. Peter’s Basilica had been completed during the reign of Pope Urban VIII, his successor Pope Innocent X started looking around for a building project that he could attach his name to and decided to restore the Lateran basilica. It should be noted that by the early 17th century, after the protestant reformation and the beginning of the counter-reformation, the Catholic church changed their policy when it came to the importance and preservation of early Christian monuments. While Bramante and Michelangelo were given the go ahead to completely destroy the original Constantinian basilica at St. Peter’s in the 16th century, the architect Borromini was ordered to preserve as much of the original structure at the Lateran as possible. Although the interior of the church today is very much in the Baroque style, the original 14th century walls and even the columns dividing the aisles and nave are all still intact. Borromini reinforced the structure and enclosed the columns inside a series of piers, meaning the overall shape, size and layout of the church is as it was when it was first built.
In the mid-15th century the church interior was frescoed by Gentile da Fabriano and Pisanello, which was completely covered by Borromini with light colored plaster, for which he was much criticized. The effect is a unified, harmonious interior, but one which is no match for the monumental and dazzlingly polychromatic interior of St. Peter’s Basilica. The rebuilding and redecoration of the Lateran took only 10 years, from 1644-1655, but just as St. Peter’s Basilica was to take over a century to finish, the Lateran also suffered a set back as the main façade was not completed until 1735, nearly 80 years later.
None of the original 4th century basilica remains intact, and very little of the later mediaeval structure can be seen either. Luckily, the cloister, which was built in the early 13th century as part of the Benedictine monastery that was then attached to the Lateran, survived the fires and is a magnificent example of a mediaeval cloister with twisted twin columns inlaid with mosaic in the cosmatesque style. The Cosmati family were internationally famous for their mosaic decoration in the 12th and 13th centuries and this style of geometric mosaic can be seen in the floors of many Roman churches and buildings including the Stanza della Segnatura in the Vatican, and the chancel at the basilica of San Clemente, which is less than 1 kilometer from the Lateran. They travelled as far as Westminster in England where they designed the floor for the high altar of the cathedral, which can still be seen today. The cloister also contains fragments of artworks that were originally in the mediaeval basilica. Entry to the cloister is through the basilica itself, but opening times are different, and a ticket must be purchased. For more information click HERE.
The Lateran Basilica is unusual in that it has 2 principle entrances. While it is not unusual for a cathedral, or church of this size to have an entrance through the nave and others at the transepts, it is unusual to give both entrances equal importance. The side entry, through the north transept was embellished with a loggia or balcony area above the door, which was first rebuilt by Pope Boniface VIII, the pope responsible for the first Jubilee year in 1300. It is known as the Benediction Loggia, from which the pope would give his public blessing. This entrance was oriented towards the city of Rome, and closest to the Lateran palace where the papacy then resided. It opens onto Piazza di San Giovanni in Laterano, which connects to Via di San Giovanni in Laterano, a street which runs straight to the Colosseum and from there to the rest of the city center. Despite the fact that the popes moved to the Vatican in the centuries that followed, this entrance was given further importance when Pope Sixtus V had an obelisk erected in the piazza in the late 16th century and had the architect Domenico Fontana rebuild the Lateran palace and the north façade of the basilica in 1586.
Pope Sixtus V was the pope responsible for re-erecting the obelisk at the Vatican and positioning it in the center of St. Peter’s Square. His reason for erecting the obelisk in front of the north transept was to help align this entrance with the church of Saint Mary Major (Santa Maria Maggiore), which can be found at the end of Via Merulana. This obelisk – street – church alignment was carefully orchestrated by Sixtus V as part of his urban redevelopment plan for the city and to help direct pilgrims around Rome more efficiently. It can also be seen on the other side of Saint Mary Major where another obelisk was positioned in front of the straight street that runs all the way to Via Sistina, leading to the obelisk in front of the church of Trinita dei Monti, which is at the top of the Spanish Steps. In fact, Sixtus had planned that this street continue all the way to Piazza del Popolo, the original entrance to the city of Rome for all visitors coming from the north of Europe. A similar alignment can be found between the front façade of the Lateran and Viale Carlo Felice, which leads directly to the church of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, another of the 7 pilgrim churches, which contains relics of the True Cross as well as parts of the crown of thorns and nails from the Crucifixion. Sixtus V likely intended to erect another obelisk in front of this church, but the project was still incomplete at his death and the obelisk was later used by Pope Urban VIII to decorate his palace.
The main façade, designed by Alessandro Galilei during the reign of Pope Clement XII, is topped by massive figures of Jesus and statues of the Apostles, which stand out dramatically against the Roman sky. Inside the narthex or porch of the basilica there are 5 doors, which represent the 5 aisles of the original building. The central doors are bronze and came originally from the Curia in the Imperial Forum. They were moved by Borromini in the 17th century and are estimated to be over 1,900 years old. To the left of the entrance porch you can see the statue of the Emperor Constantine, which was found at the ruins of the Baths of Diocletian. The statue dates from the 4th century and the remains of the baths were converted into the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli by Michelangelo in the 16th century. To the right of this you will see the Holy Door, which is opened only during the Jubilee year. Click on this link for more information about the Lateran Basilica and events taking place here during the Jubilee year.
As you enter the church, on the right in the 1st side aisle you will be able to see a fragment of a fresco, which dates back to the year 1300. It shows Pope Boniface VIII proclaiming the 1st Holy Year and is most likely to be by the hand of Giotto di Bondone. The central nave contains 12 aedicular niches with a statue of one of the Apostles, which date from the 18th century. Despite the various tragedies and rebuilds that the basilica went through, you can still see the beautiful cosmatesque floor preserved in the nave, dating from the 14th century and the magnificent, Renaissance coffered ceiling.
In the center of the church, at the crossing, you can see the Papal Altar. This is covered in a large gothic canopy or baldacchino, which was created in 1369 for the old basilica. Above the altar are two silver reliquaries that contain the heads of Saints Peter and Paul. Buried beneath the papal altar is the relic of what is said to be St. Peter’s communion table. The pope is the only person who can celebrate mass at this central altar, and he does so on Maundy Thursday every year. Below the Papal Altar, set into the floor, is a staircase that leads down to a crypt known as a confessio. In front of the crypt is the wooden statue of St. John the Baptist and it also contains the funeral monument to Pope Martin V. The Lateran Basilica contains 6 papal tombs, and originally held many more, but since the time of Pope Leo XIII all popes have been buried at St. Peter’s Basilica.
Behind this is the transept, running north-south, and the apse. The altar of the holy sacrament, located at the south end of the transept, is where the tabernacle is kept and contains the remains of a cedar wood table, believed to be the one used by Jesus Christ at the Last Supper.
The mosaics in the apse pre-date the 17th century re-model of the church and fortunately escaped the various fires that engulfed the basilica. It is actually made up of several sections, the oldest, at the top, dates from the 4th or 5th century and may be part of the original decoration of the Constantinan basilica. The middle section dates form the 6th century while the majority of the design seen today dates to the 13th century and was created by Jacopo Torriti. Legend has it that when the basilica was first dedicated to the Saviour in the 4th century the bust of Jesus, which can still be seen in the center of the upper portion of the mosaic, miraculously appeared: it was believed to have been painted by angels.
Below the mosaic you will see the Papal Cathedra, which symbolizes the seat of the bishop of Rome, and therefore makes this the most important of all churches. The word cathedral derives from cathedra, which is Latin for chair.
The basilica is open all day, everyday until 7pm (6pm in winter). As with all churches, but most importantly with the patriarchal churches in Rome, there is a strict dress code. Shoulders should not be exposed, and skirts or shorts must not be shorter than the knee. Entrance is free of charge.
The Holy Steps and Holy of Holies.
Across the piazza from the front entrance to the basilica, to the north-eastern corner connecting Piazza di San Giovanni in Laterano and Piazza di Porta San Giovanni is a church built by Domenico Fontana in 1589 on the orders of Sixtus V. This simple structure houses two very significant relics: the Scala Santa and the Sancta Sanctorum. Originally housed in the Lateran papal palace, they were moved here when the palace was raised to the ground and rebuilt in the late 16th century. The Scala Santa or Holy Stairs is 28 steps that are believed to have come from Pontius Pilate’s house and therefore the same steps Jesus walked up during his trial. They were taken from Jerusalem by St Helena, Constantine’s mother, in 326. St Helena also brought the relics of the cross, now housed at the church of Santa Croce, a few hundred meters away. Pilgrims come from all over the world to ascend the staircase, which must be done on your knees as no one is allowed to use their feet to walk up the Holy Stairs. The staircase leads to the Chapel of St. Lawrence, the Holy of Holies or Sancta Santorum, which was built by Pope Nicolas III in 1278. Inside the chapel are many important relics but the most important is the Acheiropoeton or ‘picture painted without hands’ which is believed to be the work of St Luke with the help of an angel and shows the image of Jesus. The Scala Santa is open daily until 6.30pm but closes from 12-3.30pm, as many churches do in Rome, so plan accordingly. Entry is free, but donations are welcome. Click HERE for more information.
In front of the basilica, across the Piazza di Porta San Giovanni is a statue of St. Francis of Assisi. This was erected in 1927 to commemorate the 700th anniversary of the saint’s death. According the legend, Pope Innocent III had a vision of St. Francis supporting the Basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano, which was about to collapse. Later, in 1210, Innocent III officially recognized Francis and his followers as a legitimate order and created the Franciscans.
Click on the official website for the Cathedral of San Giovanni in Laterano for more information and mass times, or visit the Vatican’s Jubilee website
Getting there: Only one of the hop-on, hop-off tours stop here, Roma Cristiana, which is organised by the Catholic church to help pilgrims get around. However, there is also a metro station less than 5 mins walk from the front entrance to the basilica. Metro line A (Red line) stop: San Giovanni. When you step off the metro walk towards the remains of the Aurelian walls, through the arch and you will see the enormous white stone façade of the basilica on your left.
Content by Ciarán Durkan