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Traveling Rome: Archbasilica of St. John Lateran

Updated on July 19, 2017

Rome, the ancient city. Home to the ruins of the greatest empire ruled by man, power seat of the Catholic world, and the capitol of pick-pocketing. In my new series, I’ll take you through the history of some of the greatest sights in the ancient city and give you some practical advice if you plan on visiting there yourselves. So without further ed-do, I present to you, Rome.

The Archbasilica of St. John Lateran
The Archbasilica of St. John Lateran | Source
San Giovanni in Laterano:
San Giovanni In Laterano, 00184 Rome, Italy

get directions

7am to 6:30 pm
Metro A to San Giovanni
As a Catholic site you are required to cover your shoulders and knees.

The History

If someone asked you what was the Pope’s own church, the casual tourist would probably either stammer “I don’t know” or confidentially say “St. Peter’s Basilica.” They would be wrong, of course. The title of the Pope’s own cathedral goes to the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran, or, to use its full title, Archbasilica of the Most Holy Saviour and of Sts. John Baptist and John Evangelist in the Lateran. Yep, its...a bit of a mouthful. The site that the Archbasilica rests on now was originally held by two other buildings. The first was a barracks for the mounted guards of the emperors of Rome. However, after Constantine defeated his rival Maxentius for the throne, he had the calvary's guardhouse torn down, mainly because they'd make the fatal error of backing Maxentius for the throne. The other building was a palace once belonging to the family Lateranus. It had fallen into the hands of Fausta, who ended marrying Constantine. Now, with a large area of land at his disposal and a new religion to bolster, Constantine gave the palace over to the newly established office of the bishop of Rome, otherwise known as the Pope. A cathedral was added to the Lateran Palace and, in 324 AD, it was officially dedicated as the “House of God” and the Cathedral of the Bishop of Rome by Pope Sylvester I. During the dedication, Pope Sylvester had the cathedral inscribed with the words Sacrosancta Lateranensis ecclesia omnium urbis et orbis ecclesiarum mater et caput which means “Most Holy Lateran Church, of all the churches in the city and the world, the mother and head,” an inscription it still has to this day. While the Archbasilica was originally dedicated solely to Jesus Christ, it was later dedicated to two other notable saints. If you've paid attention so far you can guess who they are. In the 10th century Pope Sergius III dedicated the cathedral to St. John the Baptist in honor of the new baptistery he had added to the building. Later, in the 12th century, Pope Lucius II added John Evangelist to the dedications. Despite these two additions, however, the main patron of the Archbasilica remains Christ the Savior. While many cathedrals have been built on the original site, the current Archbasilica was constructed in 1646.

The facade
The facade | Source
The bronze doors of the Curia Julia
The bronze doors of the Curia Julia | Source

The Facade

While many tourists visiting the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran enter from the popular back entrance in the Piazza San Giovanni where the famous Lateran Obelisk is located, the main entrance to the east is a must-see. The immense façade was created in 1736 by Alessandro Galilei after winning an architectural contests given by Pope Clement XII. At the time, the façade was a very controversial bit of artwork. The Baroque style was popular in the early 1700’s, and indeed, many of Galilei’s competitors proposed facades in that iconic style. Galilei chose, however, to decorate the entrance in the more modern neoclassical style. It was decades before its time and many in the artistic community were not fond of the façade. Of course, being chosen by God's own agent on earth tends to be hard to argue against. As the neoclassical movement moved forward into the limelight, the façade began to be considered an artistic wonderment, though many agree it calls to mind the façade of a Roman palace rather than a cathedral. Inscribed atop the entrance is the historical dedication words Sacrosancta Lateranensis ecclesia omnium urbis et orbis ecclesiarum mater et caput. The central balcony, flanked by pilasters and Corinthian semi-columns, is the Loggia of Blessings. This balcony is where the Pope gives his blessing when he comes into possession of the cathedral as the Bishop of Rome. The most beautiful aspects of the façade anoint the top, fifteen larger than life statues. The central figure sitting on the top pillar is Jesus Christ himself, primary patron of the Archbasilica. Flanking around him are fourteen other statues of varying saints and Popes including St. John the Baptist, St. John Evangelist, the theologians St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine, and St. Ambrose, and the creator of the modern Latin Bible St. Jerome. Underneath Christ is Pope Clement’s coat of arms and an inscription honoring him. The façade features five entrances. The center doors are made of bronze and originally adorned the Curia Julia, or the Roman Senate House. Originally built in 90 AD, they were moved to the Archbasilica by Pope Alexander VII in 1660. The door to the far right is the Holy Door. It is sealed most years, opened only during holy years. From there you enter the narthex.

The still impressive, though not as impressive, back entrance.
The still impressive, though not as impressive, back entrance. | Source
The narthex with Constantine at the end.
The narthex with Constantine at the end. | Source

The Narthex

The narthex was also constructed by Alessandro Galilei. Featuring a barrel vault roof with some impressive tile work, the narthex is a continuation of the façade outside. The border around the center bronze door is not just beautiful, but also serves an architectural purpose. When the door was moved from the Curia Julia it was too small for the existing door frame and so the border was added to fill up the excess. Along the narthex you will find four bas-reliefs. All four feature the same subject, John the Baptist. Two are particularly touching, one featuring his trail before Herod and the other the moment of his decapitation. Okay, so maybe the second one is more disturbing then touching, but it is memorable. The last statue in the narthex is featured at the very end of the hall and is the room's crowning glory, the statue of Constantine. The statue is an original Roman piece from around the late 300’s BC and was taken from the public Baths of Diocletian.

The Nave

Let me just say that the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran is big. Certainly not the biggest cathedral anymore, but it's nothing to sneeze at. The interior is practically dripping in marble and gold. The ceiling is covered in gold statue work, the floor is a richly colored marble, and there are statues and paintings everywhere you look. You could spend a whole day in there. For those of you who don't have that much kind of time, I'll highlight some of the key interests that you may want to check out.

  • The Apostle Statues

  • The Papal Tombs

  • The Two Altars

  • The Baptistery

The central nave, flanked with the Apostle statues.
The central nave, flanked with the Apostle statues. | Source
The statue of St. Peter
The statue of St. Peter | Source

The Apostle Statues

The central walkway of the nave features twelve niches carved into the central pillars of the church. Built in the original 1646 reconstruction, they were left empty for decades until Pope Clement XI had them filled with statues of the twelve apostles. Well, statues of the eleven apostles plus the adopted Paul. The statues were produced by a variety of the best sculptors of the time and are some of the most impressive I saw in Rome. All the apostles have a nameplate and carry in their hands the symbolic objects of their life, for instance Peter’s silver and golden keys. Also, directly behind each apostle are painted doors that symbolize the doorways to heaven, which the teachings of the apostles help open up. The statues are deeply symbolic as well. Placed in the twelve central pillars, they make up the ribs of the church and its key foundation. This symbolizes how the apostles were the original founders of the Christian faith and how the Catholic tradition is based around their teachings and beliefs.

The tomb of Pope Innocent III
The tomb of Pope Innocent III | Source

The Papal Tombs

There are six total papal tombs, or the tombs of Popes, located inside the Archbasilica. An immpressive number for any building that's not St. Peter's Basilica.There were once even more but a series of fires in the 14th century destroyed many of the original tombs. To those looking to go on a papal tomb tour I’ll give you a brief description of where to find them.

  • Pope Alexander III (1159 AD), who was the pope who laid the first stone for the Norte-Dame cathedral, and Pope Sergius IV (1009 AD) are both located in the right aisle of the nave known as the Massimo Chapel. Both of their original tombs were burned, but the ashes were gathered and placed in a cenotaph so look for plaques on the right wall of the church.
  • Pope Clement XII (1734 AD), the commissioner of the Archbasilica’s new façade, is located in the left aisle in the Corsini Chapel immediately to the left of the front entrance to the nave. While you can’t see his actual tomb, its located beneath the chapel, the Corsini Chapel is still quite a sight to see lined in marble with many fine statues including a bronze of Pope Clement himself.
  • Pope Innocent III (1198 AD), one of the most powerful Popes and organizer of the Fourth Crusade which sacked Constintanople, is buried in the right transect near the back of the Archbasilica. His tomb is hard to miss featuring a statue of Pope Innocent on his deathbed beneath a bust of Christ. The statue is inlaid in the wall above an inscription of his name and beneath that inscription are two statues of Christian Crusaders flanking a door to the tomb.
  • Pope Leo XIII (1878 AD), who commissioned many reconstuctions in the Archbasilica including Pope Innocent III’s current tomb, is located in the left transept across from Pope Innocent III. His statue is located near the entrance to the Altar of the Blessed Sacrament and features beautiful renditions of Faith and a worker.
  • The last papal tomb is perhaps the most striking. It is the tomb of Pope Marin V (1417 AD) who commissioned the current floor of the Archbasilica. His tomb can be seen at the bottom of the confessio right in front of the High Altar. The confessio is almost always filled with coins given to the many Popes and saints located inside the cathedral.

The High Altar's Top, featuring the relic boxes.
The High Altar's Top, featuring the relic boxes. | Source

The Two Altars

The Archbasilica features a number of altars but I have selected two that I think are a must see, the High Altar and the Altar of the Blessed Sacrament.

  • The current high altar of the Archbasilica was constructed in 1367 AD. This is arguably the most sacred altar in the whole world for it is the altar of the Pope himself. Of course, no sacred altar would be complete without relics and in this the High Altar does not disappoint. Located at the top of the altar is a relic box which legend says contains the heads of St. Peter and St. Paul. Incorporated into the altar is also a table which St. Peter held Communion on.

  • The Altar of the Blessed Sacrament is located in the left transept near the rear of the church. This altar is surrounded by a miniature bronze temple of Roman origin. The temple surrounds the altar, which is surrounded by another set of marble columns. The bronze and marble columns are said to have been taken from the Temple of Jupiter in Rome. This would be the ultimate show that Christianity had defeated the pagan religions. If this is true, than the columns also contain the prows of the ships of ancient Cleopatra which the Emperor Augustus took from her after defeating her in battle. In the center of the altar is enshrined a table that is said to be the very table from the Last Super.

The baptistery
The baptistery | Source

The Baptistery

The baptistery of the Archbasilica was originally a separate building, which is common in older Catholic Cathedrals. Ancient beliefs held that you had to be baptized before you could enter the church proper. The baptistery is located near the back entrance. Its octagonal shape was a common design for ancient baptisteries and the bottom half can be dated back all the way to the 5th century AD. The top half was added in a 1637 AD reconstruction. The baptistery has a couple legends associated to it. One is that Constantine was baptized within the building, but this is almost certainly a fabrication. A second legend, however, might be true. The legend states that Gregory the Great created the Gregorian Chant within the building. The baptistery features eight Latin phrases that feature a variety of holy beliefs about baptism.


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