Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome

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The Papal Archbasilica of St. John Lateran , commonly known as St. John Lateran's Archbasilica and St. John Lateran's Basilica, is the cathedral of the Diocese of Rome and the official ecclesiastical seat of the Bishop of Rome, who is the Pope. The official name, in Latin, is Archibasilica Sanctissimi Salvatoris et Sanctorum Iohannes Baptista et Evangelista in Laterano, which translates in English as Archbasilica of the Most Holy Saviour and Ss. John the Baptist and the Evangelist at the Lateran, and in Italian as Arcibasilica del Santissimo Salvatore e Santi Giovanni Battista ed Evangelista in Laterano.

It is the oldest and ranks first among the four Papal Basilicas or major basilicas of Rome (having the cathedra of the Bishop of Rome). It claims the title of ecumenical mother church among Catholics. The current archpriest of St. John Lateran is Agostino Vallini, Cardinal Vicar General for the Diocese of Rome.

Further renovation on the interior of the basilica ensued under the direction of Francesco Borromini, commissioned by Pope Innocent X. The twelve niches created by his architecture came to be filled by 1718 with statues of the apostles, using the most prominent Roman Rococo sculptors.

The vision of Pope Clement XII for reconstruction was an ambitious one: he launched a competition to design a new façade. Over 23 architects, mostly working in the current Baroque idiom competed. The putatively impartial jury was chaired by Sebastiano Conca, president of the Roman Academy of Saint Luke. The winner of the competition was Alessandro Galilei. The façade as it appears today was completed in 1735. Galilei's façade however removed all vestiges of traditional ancient basilica architecture, and imparted a neo-classical facade.

Architectural history

An apse lined with mosaics and open to the air still preserves the memory of one of the most famous halls of the ancient palace, the "Triclinium" of Pope Leo III, which was the state banqueting hall. The existing structure (illustration, below left) is not ancient, but it is possible that some portions of the original mosaics have been preserved in the three-part mosaic of its niche: in the centre Christ gives their mission to the Apostles, on the left he gives the keys to St. Sylvester and the Labarum to Constantine, while on the right St. Peter gives the papal stole to Leo III and the standard to Charlemagne.

Some few remains of the original buildings may still be traced in the city walls outside the Gate of St. John, and a large wall decorated with paintings was uncovered in the 18th century within the basilica itself, behind the Lancellotti Chapel. A few traces of older buildings also came to light during the excavations made in 1880, when the work of extending the apse was in progress, but nothing was published of real value or importance.

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 I restored it around 460, and it was again restored by Pope Hadrian, but in 897 it was almost totally destroyed by an earthquake— ab altari usque ad portas cecidit "it collapsed from the altar to the doors"— damage so extensive that it was difficult to trace the lines of the old building, but these were in the main respected and the new building was of the same dimensions as the old. This second church lasted for four hundred years and then burned in 1308. It was rebuilt by Pope Clement V and Pope John XXII, only to be burned down once more in 1360, but again rebuilt by Pope Urban V.

Through these various vicissitudes the basilica retained its ancient form, being divided by rows of columns into aisles, and having in front a peristyle surrounded by colonnades with a fountain in the middle, the conventional Late Antique format that was also followed by the old St Peter's. The façade had three windows, and was embellished with a mosaic representing Christ, the Saviour of the World. The porticoes were frescoed, probably not earlier than the 12th century, commemorating the Roman fleet under Vespasian, the taking of Jerusalem, the Baptism of the Emperor Constantine and his "Donation" of the Papal States to the Church. Inside the basilica the columns no doubt ran, as in all other basilicas of the same date, the whole length of the church from east to west, but at one of the rebuildings, probably that which was carried out by Clement V, the feature of a transverse nave was introduced, imitated no doubt from the one which had been added, long before this, at Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls. Probably at this time the church was enlarged.

Some portions of the older buildings still survive. Among them the pavement of medieval Cosmatesque work, and the statues of St. Peter and Saint Paul, now in the cloisters. The graceful baldacchino over the high altar, which looks so utterly out of place in its present surroundings, dates from 1369. The stercoraria, or throne of red marble on which the popes sat, is now in the Vatican Museums. It owes its unsavoury name to the anthem sung at the papal enthronement, "De stercore erigens pauperem" ("lifting up the poor out of the dunghill", from Psalm 112).

From the 5th 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.

Of the façade by Alessandro Galilei (1735), the cliché assessment has ever been that it is the façade of a palace, not of a church. Galilei's front, which is a screen across the older front creating a narthex or vestibule, does express the nave and double aisles of the basilica, which required a central bay wider than the rest of the sequence; Galilei provided it, without abandoning the range of identical arch-headed openings, by extending the central window by flanking columns that support the arch, in the familiar Serlian motif. By bringing the central bay forward very slightly, and capping it with a pediment that breaks into the roof balustrade, Galilei provides an entrance doorway on a more-than-colossal scale, framed in the paired colossal Corinthian pilasters that tie together the façade in the manner introduced at Michelangelo's palace on the Campidoglio.

Holy Steps

The Scala Sancta (Holy Stairs), wooden steps that encase white marble steps, are, according to Roman Catholic tradition, the staircase leading once to the praetorium of Pilate at Jerusalem, hence sanctified by the footsteps of Jesus Christ during his Passion. The marble stairs are visible through openings in the wooden risers. Their translation from Jerusalem to the complex of palaces that became the ancient seat of popes in the 4th century is credited to Saint Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine I.

In 1589, Pope Sixtus V relocated the steps to their present location in front of the ancient palatine chapel (the Sancta Sanctorum). Ferraù Fenzoni completed some of the frescoes on the walls.

Lateran cloister

Between the basilica and the city wall there was in former times the great monastery, in which dwelt the community of monks whose duty it was to provide the services in the basilica. The only part of it which still survives is the 13th-century cloister, surrounded by graceful twisted columns of inlaid marble. They are of a style intermediate between the Romanesque proper and the Gothic, and are the work of Vassellectus and the Cosmati. This beautiful cloister dates to the early 13th century.

Lateran baptistry

The octagonal Lateran Baptistry stands somewhat apart from the basilica. It was founded by Pope Sixtus III, perhaps on an earlier structure, for a legend grew up that Constantine I had been baptized there and enriched the structure. (He was actually baptised in the East, by an Arian bishop.) This baptistry was for many generations the only baptistry in Rome, and its octagonal structure, centered upon the large basin for full immersions provided a model for others throughout Italy, and even an iconic motif of illuminated manuscripts, "The fountain of Life".

Papal tombs

There are six extant papal tombs inside the basilica: Alexander III (right aisles), Sergius IV (right aisles), Clement XII Corsini (left aisle), Martin V (in front of the confessio); Innocent III (right transept); and Leo XIII (left transept), by G. Tadolini (1907). The latter was the last pope not to be entombed in St. Peter's Basilica.

A dozen additional papal tombs were constructed in the basilica starting in the 10th century, but were destroyed during two fires that ravaged the basilica in 1308 and 1361. The remains of these charred tombs were gathered and reburied in a polyandrum. The popes of the destroyed tombs were: Pope John X (914 - 928), Pope Agapetus II (946 - 955), Pope John XII (955- 964), Pope Paschal II (1099–1118), Pope Callixtus II (1119–1124), Pope Honorius II (1124–1130), Pope Celestine II (1143–1144), Pope Lucius II (1144–1145), Pope Anastasius IV (1153–1154), Pope Clement III (1187–1191), Pope Celestine III (1191–1198), Pope Innocent V (1276). Popes during this period whose tombs are unknown and who may have been buried in the Lateran basilica include: Pope John XVII (1003), Pope John XVIII (1003–1009), and Pope Alexander II (1061–1073).

John X was the first pope buried within the walls of Rome, granted such a prominent burial due to rumors that he was murdered by Theodora, during a historical period known as the Pornocracy. Cardinals Vincenso Santucci and Carlo Colonna are also buried in this church.

Twelve Apostles

The twelve niches created by Borromini's architecture were left empty for decades until 1703 when Pope Clement XI encouraged the completion of the decoration, by sponsoring a competition to select the designs for larger-than-life sculptures of the apostles. The chosen sculptural designs were by some of the most prominent late baroque sculptors in Rome, including:

  • Camillo Rusconi
James the Greater
John the Evangelist
  • Francesco Moratti
Simon the Zealot
  • Angelo de' Rossi
James the Less
  • Giuseppe Mazzuoli
  • Lorenzo Ottoni
  • Pierre-Étienne Monnot
  • Pierre Le Gros the Younger

Roman Catholic liturgy

In the liturgical calendar of the Catholic Church, November 9 is the feast of the Dedication of the Basilica of St. John Lateran (Dedicatio Basilicae Lateranensis), often referred to in older missals as the Dedication of the Basilica of St. Saviour (or the holy Saviour). In view of its role as the mother church of the whole inhabited world, this feast day is celebrated as a Feast in the present universal calendar of the Catholic Church.

Archpriests of the Basilica of St. John Lateran

The post of archpriest was created by Pope Boniface VIII ca. 1299.

List of archpriests of the Lateran Basilica:

  • Gerardo Bianchi (ca.1299–1302)
  • Pietro Valeriano Duraguerra (1302)
  • Pietro Colonna (1306–26)
  • Bertrand de Montfavez (1326–1342)
  • Giovanni Colonna (1342–48)
  • Pierre Roger de Beaufort (1348–70)
  • Ange de Grimoard (1370–88)
  • Pietro Tomacelli (1388–1389)
  • Francesco Carbone (1389–1405)
  • Antonio Caetani (1405–1412)
  • Oddone Colonna (1412–1417)
  • Alamanno Adimari (1418–22)
  • Guillaume Fillastre (1422–28)
  • Alfonso Carillo de Albornoz (1428–34)
  • Lucido Conti (1434–37)
  • Angelotto Fosco (1437–44)
  • António Martinez de Chaves (1444–47)
  • Domenico Capranica (1447–58)
  • Prospero Colonna (1458–63)
  • Latino Orsini (1463–77)
  • Giuliano della Rovere (1477–1503)
  • Giovanni Colonna (1503–08)
  • Alessandro Farnese (1508–34)
  • Giovanni Domenico de Cupis (1535–53)
  • Ranuccio Farnese (1553–1565)
  • Mark Sitticus von Hohenems (1565–95)
  • Ascanio Colonna (1595–1608)
  • Scipione Caffarelli-Borghese (1608–23)
  • Giambattista Leni (1623–27)
  • Francesco Barberini (1627–28)
  • Girolamo Colonna (1628–66)
  • Flavio Chigi (1666–93)
  • Paluzzo Paluzzi Altieri degli Albertoni (1693–98)
  • Fabrizio Spada (1698–99)
  • Benedetto Pamphili (1699–1730)
  • Pietro Ottoboni (1730–40)
  • Neri Maria Corsini (1740–70)
  • Mario Marefoschi Compagnoni (1771–80)
  • Carlo Rezzonico (1780–81)
  • Francesco Saverio de Zelada (1781–1801)
  • Leonardo Antonelli (1801–11)
  • Bartolomeo Pacca (1830–44)
  • Benedetto Barberini (28 April 1844 – 10 April 1863)
  • Lodovico Altieri (1863–67)
  • Costantino Patrizi Naro (1867–76)
  • Flavio Chigi (December 24, 1876–85)
  • Raffaele Monaco La Valletta (1885–96)
  • Francesco Satolli (December 16, 1896 – January 8, 1910)
  • Pietro Respighi (January 10, 1910 – March 22, 1913)
  • Domenico Ferrata (April 7, 1913 – October 10, 1914)
  • Basilio Pompilj (October 28, 1914 – May 5, 1931)
  • Francesco Marchetti-Selvaggiani (August 26, 1931 – January 13, 1951)
  • Benedetto Aloisi Masella (October 27, 1954 – August 30, 1970)
  • Angelo Dell'Acqua (October 7, 1970 – August 27, 1972)
  • Ugo Poletti (March 26, 1973 – January 17, 1991)
  • Camillo Ruini (January 17, 1991 – June 27, 2008)
  • Agostino Vallini (since June 27, 2008)

See also

  • Colegio de San Juan de Letran, a Philippine school named after the church.
  • Early Christian art and architecture



External links