12 January 2017

Visiting six churches in Rome:
4, Saint John Lateran

The Basilica of Saint John Lateran is the cathedral church of Rome, and it is here that the Pope has his cathedra as Bishop of Rome (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

I imagine every visitor and pilgrim has a favourite church in Rome, and so I thought this week it would be worth introducing six churches that are among my favourites in Rome and which I visited last week:

1, Santa Maria in Trastevere;

2, Santa Maria della Scala, also in Trastevere;

3, Chiesa Nuova, or the Church of Santa Maria in Vallicella;

4, San Giovanni in Laterano, or Saint John Lateran;

5, Santa Maria Maggiore or Saint Mary Major;

6, The Pantheon, or Santa Maria ad Martyres (Saint Mary and the Martyrs), often known Santa Maria Rotonda.

4, San Giovanni in Laterano, or Saint John Lateran

Inside Saint John Lateran, the oldest of the four major papal basilicas in Rome (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The Archbasilica of Saint John Lateran (Arcibasilica Papale di San Giovanni in Laterano), sometimes known simply as the Lateran Basilica, is the cathedral church of Rome, and it is here that the Pope has his cathedra as Bishop of Rome.

This is the oldest of the four major papal basilicas in Rome, the other three being: Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, Santa Maria Maggiore or Saint Mary Major, and Saint Paul Outside the Walls. Among these four, Saint John Lateran has precedence as the oldest church in the West. As the cathedral of the Pope as Bishop of Rome, it ranks above all other churches in the Roman Catholic Church, including Saint Peter’s Basilica.

The large Latin inscription on the façade reads: Clemens XII Pont Max Anno V Christo Salvatori In Hon SS Ioan Bapt et Evang; ‘Pope Clement XII, in the fifth year [of his Pontificate], dedicated this building to Christ the Saviour, in honour of Saint John the Baptist and Saint John the Evangelist.’

Saint John Lateran is about 4 km north-west of the Vatican, but the church and its adjoining buildings have extraterritorial status from Italy as one of the sovereign properties of the Holy See, under the Lateran Treaty signed by the Vatican with Italy in 1929.

The cathedra in the chancel of Saint John Lateran is the Pope’s throne as Bishop of Rome (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The basilica stands on the site of the Castra Nova or New Fort of the Roman imperial bodyguards, built by Septimius Severus in AD 193. After the Emperor Constantine defeated Maxentius at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, the guard was abolished and the fort was demolished.

The Lateran Hill takes its name from a palace built by the Laterani family, and the Lateran Palace passed by marriage to Constantine I, who donated it to the Bishops of Rome, who made the place their residence and the church on the site their cathedral.

At an early stage, the basilica was so splendid that it was known as the Basilica Aurea or ‘Golden Basilica.’ The Vandals stripped it of all its treasures, but Pope Leo I restored it ca 460, and it was again restored by Pope Hadrian.

The Lateran was almost totally destroyed by an earthquake in 897, and it is reported that ‘it collapsed from the altar to the doors.’

The basilica and the Lateran Palace were re-dedicated twice. Pope Sergius III dedicated them to Saint John the Baptist in the 10th century in honour of the newly consecrated baptistery. Pope Lucius II dedicated them to Saint John the Evangelist in the 12th century.

From the time of Pope Miltiades, every Pope lived in the Lateran Palace until the reign of the Pope Clement V, who moved the seat of the Papacy to Avignon in France in 1309 following a fire at the Lateran a year earlier.

While the Papacy was in exile in Avignon, the Lateran Palace and the basilica began to deteriorate, and they were damaged severely in two fires ravaged in 1307 and 1361, losing their former splendour. When the Popes returned to Rome, they regarded the basilica and the Palace as inadequate. The Popes lived at the Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere and later at the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore.

Eventually, the Vatican Palace was built beside Saint Peter’s Basilica, and the Popes began to live there.

Several attempts were made to rebuild the basilica. Eventually, Pope Sixtus V commissioned his favourite architect, Domenico Fontana, to supervise the project. The original Lateran Palace was demolished and replaced with a new building.

Inside the basilica, the nave features the original Cosmatesque mosaic floor and gilded wooden ceiling which survived the fires and Borromini’s renovations in the mid 17th century.

The baldacchino was erected for Pope Urban V and holds the silver reliquaries of the heads of Saint Peter and Saint Paul (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The baldacchino or canopy over the High Altar, which is attributed to Giovanni di Stefano from Siena, was erected for Pope Urban V. It resembles a similar canopy made by Arnolfo di Cambio at Saint Cecilia, but is taller because its upper section houses the silver reliquaries of the heads of Saint Peter and Saint Paul.

The papal cathedra or throne sits in the elaborate apse, rich in decoration and mosaics.

The apse, decorated with a large mosaic, was made in 1291 by Jacopo Torriti and others at the initiative of Pope Nicholas IV. The Pope had been a Franciscan friar and he asked for Saint Francis of Assisi and Saint Anthony of Padua to be included among the saints portrayed in the mosaic.

Unfortunately in the 1880s, Pope Leo XIII decided to enlarge the apse. A proposal to raise and move back its walls was rejected for cost reasons and the apse was pulled down. The new apse was decorated with a mosaic that depicts the same scene as the old one, but without the style and technique of Torriti’s work.

The statue of Saint John is the work of Camillo Rusconi and was sponsored by Cardinal Benedetto Pamphili (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Pope Innocent X commissioned further renovations of the interior by Francesco Borromini. During his renovation, Borromini created 12 niches that were eventually filled in 1718 with statues of the Apostles, sculpted by the most prominent Roman sculptors of the day. Each statue was sponsored by an illustrious prince, with Pope Clement XI sponsoring the statue of Saint Peter and Cardinal Benedetto Pamphili sponsoring the statue of Saint John the Evangelist.

After Pope Sixtus V redesigned the lateral façade in 1589, many popes considered replacing the old main façade with a new one. Eventually, Pope Clement XII commissioned a new neo-classical façade by Alessandro Galilei and this was completed in 1735. Galilei removed all vestiges of the traditional, ancient, architecture of the basilica was removed, and it has often been described as the façade of a palace rather than a church.

An ancient statue of the Emperor Constantine stands in the portico (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Pope Clement XII also placed an ancient statue of the Emperor Constantine in the portico. The arms and the lower part of the body are a Renaissance addition. This statue is very similar to another ancient one at Piazza del Campidoglio. Art historians today suggest they might portray one of Constantine’s sons.

The portico also contains the bronze doors of Curia Julia, the hall where the Roman Senate had its meetings. These were used for the central entrance to the basilica, but because of they were smaller in size they were placed inside a bronze frame that was decorated with the heraldic symbols of Pope Alexander VII.

At least six Popes are buried here: Alexander III, Sergius IV, Clement XII, Martin V, Innocent III and Leo XIII, who in 1907 was the last pope not to be buried in Saint Peter’s Basilica. Twelve other papal tombs from the 10th to the 13th centuries were destroyed in the fires in 1308 and 1361.

In the mediaeval cloisters in Saint John Lateran (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

A great monastery was attached once to the Lateran, and the 13th century cloisters survive. These cloisters are surrounded by graceful, twisted columns of inlaid marble that are the work of Vasselletto, father and son, and the Cosmati.

The cloisters were built in the early 13th century and completed by 1234 on the site of previous cloisters, and retaining the original well in the centre. The cloisters were used by a community of Canons Regular, who followed the rule of Saint Augustine and were in charge of liturgy in the basilica.

These must be the most beautiful cloisters in Rome. The ambulatory houses a ninth century well and small garden, making this a secret oasis in the centre of Rome.

The octagonal baptistery stands apart from the basilica, and legend says the Emperor Constantine I was baptised there (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The octagonal baptistery stands apart from the basilica. It was founded by Pope Sixtus III, perhaps on the site of an earlier baptistery, and there is a legend that Emperor Constantine I was baptised there. For many generations, this was the only baptistery in Rome, and its octagonal structure, centred on the large basin for full immersions, has provided a model for others baptisteries throughout Italy.

The Lateran Palace was designed for Pope Sixtus V by Domenico Fontana (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The Lateran Palace was designed for Pope Sixtus V by Domenico Fontana who rebuilt aqueducts, relocated obelisks, revived conduits and fountains, and opened new streets and vistas. The Palace was completed in 1589, but the Popes preferred to live in Palazzo del Quirinale and eventually this large building was used as a hospital or a hospice.

The palace still belongs to the Holy See and houses an historical museum of the Papal State.

On the square in front of the Lateran Palace is the largest standing obelisk in the world. The Lateran Obelisk is said to weigh 455 tons. It was commissioned by the Egyptian Pharaoh Thutmose III and erected by Thutmose IV before the great Karnak temple of Thebes in Egypt.

The Emperor Constantine wanted to ship it to Constantinople, but Constantius II had it shipped instead to Rome, where it was erected in the Circus Maximus in AD 357. Later it broke and was buried under the Circus. In the 16th century, it was discovered and excavated, and Sixtus V had it re-erected on a new pedestal at this site in 1588.

The mosaics on the Tribune of Triclinio Leoniano beside the Scala Santa (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Beside the basilica, Fontana also built the Scala Santa, a palace housing what is said to be the staircase from Pontius Pilate’s house in Jerusalem. According to tradition, this staircase was brought to Rome by Saint Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine. Pious people only climb it 28 steps on their knees, to avoid stepping on the footsteps of Christ.

The large Tribune of Triclinio Leoniano adjoining the Scala Santa was built in 1743 by Ferdinando Fuga for Pope Benedict XIV and it was decorated with mosaics copied from those in the banqueting hall (Triclinio) built by Pope Leo III in the old Lateran Palace.

During World War II, the Lateran and its buildings were used under Pope Pius XII as a safe haven from the Nazis for numbers Jews and other refugees.

The President of the French Republic is ex officio the ‘first and only honorary canon’ of the basilica, a title held by the heads of state of France since King Henry IV. In a similar way, the King of Spain is ex officio an honorary canon of Saint Mary Major, the basilica I am looking at tomorrow.

The portico in Saint John Lateran (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Tomorrow: Santa Maria Maggiore or Saint Mary Major.