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Basilica of St. John Lateran, Rome
Basilica of St. John Lateran history
The Basilica of St. John Lateran has an impressive history. In ancient Roman times, this site was occupied by a mansion belonging to the rich Laterani family. This is the reason why word “Lateran” can be found in the name of the cathedral.
The mansion was later confiscated by Emperor Nero after a leading Laterani member had been accused of conspiracy against the emperor. With this, the palace lost much of its old functions. The site became instead militarized when imperial cavalry barracks and a fort were built on the site.
The first basilica
The history of the cathedral itself starts some hundred years later when the first Christian emperor, Constantine the 1st, acquired the old palace through a marriage. The emperor chose to give the Lateran palace to the Roman Church as a gift. Following this, the small palace basilica was converted and enlarged and became the official residence of the Pope.
The house of god
The Basilica and the adjacent Lateran Palace was officially dedicated by Pope Sylvester in year 324 in which he declared it to be “Domus Dei” – “The house of God”. In its interior, the Papal Throne was placed which marked it as the Cathedral of Rome.
Emperor Constantine also made sure that the interior was richly decorated. It included seven silver altars, more than 100 chandeliers and a gold covered apse vault.
The Lateran Palace and the cathedral have been rededicated twice. The first time was in the 10th century when it was dedicated to Saint John the Baptist in honor of the newly consecrated baptistery.
The second time was in the 12th century, when it was dedicated to Saint John the Evangelist. These two saints are however only regarded as co-patrons of the cathedral - the chief patron is Christ the Savior himself.
Decline and destruction
The Lateran palace and the cathedral began to decline somewhat during the Avignon papacy. This was a period when the papal residence was moved to Avignon in France, under the lead of the French Pope Clement V.
During this period, two destructive fires ravaged the Lateran Palace and the cathedral which left them both in bad shape. With this, the buildings lost their former splendor, despite the fact that the Avignon papacy sent money to cover the costs of reconstruction and maintenance.
When the Avignon papacy formally ended and the Pope once again resided in Rome, the Lateran Palace and the basilica were deemed inadequate considering the accumulated damage from the fires. Due to this, they constructed the Palace of the Vatican adjacent to the already existing St. Peter’s Basilica. This became the new papal residence and has been ever since.
Even though the site was no longer the residence of the pope, it was not left without attention. The man who finally invested in the cathedral was Pope Sixtus V – the man responsible for the urban re-planning of Rome in the 16th century. Sixtus chose not to restore the cathedral. Instead he chose to tear it down and build a whole new structure on the site – the cathedral that stands today.
However, some parts of today’s cathedral do not date back to the Pope’s reconstruction. Several statues of the apostles were added to the cathedral interior during the 18th century. The 18th century also included a major renovation, including the addition of the new façade.
This façade was completed in 1735 and is the one still standing today. The architect, Alessandro Galilei, removed all vestiges of traditional ancient basilica architecture and designed it in a neo-classical style.
Why visit the Basilica of St. John Lateran ?
The great Basilica of St. John Lateran is the oldest of Rome’s four major basilicas and, unknown to many, the cathedral of the Church of Rome. It is thus the official seat of the Pope and holds the title of “Mother church of the whole world” among Catholics. It ranks above all other churches in the Roman Catholic Church - even above St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican.
The main façade is perhaps the most known part of the building. The top of the façade is crowned with several large statues. The center statue depicts Christ himself while the other statues represent several other saints, including the two co-patrons of the cathedral. Below the statues is a long Latin text inscribed. The inscription says;
“Clement XII, Supreme Pontiff, in his fifth year, to Christ the Savior in honor of Saints John the Baptist and Evangalist.”
The Lateran Obelisk
The palace and cathedral also houses one of the largest ancient obelisks in the world; the Lateran Obelisk. This Egyptian obelisk’s original location was at the great Karnak Temple in Egypt, but it was shipped to Constantinople and later Rome. Once in Rome, it was re-erected at Circus Maximus.
During the urban re-planning of Rome, Pope Sixtus V located and dug up the obelisk and placed it at its current site. The Lateran Obelisk can be found in front of the northern façade.
The inside of the cathedral is a joy to behold. Visitors can not only enjoy the great 18th century statues of the apostles, but several other decorations and pieces of art. The cathedral houses several papal tombs, as well as the Papal cathedra – located in the apse.
The Scala Sancta
The Basilica of St. John Lateran also houses “The Scala Sancta” – “The Holy Stairs”. These wooden steps are according to Roman Catholic tradition, the staircase that once ledto the praetorium of Pilate at Jerusalem It is therefore sanctified by the footsteps of Jesus Christ during his Passion.
One should not forget to also visit the adjacent cloister and Baptist buildings. Visitors to the cloister can admire the spiral marble columns and the stunning Cosmatesque mosaics. The Baptist building was the first baptistery in Rome, converted from an earlier Roman Temple. The baptistery has a rich inside and is definitely worth a visit as well.
The mother of all churches
Today, this world cathedral is one of Rome’s most important buildings. Hundreds of thousands of visitors travel to the cathedral each year to discover its beauty.
Basilica of St. John Lateran location
The Basilica of St. John Lateran is located infRome, Italy. The massive basilica is located in the south-eastern parts of the city. For the exact location of Basilica of St. John Lateran, check out the location map to the right.
Basilica of St. John Lateran resources
Basilica of St. John Lateran interior. (public domain)
Main façade of the basilica. (public domain)
Shrine inside the basilica. (public domain)
Close-up of the Christ statue. (public domain)
Interactive location map. For a larger and more detailed map, check out our Italy map.
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