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Archbasilica of St John Lateran

Archbasilica of St. John Lateran, Rome
Archbasilica of St John Lateran, Rome / Jean-Pierre Dalbéra, Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

WorldBlue  In short

There is only one archbasilica in the world – Archbasilica of St John Lateran. This could be the most important church in the world, at least for the Catholic Church – although not far from it is the better known and more imposing St. Peter’s Basilica.

Lateran Basilica though is much, much older and has a history unrivaled by any other church in the world.

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GPS coordinates
41.8859 N 12.5058 E
Location, address
Europe, Italy, Lazio, centre of Rome, Piazza di S. Giovanni in Laterano, 4
Full name
The Sacrosanct Papal Cathedral Greater Roman Archbasilica of the Holy Saviour and the Saints John the Baptist and John the Evangelist at the Lateran, the Mother and Head of all the Churches of the City and the World
Name in Italian
Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano
Alternate names
Lateran Basilica, Papal Archbasilica of St. John Lateran, St. John Lateran, Archbasilica
UNESCO World Heritage status
Part of "Historic Centre of Rome, the Properties of the Holy See in that City Enjoying Extraterritorial Rights and San Paolo Fuori le Mura", 1980, No.91
Architectural style
Baroque, Neo-Classicism
Architect
Francesco Borromini (current interior), Alessandro Galilei (current facade)
Year of construction
Around 312 – 1735
Branch of Christianity
Catholics

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WorldYellow In detail

Status of Archbasilica of St John Lateran

Interior of the Archbasilica of St John Lateran, Rome
Interior of the Archbasilica of St John Lateran, Rome / Tango7174, Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

There are four papal major basilicas – all in Rome. The oldest and the highest-ranking of them all (and each of these buildings is very special!) is Archbasilica of St. John Lateran. No other Catholic church in the world is as important, even the St. Peter’s Basilica.

Archbasilica is the seat of the pope and the cathedral church of Rome. It has extraterritorial status from Italy as a property of the Holy See.

This is the oldest public church in Rome and the ecumenical mother church of Catholics.

The status of this magnificent building is testified both by its history and its embellishments and works of art.

History

Giotto's fresco in Archbasilica of St. John Lateran, Rome
Fresco in Archbasilica of St. John Lateran, Rome / Giotto, 1300, Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0

Many structures in Rome have been built over the older buildings, often using parts of other structures. Thus it is very hard to find out – in which year the construction was started. Lateran Basilica is one of such cases – over the last 2000 years, there existed several structures, each influencing the next one.

The timeline of Lateran Basilica shows – this building is truly unique:

  • Before common era: part of the current land plot taken by Archbasilica belongs to the influential Laterani family and here stood Lateran Palace.
  • 193: in the site of the present basilica in the times of Emperor Septimius Severus was established a Roman fort which was demolished around 312 – but the remnants of this ancient structure still are under the nave of the Archbasilica.
  • 307: the Lateran Palace becomes the property of the Roman Emperor.
  • Around 312: Emperor Constantine orders to build a Christian Basilica at the palace – the first official church building in Rome and one of the oldest in the world. The basilica is dedicated to Christ the Savior.
  • Around 313: land plot donated by Constantine to the Bishop of Rome – the future popes.
  • 314: Bishop Sylvester I (now recognized as pope) starts the rebuilding and extension of the basilica at Lateran Palace. The throne of the bishop – cathedra – becomes a symbol of episcopal authority. As the cathedra of the Bishop of Rome is placed inside the new basilica, it becomes a “cathedral”. Maybe this was not the first official cathedral in the world – there are several more in the Mediterranean area from these times – but it definitely was among the first ones.
  • 410: Archbasilica looted by the Visigoths.
  • 455: Vandals invade Rome and archbasilica is looted. Before this, the building was splendid and filled with valuables – it had a nickname “Golden Basilica” (Basilica Aurea).
  • Around 460: Archbasilica is restored.
  • 896: Archbasilica almost totally destroyed by an earthquake. The new basilica is built in the same dimensions as the previous.
  • 904-911: Archbasilica rebuilt, rededicated to St. John the Baptist by Pope Sergius III.
  • 1144: pope Lucius II dedicated the Archbasilica to John the Evangelist. Nevertheless Christ the Savior still is the primary patron of archbasilica.
  • 1123, 1139, 1179, 1215 and 1512-1517: five ecumenical councils take place in the Archbasilica and Lateran Palace.
  • 1308: fire destroys the archbasilica and Lateran Palace.
  • 1361: fire again destroys both buildings. Pope was in Avignon in these times and both basilica and palace deteriorated although the pope sent financing for the maintenance and repairs.
  • 1370-1378: the rebuilding of Archbasilica of St. John Lateran in its former design.
  • 1376: papacy returns to Rome. This part of Rome is sparsely populated and dangerous. Lateran Basilica and Palace are considered to be not suitable for the pope anymore – buildings are too dilapidated. Popes reside in other basilicas in Rome until the present Palace of the Vatican and Basilica of St. Peter is built in the 16th century.
  • 1562-1567: the magnificent, coffered ceiling is made by Flaminio Boulanger. Now the ceiling is adorned with a huge amount of gold.
  • 1585-1590: reconstruction of Lateran Basilica and Palace during the papacy of the ambitious Sixtus V. Works are made under the guidance of architect Domenico Fontana. The old Lateran Palace is demolished and a new palace constructed instead.
  • 1646-1650: the interior of Basilica is renovated upon orders of Pope Innocent X in 1646-1650. These works are managed by the talented architect Francesco Borromini. Borromini though does not have too much artistic independence: he is asked to keep the coffered ceiling and the old, uneven floor and the apse of the basilica.
  • 1718: the twelve niches created by Borromini are filled with Rococo style statues of the Apostles.
  • 1733-1735: the magnificent, current facade of the archbasilica is built. This rebuilding is ordered by Pope Clement XII and the competition is fierce – more than 23 architects participate. Most designs are in the popular Baroque style but one excels as something unusual and innovative: the design of Alessandro Galilei from the same family as Galileo Galilei and one of the first great Neo-Classicism architects. This design is selected as a winner and after the completion of works causes a scandal among the artistic circles in Rome and, at the same time is admired by a new generation of architects in France and Britain. Thus the facade of this ancient building gets a very innovative design for its time, making the Lateran Basilica similar to a palace.
  • World War II: Lateran Basilica and Palace serve as a refuge for Jews and other persecuted people.

Design and relics

Apse and cathedra in the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran, Rome
Apse and cathedra in the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran, Rome / Tango7174, Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

During its long history, Archbasilica has turned into a complex structure with several parts and adjoining buildings. Nevertheless, the main body has retained five aisles, just like in the 4th century.

Six popes are buried in the Lateran Basilica. At least ten more burials of popes were destroyed in the fires during the 14th century and their remnants were gathered and reburied.

Lateran Basilica contains several macabre relics: at the top of the altar is a reliquary that contains purported heads of St. Peter and St. Paul. The altar of the Holy Sacrament contains a supposed table of the Last Supper, a high altar – a piece of wood from St. Peter’s communion table. One more relic is a sample of Jesus’ blood. Well… just try to imagine if all of this is true. Weird indeed.

Solomonic columns in St. John Lateran's Cloister, Rome
Solomonic columns in St. John Lateran’s Cloister, Rome / Lalupa, Wikimedia Commons / public domain

Among the countless embellishments and art values, Archbasilica contains fragments of Giotto’s fresco from 1300: but there are numerous other valuable artifacts of the past and wonderful monuments of art.

Lateran Palace adjoins the Archbasilica but close to it are several more important historical structures: Lateran Obelisk from Ancient Egypt, Lateran Baptistery, Scala Sancta (legendary stairs where Jesus stepped on his way to trial during Passion), and The Tribune.

Especially beautiful is the adjoining St. John Lateran’s Cloister. It was built in the early 13th century and utilized by Augustine priests who were in charge of liturgical ceremonies at the basilica. The cloister was designed by Vassalletto architects – father and son, who used the motives of ancient art. An interesting accent is Solomonic columns and columns twisted around each other – technically complex design.

References

  1. Arcibasilica Papale San Giovanni in Laterano. Site last visited on 28th December 2018.
  2. Roberto Piperno, Basilica di S. Giovanni in Laterano from “Rome in the Footsteps of an XVIIIth Century Traveller”. Site last visited on 28th December 2018.
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