san giovanni in laterano

The Basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano

The Basilica of Saint John in Lateran (San Giovanni in Laterano) defined as “the mother of all churches in the world.” It represents the mixture between the Pagan and Christian eras. You should definitely visit the museum which collects precious liturgical furnishings, sculptures and ornaments of ancient basilica. It was the first Christian basilica built in the city and the Pope’s main place of worship. Moreover, it was repeatedly damaged and restored, so San Giovanni in Laterano was continuously enriched over centuries.

History

In pre-Christian times, the lands near the Celio hill belonged to a rich Roman family of Lateran. A mention of how in the 1st century A.D. Plauzio Laterano was exposed in intrigues against Emperor Nero is left in the “Annals” of Tacitus. However, his plan didn’t work and all the property of Laterano went to the imperial treasury.

The founder of the basilica is the Roman emperor Flavius Valerio Constantine (Flavio Valerio Costantino). Before the decisive battle with Maxentius, Constantine the Great saw in the sky Christma – a monogram of the name of Christ, which foreshadowed him a victory. Thus, at the beginning of the third century, the Emperor recognized the freedom of religion which led to creation of the first Christian Church in Rome.

In the 9th century, the Cathedral of Christ the Savior was dedicated to John the Baptist (San Giovanni Battista), while in the 12th century it was dedicated to John the Theologian (San Giovanni Evangelista). From the 4th to the 14th century, the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist was used as the papal temple. Moreover, the throne of the pontiff was established inside the church.

Reconstructions

The richly decorated Cathedral of St. John the Baptist was repeatedly looted and later restored. In the second half of the 5th century, Pope Illarion attached a room for baptism to the basilica. Moreover, three chapels were created and named after John the Baptist, John the Divine and the Holy Cross. In the 9th century, Pope Leo III reconstructed the ceiling of the temple and decorated its apse with stained glass windows. In the 10th century, a chapel dedicated to St. Thomas was added to the basilica.

During the XIV century, Rome lost its privilege to be considered the center of Christianity because the pontificate moved to French Avignon

In the same century, the cathedral was fired twice. Also, upon the return of the papal authority to Rome, the Vatican was elected the new residence. The old building of the temple was almost destroyed and its restoration in the 15th century was started by Pope Martin V. In the following decade, during the construction work, most of the Romanesque columns were demolished to give way to the early Baroque style. In the 16th century, the dome of the baptistery acquired an octagonal form, which we can see nowadays.

san giovanni in laterano

During its existence, the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist had undergone many changes. The exterior of the building shows inclusions of Romanesque style, classicism, and baroque. The basilica was restored repeatedly, most notably by Borromini in the 17th century, and by Alessandro Galilei in 1735, when he added a huge white façade. Additionally, the engineer and architect Domenico Fontana decorated the facade of the church with sculptures of the apostles. Then, Francesco Borromini rebuilt the nave and passages of the basilica in the baroque style. Moreover, magnificent bronze doors were taken from the Roman forum and they still serve as the main entrance to the temple.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, the temple went through several restorations to preserve the historical appearance. By 2000th anniversary of the basilica, the Holy Doors, created by Floriano Bodini, were opened.

san giovanni in laterano

Interior

The Basilica of Saint John in Lateran fascinates because of the beauty of its interior. The most valuable mosaics from the times of the Emperor Constantine were preserved in the apse of the temple. Moreover, early Christian martyrs with scrolls in their hands, as well as the face of Jesus towering over them, are executed in Byzantine manner. In the 13th century, the mosaics were restored by Giacomo Torriti. The master added the symbols of the Order of the Franciscans to the ancient drawings. Precious porphyry columns and bright Byzantine mosaics serve as solemn decorations for the preaching of the pontiffs. The central altar of the temple contains the ancient Christian relics – the heads of the apostles Peter and Paul.

The nave of the temple impresses with its rich decoration. Mosaic floors are dotted with contrasting circles and squares, which is characteristic of Cosmatheco style. Columns of the nave lined with Numidian marble. Also, white plates are decorated with decorative carvings and emblems of the pontiffs. In the nave of San Giovanni in Laterano, you can see a partially preserved fresco depicting Pope Boniface III. The author of this skillful work is Giotto di Bondone.

san giovanni in laterano

Capella di S. Maria Assunta appeared in the 18th century to accommodate the tomb of Cardinal Giulio Aquavia, who died in the 16th century. Another chapel is dedicated to the martyr San Giovanni Nepomuceno and was created in the 19th century.

The Massimo Chapel was designed by the architect Giacomo della Porta in the 16th century. The main relic of the chapel is the painting “The Crucifixion of Jesus Christ”. There is a chapel, consecrated in honor of John the Theologian. Moreover, there is the tomb of the Portuguese Cardinal Antonio Martinez de Chavez, who died in the 15th century.

Museum

There is a museum in the temple in which you can see the sacred relics of the 11th-19th centuries. The most valuable exhibits of the museum are: the casket with the cloak of John the Theologian, the precious cross of the 13th century, the relics of the Great Martyr Catherine, and many other masterpieces. The museum was created by Pope John Paul II in 1984. The door to the exhibition is behind the statue of Innocent III.

Interesting facts

  1. Above the entrance to the cathedral there is an inscription “the mother of all churches in Rome and the world”. Thus, the pontificate noted the highest importance of the temple
  2. Annually, on November 9, Catholics celebrate the consecration of the Lateran Basilica
  3. In the walls of the basilica of Saint John in Lateran, six Roman popes are buried: Sergius IV, Alexander III, Innocent III, Martin V, Clement XII, and Leo XIII
  4. Nearby the cathedral, there is an ancient Egyptian obelisk made of red granite. It was brought in the 4th century A.D. from the Egyptian temple of Pharaoh Thutmose III, located in Karnak

Location and working hours

The cathedral located on Piazza di San Giovanni in Laterano.

Take the metro to San Giovanni station or take bus No. 116, 81, 85, 87, 810, 16

  • The Lutheran Basilica is open daily from 7 am to 6.30 pm
  • The Sacristy is from 8 am to pm and from 4 pm to 6 pm
  • The Baptistery is open from 7 am to 12:30 pm and from 4 pm to 7 pm
  • The museum is open from 10 am to 5.30 pm
  • Official website: www.vatican.va
  • Virtual Tour: www.vatican.va
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Author: Yekaterina Zusmann

Yekaterina Zusmann
For the last five years I live in Rome, Italy. Recently, I've graduated from the American university of John Cabot with major in communication and minor in entrepreneurship. I have a passion for writing, traveling, and exploring new things.