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Archbasilica of St. John Lateran


Archbasilica of St. John Lateran

Archbasilica of the Most Holy Saviour and Saints John the Baptist and the Evangelist at the Lateran
Archibasilica Sanctissimi Salvatoris et Sanctorum Iohannes Baptistae et Evangelistae in Laterano (Latin)
Omnium Urbis et Orbis Ecclesiarum Mater et Caput
Façade of the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran
Basic information
Location Rome, Italy[1]
Geographic coordinates
Affiliation Roman Catholic
Rite Latin Rite
Province Rome
Year consecrated 324 A.D.
Ecclesiastical or organizational status Major basilica
Leadership Cardinal Agostino Vallini
Website Official Website
Architectural description
Architect(s) Alessandro Galilei
Architectural type Cathedral
Architectural style Baroque
Direction of façade ENE
Groundbreaking 4th century
Length 140 metres (460 ft)
Width 140 metres (460 ft)
Width (nave) 65 metres (213 ft)
Materials marble, granite, cement

The Papal Archbasilica of St. John Lateran (Italian: Arcibasilica Papale di San Giovanni in Laterano), commonly known as St. John Lateran's Archbasilica, St. John Lateran's Basilica, and just The Lateran Basilica, is the cathedral church of the Diocese of Rome and the official ecclesiastical seat of the Bishop of Rome, who is the Pope.

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), and the oldest church in the West.[2][3] It claims the title of ecumenical mother church among Roman Catholics. The current archpriest is Agostino Vallini, Cardinal Vicar General for the Diocese of Rome.[4] The President of the French Republic, currently François Hollande, is ex officio the "first and only honorary canon" of the basilica, a title held by the heads of the French state since King Henry IV of France.

The large inscription on the façade reads, Clemens XII Pont Max Anno V Christo Salvatori In Hon SS Ioan Bapt et Evang, a highly abbreviated Latin inscription meaning "Pope Clement XII, in the fifth year of his reign, dedicated this building to Christ the Savior, in honor of Saints John the Baptist and Evangelist";[5] this is because the cathedrals of all patriarchs are dedicated to Christ himself. As the cathedral of the Bishop of Rome, it ranks above all other churches in the Catholic Church, including St. Peter's Basilica. For that reason, unlike all other Roman Basilicas, it holds the title of Archbasilica.

The archbasilica is located outside of the boundaries of Vatican City proper, although within the city of Rome. However, it enjoys extraterritorial status as one of the properties of the Holy See. This is also the case with several other buildings, following the resolution of the Roman Question with the signing of the Lateran Treaty.


  • Etymology 1
  • Lateran Palace 2
  • The Middle Ages 3
    • Lateran fires 3.1
  • Reconstruction 4
  • Architectural history 5
  • Lateran Apostles 6
  • Papal tombs 7
  • Lateran cloister 8
  • Lateran baptistry 9
  • Holy Steps 10
  • Feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica 11
  • Archpriests of the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran 12
  • Gallery 13
  • See also 14
  • Notes and references 15
  • External links 16


Next to the formal entrance is the Archbasilica's claim to be the head Mother Church in the entire world. Note the Laurel wreath and the Papal Tiara.

The archbasilica's 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 Saints John the Baptist and the Evangelist at the Lateran. In Italian, the basilica's name translates as Arcibasilica del Santissimo Salvatore e Santi Giovanni Battista ed Evangelista in Laterano.[4]

Lateran Palace

The archbasilica stands over the remains of the Castra Nova equitum singularium, the 'new fort' of the imperial cavalry bodyguard. The fort was established by Septimius Severus in AD 193. Following the victory of Constantine I over Maxentius (for whom the Equites singulares augusti had fought) at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, the guard were abolished and the fort demolished. Substantial remains of the fort lie directly beneath the nave.

The rest of the site was occupied during the early Roman Empire by the palace of the gens Laterani. Sextius Lateranus was the first plebeian to attain the rank of consul, and the Laterani served as administrators for several emperors. One of the Laterani, Consul-designate Plautius Lateranus, became famous for being accused by Nero of conspiracy against the emperor. The accusation resulted in the confiscation and redistribution of his properties.

The Lateran Palace fell into the hands of the emperor when Constantine I married his second wife Fausta, sister of Maxentius. Known by that time as the "Domus Faustae" or "House of Fausta," the Lateran Palace was eventually given to the Bishop of Rome by Constantine. The actual date of the gift is unknown but scholars believe it had to have been during the pontificate of Pope Miltiades, in time to host a synod of bishops in 313 that was convened to challenge the Donatist schism, declaring Donatism as heresy. The palace basilica was converted and extended, becoming the residence of Pope St. Silvester I, eventually becoming the cathedral of Rome, the seat of the popes as bishops of Rome.[6]

The Middle Ages

The Papal cathedra, which makes this basilica the cathedral of Rome, is located in the apse. The decorations are in cosmatesque style.
14th-century Gothic baldacchino

The official dedication of the Basilica and the adjacent Lateran Palace was presided over by Pope Sylvester I in 324, declaring both to be Domus Dei or "House of God." In its interior, the Papal Throne was placed, making it the Cathedral of the Bishop of Rome. In reflection of the basilica's claim to primacy in the world as "mother church", the words Sacrosancta Lateranensis ecclesia omnium urbis et orbis ecclesiarum mater et caput (meaning "Most Holy Lateran Church, of all the churches in the city and the world, the mother and head") are incised in the front wall between the main entrance doors.

The Lateran Palace and basilica have been rededicated twice. Pope Sergius III dedicated them to Saint John the Baptist in the 10th century in honor of the newly consecrated baptistry of the Basilica. Pope Lucius II dedicated the Lateran Palace and basilica to Saint John the Evangelist in the 12th century. However, St. John Baptist and St. John the Evangelist are regarded as co-patrons of the Cathedral, the chief patron being Christ the Saviour himself, as the inscription in the entrance of the Basilica indicates, and as is tradition in the patriarchal cathedrals.

Thus, the Basilica remains dedicated to the Saviour, and its titular feast is the Transfiguration. That is why sometimes the Basilica will be referred to by the full title of Archbasilica of the Most Holy Saviour and of Sts. John Baptist and John Evangelist in the Lateran. The church became the most important shrine in honor of the two saints, not often jointly venerated. In later years, a Benedictine monastery was established at the Lateran Palace, devoted to serving the basilica as a devotional to the two saints.

Every pope from Miltiades occupied the Lateran Palace until the reign of the French Pope Clement V, who in 1309 decided to transfer the official seat of the Catholic Church to Avignon, a papal fief that was an enclave within France. The Lateran Palace has also been the site of five Ecumenical councils. See Lateran councils.

Lateran fires

During the Avignon papacy, the Lateran Palace and the basilica began to decline. Two destructive fires ravaged the Lateran Palace and the basilica, in 1307 and 1361. In both cases, the Avignon papacy sent money to their bishops in Rome to cover the costs of reconstruction and maintenance. Despite those actions the Lateran Palace and the basilica lost their former splendor.

When the Avignon papacy formally ended and the Pope again resided in Rome, the Lateran Palace and the basilica were deemed inadequate considering the accumulated damage. The popes took up residency at the Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere and later at the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore. Eventually, the Palace of the Vatican was built (adjacent to the Basilica of St. Peter, that already existed at the Vatican since the time of Constantine), and the papacy moved in; the papacy remains there today.


There were several attempts at reconstruction of the basilica before Pope Sixtus V's definitive project. Sixtus hired his favorite architect Domenico Fontana to oversee much of the project. The original Lateran Palace was torn down and replaced with a new building. On the square in front of the Lateran Palace is the largest standing obelisk in the world, known as the Lateran Obelisk (weight estimated at 455 tons). It was commissioned by pharaoh Thutmose III and erected by Thutmose IV before the great Karnak temple of Thebes, Egypt.

Intended by Constantine I to be shipped to Constantinople, the very preoccupied Constantius II had it shipped instead to Rome, where it was re-erected in the Circus Maximus in 357. At some time it broke and was buried under the Circus. In the 16th century it was located and dug up, and Sixtus V had it re-erected on a new pedestal on August 3, 1588 on its present site.[7][8][9]

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. More than 23 architects competed, mostly working in the current Baroque idiom. 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, which reads, Clemens XII Pont Max Anno V Christo Salvatori In Hon SS Ioan Bapt et Evang, and is a highly abbreviated Latin inscription; when expanded, it reads, Clemens XII, Pont[ifex] Max[imus], [in] Anno V, [dedicavit hoc aedificium] Christo Salvatori, in hon[orem] [sanctorum] Ioan[is] Bapt[tistae] et Evang[elistae]. This means, "Pope Clement XII, in the fifth year of his reign, dedicated this building to Christ the Savior, in honor of Saint John the Baptist and Evangelist".[5] Galilei's façade 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 is not ancient, but some portions of the original mosaics may 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.

Holy Door at the Lateran Papal Basilica
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.

In 897, it was almost totally destroyed by an earthquake—ab altari usque ad portas cecidit ("it collapsed from the altar to the doors"). The damage was 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. It was burned down once more in 1360, and was rebuilt by Pope Urban V.

Through 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.

In 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 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 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.

Lateran Apostles

The twelve niches created by Borromini's architecture were left empty for decades. When late in 1702 Pope Clement XI and Benedetto Cardinal Pamphili, archpriests of the Lateran Basilica, announced their grand scheme for twelve over life-size sculptures of the Apostles to fill the niches, the project was open to all the premier sculptors of late baroque Rome.[10] Each statue was to be sponsored by an illustrious prince with the pope himself taking on Saint Peter and Pamphili John the Evangelist. Most sculptors were provided with a sketch by Clement's favourite painter, Carlo Maratta, which they were to follow, the notable exception being Pierre Le Gros who successfully refused to work to Maratta's design and wasn't given a sketch.[11]

The sculptors and their sculptures (dates according to Conforti):

Paul (1704-08)
Peter (1704-11)
  • Francesco Moratti
Simon the Zealot (1704-09)
Judas Thaddeus (1704-09)
Philip (1705-11)
Thomas (1705-11)
Bartholomew (c. 1705-12)
James the Less (1705-11)
Andrew (1705-09)
John the Evangelist (1705-11)
Matthew the Evangelist (1711-15)
James the Greater (1715-18)

Papal tombs

The Helena sarcophagus, reused by Anastasius IV, the only tomb to survive the Lateran fires (currently in the Vatican Museums)

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 last of these 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 Vincenzo Santucci and Carlo Colonna are also buried in this church.

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.

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. 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".

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.

Feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica

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 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 Archbasilica of St. John Lateran

The post of archpriest was created by Pope Boniface VIII ca. 1299.[12]

List of archpriests of the Lateran Basilica:[13]


See also

Notes and references

  1. ^ The archbasilica, which is owned by the Holy See (article 13 of the Lateran Treaty), "form(s) part of the territory of the Italian State (but) enjoy(s) the immunities granted by International Law to the headquarters of the diplomatic agents of foreign States" (article 15 of the Lateran Treaty).
  2. ^ "San Giovanni in Laterano" (in Italian). Retrieved November 8, 2014. 
  3. ^ Benedict XVI's theological act of renouncing the title of "Patriarch of the West" had as consequence that Roman Catholic patriarchal basilicas are today officially known as papal basilicas.
  4. ^ a b "Basilica papale" (in Italian). Vicariatus Urbis — Portal of the Diocese of Rome. Retrieved 2013-11-07. 
  5. ^ a b Landsford, Tyler (2009). The Latin Inscriptions of Rome: A Walking Guide. JHU Press. Retrieved October 21, 2014. 
  6. ^ "Arcibasilica papale San Giovanni in Laterano - Cenni storici" (in Italian). The Holy See Website. Retrieved 2013-11-07. 
  7. ^ Fanny Davenport, Rogers MacVeagh, Fountains of papal Rome. C. Scribner's sons, 1915, p.156ff.
  8. ^ Lunde, Paul (March–April 1979). "A Forest of Obelisks". Saudi Aramco World (Houston, Texas: Aramco Services Company). pp. 28–32. Retrieved 2013-11-07. 
  9. ^ A World of Obelisks-RomePBS:NOVA:
  10. ^ "The largest sculptural task in Rome during the early eighteenth century," according to Rudolph Wittkower (Art and Architecture in Italy, 1600–1750, rev. ed. 1965:290); "the distribution for commissions is, at the same time, a good yardstick for measuring the reputation of contemporary sculptors."
  11. ^ cf. Michael Conforti, The Lateran Apostles, unpublished Ph.D. thesis, Harvard University, 1977; Conforti published a short resume of his dissertation: Planning the Lateran Apostles, in: Henry A. Millon (Ed.), Studies in Italian Art and Architecture 15th through 18th Centuries, Rome 1980 (Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome 35), pp. 243-260.
  12. ^ Moroni, Gaetano (1840–61). Dizionario di erudizione storico–ecclesiastica da S. Pietro sino ai nostri giorni (in Italian) XII. Venezia: Tipografia Emiliana. p. 31. 
  13. ^ Respective biographic entries in "Essay of a General List of Cardinals". The Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church. .
  • Claussen, Peter C.; Senekovic, Darko (2008). S. Giovanni in Laterano. Mit einem Beitrag von Darko Senekovic über S. Giovanni in Fonte (Corpus cosmatorum II, 2). Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag.  
  • Webb, Matilda (2001). The Churches and Catacombs of Early Christian Rome. Brighton: Sussex Academic Press. p. 41.  
  • Lenski, Noel (2006). The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Constantine. Cambridge:  
  • Stato della Città del Vaticano (2009). "Arcibasilica Papale Di San Giovanni In Laterano" (in Italian). Holy See. Retrieved 24 October 2010. 

External links

  • Media related to at Wikimedia Commons
  • High-resolution virtual tour of St. John Lateran, from the Vatican.
  • Satellite Photo of St. John Lateran
  • Constantine's obelisk
  • San Giovanni in Laterano
  • The Vatican: spirit and art of Christian Rome, a book from The Metropolitan Museum of Art Libraries (fully available online as PDF), which contains material on the Archbasilica
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