The Catholic Defender: November 9 is St. John Lateran Basilica
Welcome to the “Mother of all the churches in Rome and in the world”. St. John is not only one of the four Archbasilicas in Rome, but it’s actually the oldest and part of the Seven Churches pilgrimage route. St. John is actually the oldest among the other papal basilicas, which are Santa Maria Maggiore (St. Mary Major), St. Paul Outside the Walls, and St. Peter’s.
The church’s history dates back to early Christianity and, together with the Cloistery, the Baptistery, the Holy Steps (Scala Santa) and its Sancta Sanctorum chapel, forms a complex of remarkable interest. If you love sacred art, if you are a pilgrim, or simply if you want to be overwhelmed by some of the most stunning examples of the celebration of a religion, you are in the right place. It’s interesting to note that the church, and the rest of the complex, are on Italian territory, but the Vatican has complete jurisdiction on the buildings, which also include the Lateran Papal University and the Major Seminary.
Also, this is the church where the Pope lived up to the XIV century, and where he used to be crowned at the beginning of its mandate. After the fall of the Papal State, in 1870, this custom was abandoned and the ceremony takes place in the Vatican City.
In the first century AD, the land where the church stands today was owned by a noble Roman family, called Laterani, so that’s where the name of the whole complex comes from. The land was expropriated by Nero, so it became part of the Emperor’s estate. Just before he became emperor, Constantine was already married to Fausta, who owned the land and palace above it. Fausta also happened to be the sister of the emperor Massenzio, which was considered an usurper to the throne.
In 312, Constantine had a vision of a cross, together with the message “in hoc signo vinces” (“under this sign, you will win”). That’s when he decided to paint a cross on his soldiers’ shields and armors, and confronted Massenzio in the battle of Ponte Milvio. Constantine won, became emperor, and as a sign of gratitude, donated the whole Laterani land to the Church. Shortly after, a church was erected here, and it became the official residence of the pope. Legend says, that just after his conversion to the Christian religion, Constantine himself, with a pickaxe, started to dig on the site chosen to build the church and carried on his shoulders several loads of earth.
The first church already had a massive structure and received constant donations by the emperors. During the Barbarian invasion, it was sacked at least twice and declined, as the rest of the city. It was brought back to its original splendor in the middle of the VIII century, and it has been the place where Charlemagne was baptized. Here, in 896, the mummy of the deceased pope Formoso was brought to one of the halls and put under trial by his successor, Stefano VI, who claimed he was an usurper to the Papal throne. Found guilty, the poor Formoso was then stripped of his garments, the three fingers of his right hand, used to consecrate the body of Christ during mass, were chopped off, and his body was dragged around town and thrown into the river Tiber. The year after, a terrible earthquake shook the church, destroying the roof and completely damaging its structure. This was viewed as a punishment of God against the awful behavior of Stefano.
Shortly after, a second church was erected, later destroyed by a fire. The third one was originally built in 1300, but in the following couple of centuries was damaged by another earthquake, a fire and even the army of the King of Naples. In 1377, the pope decided to leave St. John. St. Peter’s and its adjacent buildings became the official papal residency.
The fourth church, which is the one standing in front of you today, was erected between 1660 and 1730, and it was designed by Francesco Borromini, one of the main architects of Rome and the creator of a unique Baroque style, rich in decorations, but at the same time extremely rigorous in balancing architectural shapes and spaces. Even if he was partially forced by the presence of a preexisting structure, Borromini showed all his skills, by completely reshaping the interior, with a wise use of natural light and perspective effects.
One of the last renovation projects, in the XX century, was never carried out because of the outstanding costs, and it involved a partial (and almost visionary) relocation of the building. One of the last interventions was made by the will of Pope Leone XIII: in the last years of the XIX century, the ancient apse was demolished to create a new one.
The central doors of the main entrance are in bronze and they come from the Roman Senate building that originally stood in the Roman Forum. Before you actually walk in, look up, and you’ll see an inscription: “Christo Salvatori”. In fact, the church is also dedicated to Christ the Saviour. There is a seven meter tall statue of Jesus, with the saints and Doctors of the Church at his side.
St. John has five large naves, divided by a long line of huge columns. In the apse, there is a stunning golden mosaic (dated IV-VI century). In the central nave, which was completely re-designed by Borromini, covering the old columns, there are the niches with statues of saints and apostles. Above them there are paintings inspired by the New and Old Testament, which are modeled on the one already present during the Imperial era. Generally speaking, most of the symbology used in these and other paintings in the church reflects the ancient mysteries of the Paleo-christian tradition, such as the doves holding an olive branch, crossed palms and chandeliers decorated with laurel.
On the sides, the smaller naves and chapels are of different shapes and dimensions, reflecting the various times and artistic tastes in which they were built. It’s important to note that the sacred value of the place, apart from its art masterpieces, is extremely relevant, as preserved here are some of the most treasured relics, such as the heads of St. Peter and St. Paul, which are in the Gothic canopy just above the main altar. Under the tabernacle there is the ancient wooden altar which was possibly used by the early popes.
As this is an archbasilica, it means that only the pope himself can celebrate mass on the church’s main altar. Above the left-hand transept you’ll see the Altar of the Sacrament. Its origin is uncertain, but it’s either been shipped from Jerusalem or it is an adaptation of the one which once stood in the magnificent (but pagan) Capitoline Jupiter temple. One of the most evocative relics is definitely the wood fragment, situated in the tympanum, which belongs to the table where Jesus had the Last Supper with the apostles.
Opposite the St. John Lateran is the entrance to the Scala Santa, which translates to “Holy Steps”. According to legend, these 28 marble steps were the stairs wherein Jesus climbed to Pontius Pilate’s office during his trial. The stairs were supposedly brought to Rome by St. Helena, the mother of Constantine. Originally, and up to 1589, they were placed in the nearby Lateran Palace, but then relocated to a separate building, at the right hand side of the main entrance of St. John. The laying of the steps was made starting from the top, so that the masonry workers didn’t have to place their feet on the holy steps while doing the job. Today, pilgrims climb up the stairs strictly on their knees only, praying and asking for grace.
Later on, the steps were covered with walnut plates to avoid further wear, and the walls around it were richly decorated with frescoes. The stairs will lead you to a thick glass, from which you will be able to see the Sancta Sanctorum (Holy of Holies), a personal chapel of the early Popes in the Lateran Palace, also known as the chapel of St. Lawrence, and considered one of the most sacred places of Christianity.
Inside the chapel, which has been adorned and restored by many popes, there is a real treasure of relics, together with an ancient image of the Jesus the Saviour holding the New Testament. The image is known as the Acheropìta (not created by mankind). The fresco, which is protected by a silver and gold covering, was already highly venerated since the VIII century AD, and its origin is actually unknown.