St. John Lateran Basilica, Rome’s cathedral

Rome, Italy

The Basilica of St. John Lateran (San Giovanni in Laterano) was founded in the 4th century on the former property of the Laterani family by Emperor Constantine, who donated it to Pope Melchiades (or Miltiade). Looted by the Vandals, damaged by earthquakes and fires, it has undergone many alterations over the course of history. The Cathedral of Rome, i.e. the seat of the city’s bishop, a title that belongs to the pope, owes its current appearance to the extensive work undertaken in the 17th century.

St. John Lateran has witnessed many historic events in its long history: Charlemagne was baptized here in 774, several great councils were held here, all the popes were enthroned here until the 19th century, and in 1929 Mussolini signed the so-called Lateran Accords, which normalized relations between the Church and the Italian state. For so much glory, it had to be magnificent. Time and disasters often changed its appearance, which nevertheless remained true to the Baroque period.

Its travertine facade, with portico and loggia, is the work of Alessandro Galilei (1735). The fifteen monumental statues (7 m high) crowning it can be seen from afar. Twelve male and female Doctors of the Church flank Jesus, St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist. The façade resembles that of St. Peter’s Basilica, designed by Carlo Maderno, but here the bays are larger, accentuating the contrast between full and hollow.

The five doors in the barrel-vaulted portico give access to the five naves of the building. The bronze leaves of the central door, installed in 1660, come from the Curia in the Roman Forum. The Holy Door, on the right, is only opened every 25 years for the Holy Year, as in St. Peter’s.

Let’s enter the Basilica of St John Lateran!

The interior, rather cold with the exception of the transept, betrays nothing of the age of the place. It nevertheless exudes a certain grandeur. It must be said that the popes were crowned here until 1870, when Papal Rome ceased to be an independent state and became the capital of the new Kingdom of Italy.

Pope Innocent X commissioned Francesco Borromini to redesign the basilica for the Holy Year of 1650. The great Baroque architect created twelve niches on either side of the main nave to house statues of the apostles. Without even looking at the inscriptions, you can recognise the figures by their symbols (the purse of Saint Matthew, former tax collector, or the knife of Saint Bartholomew, flayed alive…).

From an artistic point of view, Matthew, James the Greater, Andrew and John, sculpted by Camillo Rusconi, are the most interesting. In order to preserve a memory of the original basilica, Borromini incorporated a number of medieval elements of his own choosing into the Baroque setting. He also created funerary monuments leaning against the pillars of the aisles. The cosmatesque paving in the central nave dates back to the pontificate of Martin V (1417-1431), whose bronze tomb, attributed to Donatello’s brother, is hidden in the confessio or confession (a small crypt housing an altar).

The transept was renovated at the end of the 16th century by Giacomo della Porta and the Mannerist frescoes (Baptism of Constantine and Foundation of the Basilica) executed under the direction of Giuseppe Cesari, known as the Cavaliere d’Arpino, author of the Ascenscion that surmounts the altar at the end of the left transept.

Above the high altar reserved for the Pope, the superb Gothic baldachin decorated with paintings dates from 1367. At the top, two reliquary busts hold the skulls of Saints Peter and Paul, founders of the Roman Church. The mosaic in the apse, which was extensively redone in the 13th century, includes fragments from the 4th century. The small figure kneeling at the foot of the Virgin represents Pope Nicholas IV, who commissioned the restoration work. The two tiny figures among the apostles are the mosaicists Jacopo Torriti and Jacopo da Camerino.

Practical info

  • Basilica visited on April 26, 2010
  • Open daily until 6.30pm
  • Transport: Rome, Metro A, San Giovanni
  • Tour duration: 30 minutes

Photo gallery

The Basilica of St John Lateran

Saint-Jean-de-Latran, basilique majeure de Rome

Basilica apse

Abside basilique Saint-Jean-de-Latran

Painting in St. John Lateran

Peinture basilique Saint-Jean-de-Latran

” The pediment of the Basilica of St John Lateran reads “omnium urbis et orbis ecclesiarum mater et caput”, mother and head of all the churches in the city and the world. “

The door on the left just before the transept leads to the cloister and its small museum. Built between 1215 and 1223 by the master cosmate Pietro Vassalletto and his son, it is made up of twisted columns and features a mosaic frieze on the garden side. Elements from the original basilica, including perhaps an old example of a papal throne, decorate the walls.

Leaving the building through the side door in the right transept, you reach the Piazza San Giovanni in Laterano, with the city’s oldest and tallest Egyptian obelisk opposite. To the left is the Baptistery, and to the right the Lateran Palace. The double brick arch on the other side of the square is part of the aqueduct that fed Nero’s Domus Aurea.

From the Baptistery to the Lateran Palace

As you cross the street, you’ll enjoy an excellent view of the entire Lateran. The side façade of the basilica features a porch surmounted by a loggia, designed by Domenico Fontana in 1586. The two 13th-century bell towers can be seen above.

The Constantinian-era baptistry (Battistero) was built on an earlier structure belonging to an imperial residence. In the early days of Christianity, only the pope could baptize new believers, and the ceremony took place here, usually at Easter.

Although it has been remodeled several times, the building has retained its 4th-century octagonal shape. Inside, eight porphyry columns support an entablature on which rest eight white marble columns. The central baptismal font is in green basalt. The 17th-century frescoes on the walls depict episodes from Constantine’s life, while the medallions show views of Roman churches associated with the emperor.

The Capella di San Venanzio boasts admirable 7th-century Byzantine mosaics, partly concealed by the altar. The most remarkable, however, are in the chapel opposite the door (Cappella delle Sante Ruffina e Seconda), which until the 12th century was the narthex of the baptistery. Their antique motifs – acanthus or vine leaves on a blue background – testify to the absence of a specifically Christian iconography in the 5th century.

The Lateran Palace (Palazzo Lateranense), the work of Domenico Fontana, replaced the former papal residence ravaged by fire in 1586. The architect preserved the pontiffs’ private chapel (Santa Sanctorum), transferring it to a building across the street. Because of its numerous relics, this sanctuary was considered in the Middle Ages to be the Holy of Holies, following the example of Jerusalem.

Renovated in the 13th century, it’s a marvel of cosmatesque art that you can unfortunately only admire through grilles. Above the altar is an icon of Christ known as an acherotipa, because it was not painted by human hands: St. Luke is said to have begun the work, but an angel completed it. On the walls, 13th-century frescoes were uncovered and carefully restored a few years ago. Medieval art historians consider them a priceless discovery.

The Holy Staircase (Scala Santa), taken from Pontius Pilate’s palace in Jerusalem, is said to have been climbed by Jesus. Its 28 wood-covered marble steps lead up to the Sancta Sanctorum. Even today, the faithful climb them on their knees as a form of penance, but there are side staircases for the less fervent.

Plan de la basilique Saint-Jean-de-Latran

Vue générale 360°

Galerie Photos

La nef et l’autel papal

La nef et l'autel papal de la basilique


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