Basilica of St. John Lateran
Lateran Palace
Holy Steps
Lateran cloister
Lateran baptistry
Papal Tombs
Twelve Apostles
Roman Catholic liturgy
Archpriests of the Basilica of St. John Lateran
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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Basilica of St. John Lateran — in Italian, the Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano — is the cathedral of Rome and the official ecclesiastical seat of the Bishop of Rome, who is the Pope. Officially named Archibasilica Sanctissimi Salvatoris ("Archbasilica of the Most Holy Saviour"), it is the oldest and ranks first (being the cathedral of Rome) among the four major basilicas of Rome, and holds the title of ecumenical mother church (mother church of the whole inhabited world) among Roman Catholics. The current archpriest of St. John Lateran is Camillo Cardinal Ruini, Cardinal Vicar General for the Diocese of Rome.

An inscription on the façade, Christo Salvatore, dedicates the Lateran as Archbasilica of the Most Holy Saviour, for the cathedrals of all patriarchs are dedicated to Christ himself. As the cathedral of the Bishop of Rome, containing the papal throne (Cathedra Romana), it ranks above all other churches in the Roman Catholic Church, even above St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican.


Lateran Palace

The site on which the Basilica sits was occupied during the early Roman Empire by the palace of the gens Laterani. The Laterani served as administrators for several emperors; Sextius Lateranus was the first plebeian to attain the rank of consul. 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 square in front of the Lateran Palace has an obelisk built by Pharaoh Tuthmosis III in Karnak, and placed in the Circus Maximus before being re-erected in its current place.The Lateran Palace fell into the hands of the empire 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, eventually becoming the cathedral of Rome, the seat of the popes as bishops of Rome.

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 primacy in the world as mother church, the words Sacrosancta Lateranensis ecclesia omnium urbis et orbis ecclesiarum mater et caput are incised in the main door, meaning "Most Holy Lateran Church, of all the churches in the city and the world, the mother and head."

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 patriachal 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 (but see Peruzzi Chapel, Santa Croce, Florence). 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. 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 again in 1361. In both cases, the Avignon papacy sent money to their bishops in Rome to cover the costs of reconstruction and maintenance. Despite the action, the Lateran Palace and the basilica lost their former splendor.

When the Avignon papacy formally ended and the Bishop of Rome 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 constructed, and the papacy moved in; the papacy remains there today.

Pope Sixtus V tore down the original Lateran Palace and basilica and commissioned replacements. The rebuilt Lateran Palace and the Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano became separate entities. Today the Lateran Palace is home to the Pontifical Museum of Christian Antiquities.

The square in front of the Lateran Palace has a red granite obelisk, the largest in the world, erected by Thutmose III in Karnak. It was removed to Rome by Constantius II in 357 and re-erected in the Circus Maximus. Sixtus V had it re-erected in 1587 on its present site.

The Lateran Palace has also been the site of five Ecumenical councils.

The President of the French Republic is ex officio the "first and only honorary canon" of the basilica, a title inherited from the Kings of France who held it since Henri IV, and which theoretically allow him to ride in the basilica by horse.


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. Further renovation of the interior 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: Camillo Rusconi (Andrew, Matthew, James the Greater, John the Evangelist), Francesco Moratti (Simon), Angelo de' Rossi (James the Less), Giuseppe Mazzuoli (Philip), Lorenzo Ottoni (Thaddeus), and the Frenchmen Pierre-Étienne Monnot (Peter, Paul) and Pierre Le Gros the Younger (Bartholomew, Thomas).

The vision of Pope Clement XII for reconstruction was an ambitious one: he launched a competition to design a new façade. Over 23 architects, mostly working in the current Baroque idiom competed. 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. Galilei's façade however removed all vestiges of traditional ancient basilica architecture, and imparted a neo-classical facade.

The Papal cathedra, which makes this basilica the cathedral of Rome, is located in the apse. The decorations are in cosmatesque style.

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 (illustration, below left) is not ancient, but it is possible that some portions of the original mosaics 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.

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 eighteenth 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, but in 897 it was almost totally destroyed by an earthquake— ab altari usque ad portas cecidit "it collapsed from the altar to the doors"— damage 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 burnt in 1308. It was rebuilt by Pope Clement V and Pope John XXII, only to be burnt down once more in 1360, but again rebuilt by Pope Urban V.

Through these various 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 twelfth 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, but at 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 still 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 so utterly 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 fifth 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.

Holy Steps
Scala Sancta

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 fourth 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 Sactorum). Ferraù Fenzoni completed some of the frescoes on the walls.

The Scala Sancta or Holy Stairs (Italian: Scala Santa) is a Christian monument in Rome, Italy. It consists of twenty-eight white marble steps, now encased by wooden steps, located in a building which incorporates part of the old Lateran Palace, located opposite San Giovanni Laterano.

According to tradition, the staircases were part of the praetorium of Pilate in Jerusalem, hence were sanctified by the footsteps of Jesus Christ during his Passion. They are located next to a church which was built on ground brought from Mount Calvary, and now lead to what was the private chapel of the Lateran palace, known as the chapel of St. Lawrence or Sancta Sanctorum.

Medieval legends claim that the Holy Stairs were brought from Jerusalem to Rome about 326 by St. Helena, mother of Constantine the Great. In the Middle Ages, they were known as Scala Pilati (Stairs of Pilate). From old plans it can be gathered that they led to a corridor of the Lateran Palace, near the Chapel of St. Sylvester, were covered with a special roof. When Sixtus V in 1589 destroyed the then ruined old papal palace to rebuild a new one, he ordered the Holy Stairs be transferred to their present site, before the Sancta Sanctorum (Holy of Holies), which received its name from the many precious relics preserved there, including the celebrated icon of Santissimi Salvatore Acheiropoieton ("not made by human hands") which on certain occasions used to be carried through Rome in procession. These holy treasures, which since Leo X (1513-21) had not been seen by anybody, have recently been the object of dissertations by Grisar and Lauer.

In its new site, the Scala Sancta is encased in protective wood boards, and flanked by four other stairs, two on each side, for common use, since the Holy Stairs may only be ascended on the knees, a devotion much in favor with pilgrims and the faithful, especially on Fridays and in Lent.

Not a few popes are recorded to have performed this pious exercise; Pius IX, who in 1853 entrusted the Passionist Fathers with the care of the sanctuary, ascended the Holy Stairs on 19 September 1870, the eve of the entrance of the Piedmontese into Rome.

Pius VII on 2 September 1817 granted those who ascend the stairs in the prescribed manner an indulgence of nine years for every step. Finally Pius X, on 26 February 1908, granted a plenary indulgence to be gained as often as the stairs are devoutly ascended after confession and communion. Imitations of the Scala Sancta have been erected in various places, as in Lourdes and in some convents of nuns, and indulgences are attached to them by special concessions.

The decoration of the Scala Santa was one of the major refurbishment exercises of the papacy of Sixtus V, led by Cesare Nebbia and Giovanni Guerra and occupying a crew of artists to decorate frescoes including Giovanni Baglione, Giacomo Stella, Giovanni Battista Pozzo, Paris Nogari, Prospero Orsi, Ferraù Fenzoni, Paul Bril, Paulo Guidotti, Giovanni Battista Ricci, Cesaro Torelli, Antonio Vivarini, Andrea Lilio, Cesare & Vicenzo Conti Baldassare Croce, Ventura Salimbeni, and Antonio Scalvati. Numerous preliminary drawings by Nebbia exist for these frescoes, though it is not exactly known with certainty who painted which fresco.


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. This beautiful cloister dates to the early 13th century.

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. (He was actually baptised in the East, by an Arian bishop.) 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".

Papal Tombs

There are six 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) by Simone Ghini I ; Innocent III (right transept); and Leo XIII (left transept), by G. Tadolini (1907). The latter was the last pope not to be entombed in St. Peter's Basilica.

Twelve Apostles

One of the sculptures of the Twelve Apostles in the niches of the Basilica of St. John Lateran. It shows Matthew, the tax collector.The twelve niches created by Borromini's architecture went empty for decades till in 1703 when Pope Clement XI encouraged the completion of the decoration, by sponsoring a competition to select the designs for larger-than-life sculptures of the apostles. A committee established led by Carlo Fontana and Carlo Marratti, selected from among the most prominent late baroque sculptors in Rome, including:

Camillo Rusconi
James the Greater
John the Evangelist
Francesco Moratti
Angelo de' Rossi
James the Less
Giuseppe Mazzuoli
Lorenzo Ottoni
Pierre-Étienne Monnot
Pierre Le Gros the Younger

Roman Catholic liturgy

In the liturgical calendar of the Roman Catholic Church, November 9 is the feast of the Dedication of the Basilica of St. John Lateran, often referred to in older missals as the Dedication of the Basilica of St. Saviour (or the holy Saviour).

Archpriests of the Basilica of St. John Lateran

Francesco Saverio de Zelada (1781 – 1801)
Leonardo Cardinal Antonelli (1801 – 1811)
Bartolomeo Cardinal Pacca (1830 – 1844)
Benedetto Cardinal Colonna Barberini di Sciarra (28 April 1844 – 10 April 1863)
Lodovico Cardinal Altieri (1863 – 1867)
Costantino Cardinal Patrizi Naro (1867 – 1876)
Flavio Cardinal Chigi (24 December 1876 – 1885)
Raffaele Cardinal Monaco La Valetta (1885 – 1896)
Francesco Cardinal Satolli (16 December 1896 – 8 January 1910)
Pietro Cardinal Respighi (10 January 1910 – 22 March 1913)
Domenico Cardinal Ferrata (7 April 1913 – 10 October 1914)
Basilio Cardinal Pompilj (28 October 1914 – 5 May 1931)
Francesco Cardinal Marchetti-Selvaggiani (26 August 1931 – 13 January 1951)
Benedetto Aloisi Cardinal Masella (27 October 1954 – 30 August 1970)
Angelo Cardinal Dell'Acqua (7 October 1970 – 27 August 1972)
Ugo Cardinal Poletti (26 March 1973 – 17 January 1991)
Camillo Cardinal Ruini (17 January 1991 - present)

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Info and reservation:

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Tel. 06/ - Fax 06/

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