Welcome to the great Basilica of St. John
Lateran. This is the oldest of Rome’s four major basilicas and, unknown to many, the
cathedral of the Church of Rome. It is thus the official seat of the Pope and holds the
title of “Mother church of the whole world” among Catholics. It ranks above all other
churches in the Roman Catholic Church – even above St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.
The cathedral has an impressive history. In ancient Roman times, this site was occupied
by a mansion belonging to the rich Laterani family. This is the reason why you can find
the word “Lateran” in the church name. The mansion was later confiscated by Emperor Nero
after a leading Laterani member had been accused of conspiracy against the emperor. With this,
the palace lost much of its old functions. The site became instead militarized when imperial
cavalry barracks and a fort were built on the site.
The history of the cathedral itself starts some hundred years later when the first Christian
emperor, Constantine the 1st, acquired the old palace through a marriage. The emperor
chose to give the Lateran palace to the Roman Church as a gift. Following this, the small
palace basilica was converted and enlarged and became the official residence of the Pope.
The Basilica and the adjacent Lateran Palace was officially dedicated by Pope Sylvester
in year 324 in which he declared it to be “Domus Dei” — “The house of God”. In its
interior, the Papal Throne was placed which marked it as the Cathedral of Rome. Emperor
Constantine also made sure that the interior was richly decorated. It included seven silver
altars, more than 100 chandeliers and a gold covered apse vault.
The Lateran Palace and the cathedral have been rededicated twice. The first time was
in the 10th century when it was dedicated to Saint John the Baptist in honor of the
newly consecrated baptistery. The second time was in the 12th century, when it was dedicated
to Saint John the Evangelist. These two saints are however only regarded as co-patrons of
the cathedral – the chief patron is Christ the Savior himself.
The Lateran palace and the cathedral began to decline somewhat during the Avignon papacy.
This was a period when the papal residence was moved to Avignon in France, under the
lead of the French Pope Clement the 5th. During this period, two destructive fires ravaged
the Lateran Palace and the cathedral which left them both in bad shape. With this, the
buildings lost their former splendor, despite the fact that the Avignon papacy sent money
to cover the costs of reconstruction and maintenance. When the Avignon papacy formally ended and
the Pope once again resided in Rome, the Lateran Palace and the basilica were deemed inadequate
considering the accumulated damage from the fires. Due to this, they constructed the Palace
of the Vatican adjacent to the already existing St. Peter’s Basilica. This became the new
papal residence and has been ever since. Even though the site was no longer the residence
of the pope, it was not left without attention. The man who finally invested in the cathedral
was Pope Sixtus the 5th — the man responsible for the urban re-planning of Rome in the 16th
century. Sixtus chose not to restore the cathedral. Instead he chose to tear it down and build
a whole new structure on the site — the cathedral you can see today.
However, some parts of today’s cathedral don’t date back to the Pope’s reconstruction. Several
statues of the apostles were added to the cathedral interior during the 18th century.
The 18th century also included a major renovation, including the addition of the new façade.
This façade was completed in 1735 and is the one you have in front of you right now.
The architect, Alessandro Galilei, removed all vestiges of traditional ancient basilica
architecture and designed it in a neo-classical style.
This façade is probably the most known part of the building. If you look at the top, you
will see several large statues. The center statue depicts Christ himself while the other
statues represent several other saints, including the two co-patrons of the cathedral. Below
the statues you will see a long, latin inscription. The inscription says;
“Clement the 12th, Supreme Pontiff, in his fifth year, to Christ the Savior in honor
of Saints John the Baptist and Evangalist.” The reference to Pope Clement the 12th clarifies
that it was under his command that this new façade was built. Another impressive feature
of the façade is the massive bronze doors. These doors are significantly older than the
façade itself, as they are taken from the Senate Hall in the Roman Forum.
The palace and cathedral also houses one of the largest ancient obelisks in the world;
the Lateran Obelisk. This Egyptian obelisk’s original location was at the great Karnak
Temple in Egypt, but it was shipped to Constantinople and later Rome. Once in Rome, it was re-erected
at Circus Maximus. During the urban re-planning of Rome, Pope Sixtus the 5th located and dug
up the obelisk and placed it at its current site. You can find it in front of the northern
façade. The inside of the cathedral is a joy to behold.
You will not only see the great 18th century statues of the apostles, but several other
decorations and pieces of art. The cathedral houses several papal tombs, as well as the
Papal cathedra — located in the apse. One should not forget to also visit the adjacent
cloister and Baptist buildings. In the cloister you can admire the spiral marble columns and
the Cosmatesque mosaics. The Baptist building was the first baptistery in Rome, converted
from an earlier Roman Temple. The baptistery has a rich inside and is definitely worth
a visit. Today, this world cathedral is one of Rome’s
most important buildings. Hundreds of thousands of visitors travel to the cathedral each year
to discover its beauty.