Treasures of the Church- Holy Sites

basilica of st. john lateran

The history of the Basilica is very complex. Due to the many earthquakes and fires it has suffered, the original construction has been rebuilt several times throughout the centuries. Pope Miltiades (311-314) is the one credited with it’s original design. The Basilica stands over the remains of the old fort of the "Equites Singulares", in a land belonging to the gens Laterani. This particular piece of property was given to the Pope by Emperor Constantine so that he could built Rome’s Cathedral on it. The Basilica was finished during the reign of Pope Sylvester I. He consecrated it in the year 324 AD. Originally, the Basilica was dedicated to the Savior. Later on it became known as the Basilica of the Johns. In the year 846, an earthquake destroyed it and it had to be rebuilt by Pope Sergius III. He dedicated it to Saint John the Baptist, (who with his character and word connects the Old and the New Testament). However, it was also dedicated in honor of the newly consecrated baptistery of the Basilica. In the XII century, Pope Lucius II also dedicated the Basilica to Saint John the Evangelist, who with his gospel gives witness of the life and word of the Lord. Therefore, the Lateran Palace and the Basilica have been rededicated twice. Thus, the Basilica remains dedicated to the Savior, and its titular feast is the Transfiguration.

Five ecumenical councils took place in this Basilica during the years 1123, 1139, 1179, 1215 and 1512. Saint John Lateran was the permanent residence of the Pope since Constantine until 1304, when the Pope escaped from the chaos reigning in the town and the Pope’s States. When the Popes returned to Rome in 1376, the Vatican was selected as the new permanent residence for the Pontificate.

On the Basilica’s facade, there are 15 statues, 7 meters high. The one in the center represents Christ, with Saint John the Baptist and Saint John the Evangelist on each side.

The other statues represent the Doctors of the Greek and Latin Churches. Those who have taught, explained, strengthen, and made us love the word of God. The Basilica of Saint John Lateran is the symbol of the same Church, which does not suggest her own words, but rather continues to propose the word of God in time and history, through the voice of its ministers and its faithful.

The Interior
There is very little left of the ancient Basilica, built by Emperor Constantine in the IV century. Today, whoever enters Saint John Lateran, will see the Basilica in its five naves with an ample crossing and a huge apse, restored in XIX, during the reign of Pope Leo XIII. The interior design and the interior architecture were completed in the XVI century by Francesco Borromini. It is interesting to note that what he imagined and embellished the Church to be, is precisely what it is today. The main nave, from the main entrance to the throne, towards the end of the apse measures 130 meters long and it is impressive because of the twelve niches of the statues of the Apostles. These niches were created by Borromini’s architecture. The renovations were commissioned by Pope Innocent X, using the most prominent Roman Rococo sculptors. The beautiful gothic style baldachin, which is located towards the top of the altar and by the apse with the mosaics, was rebuilt completely in the year 1884. On top of the Apostles niches, we can find some displays of the old and New Testament. In between the windows, a little more higher up, inside the oval stucco frames (which are in the shape of garlands), we can find paintings of some of the prophets. In the mosaics of the early Christian Churches, you could already see the Apostles and the Prophets been introduced as a community (relating to one another). As a matter of fact, they represent the continuation of the history of salvation, and they are (in a figurative language) “the voice of God”, which is present in the history of men of the old and new Testament. The meaningful biblical passage scenes which are located towards the center (more than just a connection between the prophets and the apostles) highlight those "words" spoken in the name of God. They have particularly focused on the “events” of the history of salvation.

The Baldachin and the Altar
The most interesting part of the crossing is the beautiful baldachin made by Giovanni di Stefano in the second half of the XIV century. According to tradition, the relics are preserved in the ancient wooden altar which was used by the Popes during the Paleo-Christian and Medieval ages. The relics are located underneath the baldachin in the interior of the Papal Altar. It is believed that the Popes celebrated Mass in it. In this altar, you can sense the intimate union between the Basilica of Saint John Lateran (the first permanent residence of the Pontificate, whereby in communion with the Pope, the sign of the Eucharist and the unity of the Church is highlighted), and Saint Peter’s Basilica (where the first pontiff’s chair is kept, symbol of the role of the Magisterium of the Papacy in the Church).

The importance of the Eucharist is clearly evident by the altar of the Blessed Sacrament, which is located towards the extreme left of the crossing. It was built by Pope Clement VIII in honor of the Jubilee Year of 1600, using four colossal columns of golden bronze which measure seven meters high. The columns are dated back to the Roman era and they are the only visible remains left of Constantine’s Basilica. Underneath the baldachin, there is a table which (according to a beautiful legend) was used for the celebration of the Lord’s Last Supper. The position of the altar was specifically and especially chosen with the main purpose of allowing it to highlight and enhance the most out of its beauty. It is centrally located in front of the lateral entrance to the Basilica. This is the one which has been mostly used, because it guides you towards the center of the city and welcomes the pilgrims who come to the Basilica of Santa Maria di Maggiore.

The Apse
The mosaic of the apse is a copy of the medieval one. With the symbolism of the water, it makes reference to the sacrament of Baptism, which recreates and renews all things. In its present state, the presbytery and the apse of Saint John Lateran are the direct result of the complete re-construction done in the past century, under the Pontificate of Leo XIII. Therefore, this is a modern copy of the medieval mosaic. Pope Nicholas IV, a Franciscan, was the one who ordered the mosaic of the XIII century. We can infer this reasoning by observing the two small statues, Saint Francis and Saint Anthony of Padua (both of which are located on Mary’s and John the Baptist’s side). This same Pope is represented kneeling as an act of worship and prayer at the feet of the Virgin Mary, with his hands elevated as a sign of offering. In the center of the apse, towards the upper level, we can notice the face of the Savior, surrounded by angels. Underneath, we find the bejeweled cross, as a symbol of the death and resurrection of Christ. It is surrounded by water, which comes out of the mouth of a dove, symbol of the Holy Spirit. This water, where the stags and the sheep drink from, departs from the cross and expands through four springs, which renew all of creation represented by plants, animals, and men. These men are represented in their daily activities, going about their business, symbolized by an ideal city, Jerusalem, which has been reproduced at the foot of the cross. The symbolic meaning of the mosaic is not a difficult one, the Baptism which is depicted by the water produces a new creation for men and the world.

Just like water gives origin to life, baptism introduces Christians into the new life which Christ has gained for us with his death and resurrection.

The fresco of Pope Boniface
Francesco Borromini has included a fresco in the monument erected to Pope Boniface VIII. The old atrium of blessings, which was destroyed, contained this fragment. It was originally greater than what we know and probably with two other displays: one of the baptism of Emperor Constantine and the other one, with the construction of the ancient Basilica of Saint John Lateran. It is easy to determine that the character who is portrayed in this piece of Giotto, is Boniface VIII, the Pope who proclaimed the first holy year of the Christian era. However, in regards to this historical fact with which the fresco is connected with, there exist several hypotheses. Some argue that the image is linked to a solemn convocation of the First Jubilee; others, actually believe that it could be the representation of the inauguration on behalf of the Pope of the Basilica of Saint John Lateran (1295). Nevertheless, the painting, beyond the historical hypothesis, is a very important document which links the Basilica of Saint John Lateran to the celebration of the Jubilees. As a matter of fact, Boniface VIII, celebrated the First Jubilee in history, precisely in Saint John Lateran on February 22, 1300.

The Baptistery
At the beginning of the IV century, only Cathedrals had baptisteries. Baptism was administered in them. However, in the dioceses, they were administered by the Bishops and in Rome by the Pope. Later on, during the VII and VIII centuries, when parishes started to flourish in the rural areas and in the cities, other Basilicas finally had their own baptisteries. These also had their own baptismal fonts.

The Cathedral of the Diocese of Rome was Saint John Lateran, therefore, it’s baptistery was the first and most ancient one in Rome and Occident. The unity of the cathedral and the baptistery had a particular significance directly related to the same concept of the Church, which is the people of God united with the Bishop, who represents our only Savior, Jesus Christ. The Baptistery was built by Constantine in the IV Century. Sixtus III (432-449) re-constructed it completely and added an atrium. Borromini restored it for the last time during the 17th century.

The interior has an octagonal shape. In the middle of the Baptistery is the circular pool in which Christian catechumens were baptized by immersion, it is surrounded by eight porphyry pillars with Ionic and Corinthian capitals. These pillars support an architrave inscribed with some Latin verses attributed to Pope St. Sixtus III (432-440), which admirably summarizes Christian teaching on Baptism. In the center of the baptistery is the baptismal font, carved from green basalt and covered in a bronze finish of the XVII century. The chapel’s vault is very interesting and it is dedicated to Saint John the Evangelist. There is a fifth century mosaic in the center, and there is a reproduction of a standing lamb, symbol of the Risen One.

The Obelisk
Coming out of the baptistery of the Basilica of Saint John Lateran, our gaze is inevitably directed towards the great obelisk, which is known as the most impressive obelisk in Rome. It is 522 tons. It is among the most stupendous ones removed from the granite mines of southern Egypt.

It was brought by Emperor Constantine (IV century) and was erected by his son Constans II in the Circus Maximus around the year 357. It was consecrated as a triumph of Christianity over the ancient worships. In the year 1588, Pope Sixtus V, put it nearby the Cathedral and thought about a genial town’s draft, where the great avenues linked the main Basilicas. In each Basilica, there was an ancient obelisk nearby, and the four Basilicas formed a cross. This way, all monuments erected for the Egyptian divinities were consecrated to worship the true God, the Pope being his representative on earth.

The inscription on the base of the obelisk brings to memory, the legend which tells us that Emperor Constantine was baptized in Saint John Lateran Basilica. The Egyptian obelisk (representing the presence of the great emperor converted to Christianity), and the cross (which is placed as a crown), should both bear witness to the fact that ancient history found here it’s fulfillment, and that all human history is completely fulfilled in Christ , who died and rose.

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