»Mater et caput omnium ecclesiarum urbis et orbis« reads the inscription on the pedestal of the portico, the basis for the claim that the Lateran basilica is the »mother and head of all churches in the city and on earth«.
Lateran Basilica: Papal Cathedral
After the edict of tolerance in 313, Emperor Constantine commissioned a large church dedicated to Christ the Redeemer. The basilica on the property of the family of the general Sextius Lateranus, which resided here from the late 2nd century, was not rededicated to John the Baptist until the year 905 after an earthquake.
It is the highest- ranking patriarchal basilica ahead of St Peter’s, San Paolo fuori le Mura and Santa Maria Maggiore. Many additions and reconstructions were undertaken up to the 15th century, and the vestibule of the transept, the interior and the main façade were completely remodelled in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Lateran Basilica: History
The plan of the early Christian basilica, a nave with double aisles and a transept, derives from Constantine’s church and was retained in the Baroque period. The broad main facade (c. 1735) with 7m/23ft- high figures of Christ, the patron saints and the doctors of the Catholic church is an early classical masterpiece by Alessandro Galilei.
Lateran Basilica: Interior and Apse
The main portal with bronze doors from the Curia of Roman Forum and the Porta Santa at the far left are the first points of interest before entering the interior, which was designed by Borromini between 1644 and 1655 with double piers of masonry in the nave and alcoves in contrasting colours, in which monumental figures of the apostles were placed in the 18th century. Above them are stucco reliefs from the Old and New Testament (1650) by Algardi and painted prophets (c. 1718). The gilded wood ceiling is from the 16th century.
The tabernacle designed in 1367 by Giovanni di Stefano containing relics of St Peter and St Paul in silver busts rises above the papal altar. According to tradition, the first bishops of Rome from St Peter to Sylvester are said to have held mass at the ancient wooden altar in the papal altar. The bronze tomb of Pope Martin V (1417-1431) created in 1443 by Donatello is in front of the confessio.
The apse gleams with fine mosaics, faithful copies of early Christian images that were restored in the 13th century by Jacopo Torriti: Christ in the midst of angels, and below the dove of the Holy Spirit above a cameo cross. Below the cross are saints such as John the Baptist, Francis of Assisi, and Anthony of Padua, depicted large or small according to their importance, as well as the donor Nicholas IV, the first pope from the Franciscan order, who is next to the Virgin Mary.
The left-hand outer side aisle gives access to the cloister built in Cloister with beautiful Cosmatesque work on the columns, a masterpiece by the Vassalleti family of sculptors from Rome.
Lateran Baptistery – Baptistery San Giovanni in Fonte
The baptistery was constructed in the 4th century in the reign of Constantine; under Pope Sixtus III (432—440), porphyry columns in an octagonal layout were added on the inside around the baptismal basin – the 8 stands for the eighth day of creation, when man was born again through baptism. The baptistery is closed at lunchtime.
From the time the site was donated by Constantine until it was destroyed by fire in 1308, the Lateran Palace was the residence and official seat of the popes. After returning from French exile, (1309-1378) the popes moved into the apostolic palace next to Saint Peter’s Basilica. In 1586, Domenico Fontana received the commission from Sixtus V for a new building on a square plan as the papal summer residence; the Lateran Treaties that guarantee the independence of the Vatican state were signed here in 1929.
Diagonally opposite, Sixtus V also built the Scala Santa (church of the holy steps), which was dedicated in 1590. It houses the former private papal chapel of the old palace, Capella Sancta Sanctorium, with 13th-century mosaics as well as the 28 marble steps, now covered with wood; according to legend, they came from the palace of Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem and were brought to Rome by St Helena in the 4th century. According to custom, believers ascend the holy steps on their knees while praying.
In 1584, Domenico Fontana was commissioned to erect the 31mt. high obelisk on Piazza San Giovanni in Laterano. The tallest and oldest obelisk in Rome comes from the famous Temple of Amun at Karnak. It came to Rome from the Egyptian city of Thebes in 357 on a large, specially built ship and was first erected in the Circo Massimo; it was brought to its present site in 1587 under Sixtus V.
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