The Archbasilica of St. John Lateran
The Archbasilica of St. John Lateran was the most important church in Christendom for its first thousand years. Today it often has its thunder stolen by St. Peter’s Basilica, but make no mistake, as far as the Vatican is concerned it’s still the most important cathedral in the world. If you have any doubts, look no further than its official name: the Sacrosanct Papal Cathedral Greater Roman Archbasilica of the Holy Saviour and the Saints John the Baptist and John the Evangelist at the Lateran, the Mother and Head of all the Churches of the City and the World. It is the official cathedral of Rome, the seat of Rome’s bishop (the Pope) and one of Rome’s four Major Basilicas (which also include Santa Maria Maggiore, St. Peter’s Basilica, and St. Paul Outside the Walls). It’s also Rome’s oldest Basilica. Constantine, Rome’s first Christian emperor, had it built in in AD 324 and it has been hosting services almost uninterrupted ever since. Not that it hasn’t needed a bit of refurbishment over the years. The Cathedral has survived sackings, earthquakes, numerous fires, and even a bombing. Unsurprisingly, the church you see today has been extensively refurbished, most notably in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Visiting St. John Lateran: What to See
The Lateran Obelisk
The 14th century was a bad one for the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran. When the Papacy moved to Avignon the Lateran Palace fell into disrepair and suffered two separate fires that caused extensive damage. The Papacy eventually returned to but the Palace and church were deemed too damaged for the Pope to live and worship in. Renovations didn’t begin until he 16th century under Pope Sixtus V (for whom the Sistine Chapel was named). His first act was to have his favorite architect, Domenico Fontana, move the largest known Egyptian obelisk in the world from the Circus Maximus to a spot in front of the Lateran Palace. Fontana had already proved himself a something of an obelisk-reviver when he created a colossal hoist to raise the Vatican Obelisk two years before. The Lateran Obelisk was even larger – in fact, it remains the largest standing obelisk in the world.
When Sixtus V died Pope Innocent X picked up where he had left off and commissioned Francesco Borromini to revamp the interior of the church. Borromini added a gilt ceiling and 12 niches along the walls that were eventually filled, in the 18th century, with statues of the apostles. The Archbasilica also features a mosaic floor made in the 15th century and a large, gothic baldachin.
Although the interior is pure opulence – by one estimate the cost of the gold in the apse would have supported 12,000 Romans for an entire year when it was first installed -The facade of St. John Lateran is not the most-loved in Rome. Many consider it too severe and palace-like without any of the flourishes expected of the Baroque period during which it was designed. It’s designer, Alessandro Galilei (of the same family as Galileo), is most famous for his strict embrace of the neo-classical architectural style in the latter parts of his career, and was responsible for the designs of buildings as far away as Ireland. Today, the facade retains its almost brutally imposing character with giant corinthian columns framing a large, 2-story portico and the 12 apostles crowning the top. The Pope gives his benediction from this portico on Maundy Thursday each year.
The Scala Sancta
The Scala Sancta is a stairway of 28 white marble steps in a building near the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran. Although they lead to the first private papal chapel (the Sancta Sanctorum) they’re actually important for a very different reason: According to Catholic tradition, they are the same steps that Jesus Christ walked up on his way to trial with Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem. Religious pilgrims in Rome who visit the Holy Staircase ascend each of the 28 steps on their knees in return for a sizable plenary indulgence (forgiveness of past sins) that amounts to 9 years for each step.
The Lateran Palace
The Lateran Palace was the principle residence of the Popes for roughly the first thousand years of the Papacy. Today, it’s home to the Vatican Historical Museum – a great off-the-radar destination for religious tourists and history buffs.
If you’re looking for vestiges of the original church before its 16th-century refurbishment, don’t miss the remaining fragments of a large fresco painted by one of the grandfathers of the Renaissance, Giotto. This depiction of the Pope declaring the first jubilee year in 1300 is pretty time-worn, but a thrilling reminder of the age and importance of this grand old cathedral.
At the top of the high altar is a reliquary that may or may not contain the heads of St. Peter and St. Paul – it seems that no one is quite sure if the French took them when they occupied Rome in the 18th century. The high altar itself contains a piece of wood from St. Peter’s communion table. Finally, the Altar of the Holy Sacrament contains a table that is supposed to be the same one used by Jesus during the Last Supper.
Tips for Visiting St. John Lateran
The Basilica is open every day from 7:00am to 6:45pm
Holy Masses run weekdays at 7:00am, 8:00am, 9:00am, 10:00am, 11:00am, 12:00 pm, and 5:00pm. (During the summer the last mass of the day is at 6:00pm instead of 5:00pm).
On Sundays and Holidays: they run at 7:00am, 8:00am, 9:00am, 10:00am, 11:00am, 12:00 pm, 5:00pm, and 6:00pm.
St. John Lateran is a place of worship; appropriate attire must be worn by all who wish to enter. Both men and women should wear clothing that covers their shoulders and knees. Small bags and umbrellas are permitted inside but large bags have to be checked at the entrance.
It is free to enter St. John Lateran. However, if you want to see all the Major Basilicas in Rome during a single day, it’s best to go with a guided tour like the Walks of Italy Major Basilicas tour.
The Best Time to Visit St. John Lateran
despite it’s importance to Catholics in Rome, the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran is not one of the most popular tourist attractions in the city. This means that anyone who goes to visit will enjoy a quiet, and uncrowded experience regardless of the time of year.
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