Monday, February 1, 2016

San Giovanni in Laterano (1)

Today's photos

1. San Giovanni in Laterano - 2013.

2. San Giovanni in Laterano - 2016, the Holy Year.

3. Center top of the façade.

4. The inscription on both sides of the entrance.

5. Coat of arms of Clement XII.

6. The Lateran obelisk.

7. Inscription on the base of the obelisk.

8. The side façade of the basilica.

9. Marcus Aurelius: formerly at the Lateran.

The Constantine connection

At first glance the term "in Laterano" may seem a mysterious way to identify the Cathedral of Rome. It derives from the name of a person, Plautius Lateranus, who owned the property where the basilica is now located. That property was confiscated by the emperor Nero in 65 after Plautius was accused of participation in a conspiracy against him, imprisoned and executed.

The property remained in the possession of the emperors until the time of Constantine (306-337), the emperor who "legitimized" Christianity. Constantine donated the land to Pope Melchiades (311-314) specifically for the construction of the Cathedral of Rome. It was the successor of Melchiades, Pope Sylvester I (314-331), who had the first church built during the early years of his pontificate. Originally dedicated to Christ the Savior, the names of the two Johns, the Evangelist and the Baptist, were added later.

A curiosity

Before 1870 the popes were crowned, not in San Pietro in Vaticano but in San Giovanni in Laterano, their cathedral church. Also, since the Lateran Treaty was signed in 1929, the Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano enjoys the privilege of extraterritoriality, which means it is officially part of Vatican City. The other three major basilicas also have this privilege: San Pietro in Vaticano, Santa Maria Maggiore and San Paolo Fuori le Mura.

The mother of all churches

Since San Giovanni in Laterano is the Cathedral of Rome, and since the Pope is the Bishop of Rome, this is his "home church", so to speak. Traditionally, one of the first visits of a new Pope outside of Vatican City is to "take possession" of his Cathedral which is considered the "head and mother of all churches". In fact, the inscription on both sides of the main entrance reads as follows:





The sacred Lateran church, mother and head of all the churches of the city and of the world.

At the top of the eighteenth century façade are 16 colossal statues representing Christ the Savior, the Apostles and other saints. On a clear day they can be seen from as far away as the Janiculum hill. The inscription which extends across the width of the church tells us which pope had the façade rebuilt.


Clement XII, Supreme Pontiff, in the fifth year of his pontificate (dedicated this) to Christ the Savior in honor of Saints John the Baptist and John the Evangelist.

Clement XII was Pope from 1730-1740, so the fifth year of his pontificate would be 1735. His coat of arms is seen on the façade on both sides of the main door.

A curiosity

If you think you have seen Clement's name and coat of arms somewhere but can't quite place it, I can help you with that. Just think of the last time you were at the Trevi Fountain. He had it built, and his name and shield are prominent on the face of the fountain.

The French connection

There is a second façade on the south side of the church, built by Domenico Fontana in 1586. This serves as the side entrance to the church, but lately it has been kept closed for security reasons. In the atrium of this façade is a statue of Henry IV, king of France, born in 1553, assassinated in 1610. Henry was born a protestant, so why is there a statue of him in the Cathedral of Rome?

A curiosity

It was Henry who gave freedom of worship to the French, much as Constantine had done for the early Christians. He then converted to Catholicism, confirming it as the State Religion. In addition, he made a substantial financial endowment to the basilica. The statue, therefore, was set up in his honor and he was also made an honorary canon of the basilica. The president of France still has this honorary title today.

There is also a monument to Henry IV in a small courtyard at the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. For that story, as well as a picture of the monument, see my book: Rome: Sights and Insights, p.171.

The Lateran Obelisk

In the piazza in front of this façade is the so-called Lateran Obelisk, the oldest and tallest in Rome, dating from the 15th century B.C. (No, that's not a misprint!). It was brought to Rome in 357 to decorate the center of the Circus Maximus where it was discovered in three pieces in 1586, reassembled and set up on the south side of the basilica where it remains today. The inscription on the inner side of the base makes reference to the tradition of the baptism of Constantine by Pope Sylvester I.








Constantine, victor because of the Cross, baptized here by St. Sylvester, spread the glory of the Cross.

A curiosity

For centuries there was another ancient Roman item here at the Lateran - the bronze equestrian statue of the emperor Marcus Aurelius which today stands in the center of Piazza del Campidoglio. It was originally placed at the Lateran because people believed that it represented Constantine. The statue was transferred to the Campidoglio in 1546 when Paul III hired Michelangelo to design the piazza.

In the interest of keeping these pieces reasonably short, we'll save the discussion of the interior of the basilica for a later "Sights of Rome" post.


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