Tuesday, March 1, 2016

San Giovanni in Laterano (2)

Today's photos:

1. The central door in the atrium.

2. Statue of Constantine.

3. Holy Door.

4. Looking down the center aisle.

5. Unusual Statue of St. Matthew.

6. Boniface VIII: Holy Year 1300.

7. Main altar and baldachino.

8. Apse mosaics and cathedra.

9. The famous yellow column.

Entering the Basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano, you find yourself in the atrium of the church. To your far right is the Holy Door (photo 3) now open for this Jubilee year of Mercy. However, it is the large center door (photo 1) which really gets your attention, and rightly so.

A curiosity

This is an ancient bronze door which survives from the Curia, the senate house in the Roman Forum. So how did it come to be in this basilica? Well, it seems that Alexander VII Chigi (1655-1667) took a liking to it; he had it removed and transferred to his cathedral. In fact, the stars that you see on the door were added at that time, reflecting the stars on the coat of arms of the Chigi pope. The door on the senate house today is a copy of the original.

On the far left side of the atrium is a much restored statue of Constantine (photo 2), the founder of the basilica. It was discovered in his baths on the Quirinal hill.

The Borromini restoration

Many churches in Rome are in what is called a "basilica style" - a large central nave (photo 4), separated by columns from two smaller aisles, one on each side. In this basilica, however, there are double side aisles, giving it five aisles instead of the usual three. This was one of the changes made by Borromini in his seventeenth century restoration.

On both sides of the main aisle are enormous niches, also by Borromini, which hold colossal statues of the apostles. Many of the statues and paintings of saints can be recognized by the attributes included in the scene, such as the keys for St. Peter, the eagle for St. John, the sword of St. Paul, etc.

A curiosity

I am always struck by the statue of St. Matthew (photo 5) in this church. He is one of the evangelists and is almost always depicted as an angel with wings, or in the presence of one. Here, however, the angel and its wings are not present. But the saint is recognized in a different way. Remember that Matthew was a tax collector when Jesus called him to be an apostle. Look at the bottom of his statue and you will see a small pile of coins! You may have to zoom in on the picture.

Borromini had originally planned to give the basilica a new ceiling in his restoration. Fortunately it was decided not to replace the beautiful ceiling which dates back to 1566. The great architect had also planned to replace the Cosmatesque floor, but he was talked out of that as well. (For an explanation of the word Cosmatesque, see my book: The Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere, pp. 46-47).

On the first pier on the right of the main aisle is a fragment of a painting, probably by Giotto. It depicts Boniface VIII (1295-1303) as he proclaims from the balcony of this basilica the very first Holy Year of 1300 (photo 6).

The mail altar

At the end of the center nave we find the main altar (photo 7) which lies beneath an enormous fourteenth century baldacchino (canopy) supported by four marble columns. At the top of this elaborate structure, behind small twisting columns are two reliquaries said to contain the heads of St. Peter and St. Paul.

The marble altar itself encloses part of a wooden altar believed to have been used by the early popes. Beneath the altar is what is called the Confession which contains the tomb of Pope Martin V (1417-1431) during whose pontificate major work was done in the basilica.

The apse

Unfortunately, the thirteenth century mosaics here were heavily damaged during the rebuilding of the apse (photo 8) in 1885 during the pontificate of Leo XIII (1878-1903). Those mosaics, however, have been beautifully restored in this copy. In the very center is the Cross, above which we see the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove and a bust of Christ. Four rivers, representing the Gospels, are flowing from the base of the Cross, and drinking from the rivers are two deer and two sheep which symbolize the faithful, nourished by the Gospels. Various saints are depicted on either side of this center scene.

Below this scene we see a row of windows, between which are nine of the apostles. The two miniature figures at the feet of two of the apostles represent the two artists who created the original mosaic in the thirteenth century: Jacopo da Camerino and Jacopo Torriti.

The papal throne, or cathedra (photo 8) in the center rear of the apse is a nineteenth century reconstruction. The base on which it stands is medieval.

The Transepts

Against the back wall of the left transept is the tomb of Leo XIII. In the corresponding position of the right transept we see the tomb of Innocent III (1198-1216). High above the door of the side entrance is a sixteenth century organ, no longer in use, supported by two ancient yellow columns.

A curiosity

Both of the transepts were built during the pontificate of Clement VIII Aldobrandini (1592-1605). It was he who wanted the organ to be supported by two yellow columns. The problem was that he had only one such column, so he did what many of the popes have done over the centuries . . . he "borrowed" one of the four yellow columns on the face of the Arch of Constantine and used it in the basilica. It is the column on your right as you face the organ (photo 9).

This account of the basilica includes only a few of its many highlights, but maybe it's enough to be useful to you if you ever decide to visit the magnificent Cathedral of Rome.


Post a Comment