When most people think about churches in Rome, the first one that immediately jumps to mind is the world-famous Saint Peter’s basilica. The heart of Vatican City, it is the most visible location in the Catholic Church. What most people don’t know, however, is that Saint Peter’s isn’t the “highest-ranking” church in Rome.
That honor goes to the Archbasilica of Saint John Lateran.
As one of the oldest church in the west, and the traditional ecclesiastical seat of the Bishop of Rome (the Pope), the Archbasilica is a building of tremendous importance, with much history behind it. One of the famous Lateran buildings in Rome, the church was originally dedicated by Pope Sylvester as Most Holy Savior in 324 but was rededicated to St. John the Baptist by Pope Sergius III in the tenth century when a new baptistery was built and then in the twelfth century was rededicated again to St. John the Evangelist by Pope Lucius II. The multiple dedications give the church one of the longest names of any Catholic church: Archbasilica of the Most Holy Saviour and of Sts. John Baptist and John Evangelist in the Lateran.
Being the cathedral of the Bishop of Rome, Saint John Lateran automatically ranks above all others, and unlike the other basilicas in the city, gains the title of Archbasilica.
Standing on the site of what was once the Lateran Palace, which was subsequently razed after Constantine won the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, the church holds a special standing as being an extraterritorial property of the Holy See: it is not in the Vatican City proper, but remains part of the state nevertheless. The politics, discussed in The Primacy of the Church of Rome by Margherita Guarducci, and resulting Lateran Treaty, brought this and several other extraterritorial properties under the jurisdiction of the Holy See.
The Basilica of St. John Lateran is a rather strange combination of architectural styles that are a result of centuries of construction, destruction and renovation.
Even though the church had to be completely rebuilt following an earthquake in the 9th century, it retained its original Roman basilica style on the interior. For a very long time the church had a single main aisle and two lower side aisles as was the style in ancient Roman buildings. Eventually a transept was added to give the church more space.
The current facade of building was reconstructed in the 1700’s in a Baroque style which replaced the classical facade that had survived for several hundred years.
The Apse of the church has a half-dome covered in mosaics reminiscent of another ancient church, San Clemente. The mosaics are actually 19th century reproductions of medieval mosaics that were probably heavily damaged by the two fires that ravaged the church in the 1300’s. The papal throne sits at the base of the apse.
The baldacchino of the church is the most striking, out of place structure in the building. The baldacchino is medieval – 14th century – but looks too small for the altar it covers. It also contains statues of Sts. Peter and Paul in what looks like a prison.
Twelve of the most impressive parts of the church are the larger-than-life marble sculptures of the Twelve Apostles. These stand in niches that had been left empty for decades after one of the church’s renovations. The sculptures were created in the 1700’s as part of a contest open to the best sculptors in Rome.
Dear friends, today’s feast [of St. John Lateran] celebrates a mystery that is always relevant: God’s desire to build a spiritual temple in the world, a community that worships him in spirit and truth (cf. John 4:23-24). But this observance also reminds us of the importance of the material buildings in which the community gathers to celebrate the praises of God. Every community therefore has the duty to take special care of its own sacred buildings, which are a precious religious and historical patrimony. For this we call upon the intercession of Mary Most Holy, that she help us to become, like her, the “house of God,” living temple of his love.
— Benedict XVI, Angelus Address, Feast of St. John Lateran, November 9, 2008
He lives with his lovely wife and eleven kids in northern Colorado.