San Giovanni in Laterano: the Papal Archbasilica

San Giovanni in Laterano: the Papal Archbasilica

Did you know that S. Giovanni in Laterano in Rome is the official ecclesiastical seat of the Bishop of Rome – the Pope? Infact it is the oldest church in the world! As the cathedral of the Bishop of Rome, it ranks above all other churches in the Catholic Church, including St. Peter’s Basilica. It is officially known as the “Mother of all Churches”…I kid you not! Truly it is! In latin is known as “Omnium ecclesiarum mater”.

Because I lived just around the corner from this church during a recent stay in Rome I have become quite fond of this church. I visited the basilica frequently and every day I passed by it, as I commuted to school by bus. I had a funny incident happen to me inside this church. The first day I arrived in Rome I went to visit the church. The interior of the basilica was cool and delightful. Taking a bit of respite from the hot summer sun, I sat down in a chair in the main transept and began taking pictures from my seated position. To help cool myself, I pulled up my floor length skirt – not in an indecent way mind you – to just below my knees. A elderly guard eyed me across the church and then approached me. I thought he was going to chastise me for taking photos, but instead he wanted me to be more lady like and pull down my skirt!

Taking a walk through the church is truly an awesome experience. The church is immense and from top to bottom it is filled with ornate marble and stone work, statues, gold inlay ceilings and intricate carvings. This church contains volumes and volumes of history going back to the day before christianity. Over the years, countless artists and architects, emperors and Popes have overseen changes to the interior and exterior of this structure.

The original basilica of the church stands over the the Roman imperial cavalry fort that was established by Septimius Severus in AD 193. A palace was later built over the site after Constantine the 1st defeated Maxentius. The palace belonged to the Laterani family. Later the palace fell in the hands of Emperor Constantine 1st, who eventually founded the first church. The church became the residence of Pope St. Silvester and the first seat of the Christian Popes. But, the church has taken many knocks and was destroyed by earth quakes and several fires and was abandoned when the popes left Rome to set up residency in Avignon in the 1300s. After the return of Pope Gregory Xi to Rome in 1377, the Vatican palace was chosen as the papal residence and this proved the death-knell of the old Lateran Palace as the seat of the popes.

Over the years the church has been remodeled and embellished. Giotto even painted a fresco for the church of which only a small fragment remains. In the sixteenth century to celebrate the Roman Jubilee, Borromini’s restoration modified the ancient basilica, giving it its present Baroque appearance. Only the gilded ceiling and the Cosmatesque floor were kept. Notably in the square in front of the Lateran Palace stands one of the largest standing obelisk in the world, known as the Lateran Obelisk. It weighs an estimated 455 tons. It was commissioned by the Egyptian Pharaoh Thutmose III and placed in front of the temple of Thebes in Egypt. Emperor Constantine 1st wanted to ship it to Constantinople, but he died and his son, Emperor Constantine II accidentally shipped it instead to Rome, where it was erected in the Circus Maximus in AD 357. There it stood until it was toppled by an earthquake on an unknown date. Pope Sixtus V was told of its documented existence, and it was found in 1587 seven meters below the surface of the vegetable gardens that the Circus had become, broken in three pieces. The pope had the obelisk restore, and erected on its present location on 3 August 1588. Just imagine the work involved to drag that monument around the globe…to say nothing of moving it across Rome!


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