Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Dedication of the Lateran – November 9

Basilica of St. John Lateran
4th - 19th Centuries
Because of its immense size and prominence in the life of the Catholic Church most people probably think that St. Peter’s Basilica is the principal church of Rome. But they are wrong. If you look around St. Peter’s you might notice that one important feature is missing. There is no permanent chair for the bishop, no cathedra. Where the bishop’s chair would normally be is a feature called the “Cathedra Petri” or Throne of Peter by Gianlorenzo Bernini, but this is not a chair for living human habitation.

The chair for the currently living human who is the bishop of Rome is not in St. Peter’s. It is across the river Tiber in the church of St. John Lateran (San Giovanni in Laterano), the church that is the cathedral of the Diocese of Rome. It is St. John Lateran that is described as Sacrosancta Lateranensis ecclesia omnium urbis et orbis ecclesiarum mater et caput (Most holy church of the Lateran, mother and head of all churches in the city and the world – my translation).
Inscription on the facade of the Lateran Basilica

This is the first large building set aside for Christian worship, the first official “church” of Rome. It is located on property once belonging to the noble Roman family of the Laterani, which came into the possession of the Emperor Constantine through his second marriage to Flavia Maxima Fausta, the sister of his rival, Maxentius. In 312, shortly after his famous victory over Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge (north of Rome) he gave this property to the pope. It was, in effect, Constantine’s first gift to his newly acquired faith.

By 324, still well within Constantine’s lifetime (he died in 337), the church had been built and dedicated. It is the dedication of its “mother and head” to Christ the Savior that the universal Church celebrates on November 9. (However, it is more commonly known from the later, additional, dedications to Saints John the Baptist and John the Evangelist as St. John Lateran.) Nearby, the palace of the Lateran family became the palace of the popes, where they lived for 1,000 years.
Interior, showing part of the nave plus the confessio (sunken area in front of the altar, giving access to the crypt beneath the church, common in Roman churches), the baldachino over the altar (dating to 1369) and the apse beyond.
Rome, Basilica of St. John Lateran
Over the passage of the almost 1,700 years since the Lateran became the mother church of Christianity the building has passed through much wear and tear. It was nearly 100 years old when Alaric brought his Goths to sack Rome in 410. It was plundered by the Vandals in 455. It has suffered damage from earthquakes (896) and fires (1307 and 1361) and been reconstructed many times, but still retains its original form as a Roman basilica. Some of the most "recent" reconstructions were the work of famous architects of the late Renaissance, Baroque and Rococo: Domenico Fontana, Francesco Borromini and Alessandro Galilei respectively. The last architectural interference was the extension of the apse in 1880.

Apse Mosaic, 4th, 9th and 13th Centuries
Rome, Basilica of St. John Lateran
Little of its original interior has survived, although there are notable exceptions. When the apse was extended in the late 19th century the original 4th century mosaics were removed, stored and replaced in the new work, along with some of the later additions, which date from the 9th and the 13th centuries. So, parts of what we see today were seen by those who were present at the dedication, in the 4th Century.

The floor, decorated in what is known as cosmati work (from the name of the Roman family of artisans who did it) dates from the 14th century.
Cosmati work floor
Rome, Basilica of St. John Lateran
The adjoining palace was the home of all the popes from Sylvester I (314-335) to Clement V (1305-1314). Clement V, a Frenchman, found himself in a problematical political position when he was elected as pope. In the early 14th century, political conflict, between the Holy Roman Emperor and the King of France and between the King of France and the King of England, had serious repercussions for the Church which, while it models the Kingdom of God in this world, is not immune to the troubles of that world. Not long before Clement's election, the French King, Philip IV, had attacked and imprisoned the previous Pope, Boniface VIII.

Clement remained in France, establishing a court at Avignon. He was followed by six other French popes, all of whom remained in Avignon. During this time, the Lateran suffered two devastating fires, and although the church was repaired, the papal palace was not.

When Pope Martin V returned the seat of the papacy to Rome in 1420 the old palace was uninhabitable, so the seat of papal administration was moved to the smaller residence next to St. Peter’s Basilica and there it has remained ever since. But the cathedral of Rome remains in its original location --- at the Lateran.

You can take a virtual tour of the Lateran basilica and its surroundings here:

© M. Duffy, 2011

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