Lateran

The oldest church in Rome and the mother of all Roman Churches,
San Giovanni in Laterano was founded in the early 4th c. (312-313).
It is the Cathedral of Rome and first among the four Papal Basilicas.
The Popes lived in the Lateran Palace until the early 14th century,
when Clement V transferred the Papacy to Avignon, France.

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Lateran Obelisk
Portico ceiling and Henry IV
Lancellotti Chapel Stuccos

Lateran Nave and Side Nave
Nave Sculptures (Borromini Niches)
St. John Baptist, Confessio

Apse Mosaics
Medieval Baldachino
Gilded Coffered Ceiling

Altar of the Blessed Sacrament
Monument to Leo XIII
Transept Organ

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Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano
(The Papal Basilica of St. John in Lateran)

History lesson warning  —  photographs follow below

The Cathedral of the Roman Diocese and seat of the Bishop of Rome (the Pope), St. John in Lateran is the oldest and first among the major basilicas of Rome. The basilica is situated on the site of an ancient Imperial Army fort and the Lateran Palace grounds. The Lateran Palace was home to the Laterani family of ancient Rome, administrators for several emperors, but it was confiscated by Nero and redistributed when Plautius Lateranus was accused of plotting against the Emperor. It became Imperial property when Constantine I married Fausta (the sister of his enemy Maxentius), and was eventually given to the Bishop of Rome by Constantine in the early 4th century. The first church was known as Basilica Salvatoris (Basilica of the Saviour). The interior was elaborately decorated, and it was sometimes called Basilica Aurea (the Golden Basilica) due to the decorations.

The first church was sacked by the Visigoths (410) and Vandals (455) and restored in 460 by Leo the Great, and again in 590 by Pope Gregory the Great. A major restoration occurred under Pope Sergius I (690s) and again by Pope Hadrian I (770s). In 897, the basilica was the scene of the “cadaver synod” when the body of Pope Formosus was exhumed and put on trial by his successor Pope Stephen VI (instigated by the powerful Spoleto family who hated Formosus). The trial ended in Formosus’ corpse being desecrated and thrown in the Tiber, and the scandal caused Stephen to be imprisoned and strangled soon after. During the trial, the basilica was ominously damaged by a severe earthquake, which further excited the populace.

Pope Sergius III had the basilica completely rebuilt before 910 after the earthquake damage and formally dedicated the new basilica to St. John the Baptist. The Lateran Palace was occupied as the residence and official seat of the Pope until 1309 when the French Pope Clement V transferred the Papacy to Avignon, France. During the Avignon Papacy, the Palace and Basilica declined, and two fires ravaged them. After the Pope returned to Rome, the Palace and Basilica were determined to be inadequate due to the damage from the fires and years of neglect, and the Pope set up residency in Santa Maria in Trastavere, and later in Santa Maria Maggiore. Eventually, the Pope moved to the Vatican Palace.

The Palace and Basilica were reconstructed to various degrees several times before the 16th century, when Pope Sixtus V undertook a major reconstruction, tearing down the Palace and creating a new building, restoring the enormous Thutmose III obelisk from the Circus Maximus and moving it to the Lateran, and assigning Domenico Fontana to restore the Basilica. Pope Innocent X performed further renovations on the Basilica in 1646, directed by Francesco Borromini, who created the Baroque style seen in much of the Basilica. The Baroque facade was created by Alessandro Galilei in 1735 after winning the competition which was commissioned by Pope Clement XII.

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Lateran Obelisk 8259 M
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The Lateran Obelisk is the tallest in Rome, and the largest standing Egyptian obelisk in the world. The red granite weighs 455 tons and stands 32.18 meters tall (plus base and cross).

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Lateran Obelisk 8268 M
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Originally erected in Karnak, c. 1430 BC, it was brought to Rome by Constantius II in 357 AD. More information and images of Obelisks are on the Ancient Scenery page.

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Lateran Portico Ceiling 8269 M
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Portico ceiling of the Loggia delle Benedizioni (Blessings), with Saints and Angels by Domenico Fontana (c. 1586).

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Henry IV Lateran 8365
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In a dark niche at the end of the portico is a statue of Henry IV of France (bronze, by Nicholas Cordier, 1608). Henry IV was a Protector of the Basilica and honorary Canon. To end the division in his kingdom between Catholics and Protestants, he converted to Catholicism and issued the Edict of Nantes in 1598 ceding religious freedom to Protestants. He made a substantial donation to the Lateran in 1604.

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Lateran Lancellotti Chapel 8343
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Designed by Francesco da Volterra (1585-90) and rebuilt in 1674-80 by Giovanni Antonio de Rossi, the Lancellotti Chapel contains de Rossi’s Baroque altar niche with stucco angels and putti and a stuccoed dome, shown above.

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Lateran Lancellotti Chapel Altar 8350 M
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The altar housed within de Rossi’s niche contains Giovanni Battista Puccetti’s “St. Francis Receives the Stigmata”.

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Lateran Lancellotti Chapel 8346
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A large detail shot of the stucco angels and putti above the altar niche and the
stucco putti, medallion and garlands of stucco roses created by Filippo Carcani
in 1685. Carcani was a pupil of Bernini and Ferrata, and emulated Raggi in his
manner and style. He created the prototypical Baroque-Rococo stuccoed roses
and figures, more detail of which can be seen in the images below of the dome.

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Lateran Lancellotti Chapel Medallion with Putti 8343 M
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Detail of Filippo Carcani’s elegant stucco work in the dome of the Lancellotti Chapel.

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Lateran Lancellotti Chapel Dome 8347
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A wider shot encompassing most of the Lancellotti Chapel dome with Carcani’s stucco work.

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Lateran Ambulatory 8334
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One of the side aisles of St. John in Lateran.

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Lateran Nave 8352c
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The central nave and baldachino (shown in images below).  The baldachino was designed by Giovanni da Stefano in 1367. It stands over the Papal Altar and by tradition the relic chamber houses the heads of Sts. Peter and Paul. Statues of Peter and Paul are above each of the columns. The apse behind the Baldachino contains the Papal Cathedra and early Christian Mosaics, both of which are detailed below.

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Lateran Nave 8352
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The view down the nave past Borromini’s niches with statues of the Apostles to the
Papal Baldachino (Ciborium) over the High Altar and the Apse with Papal Cathedra.
This shot was taken from the large porphyry disc in the Cosmatesque floor (1421-25).

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Lateran Nave Apostles 8336
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An oblique view back towards the rear of the nave, showing some of Borromini’s niches.
These niches were left empty for decades until Pope Clement XI sponsored a competition
in 1703 to select designs for larger than life statues of the Apostles. These sculptures were
created by some of the most prominent Baroque artists. Details of two sculptures are shown
below: St. James the Greater (Camillo Rusconi) and St. Thomas (Pierre le Gros the Younger).

Above the statues of apostles and evangelists are reliefs and paintings. From left to right:

            above St. Thomas (far left): relief of “Jesus Falling Under the Cross” by Antonio Raggi;
            above St. Philip: relief of “The Arrest of Christ” by Alexander Grenoble”,
              painting of Amos by Giuseppe Nicola Nasini;
            above St. Matthew: relief of “Christ Entering Limbo” by Giovanni Francesco Rossi,
              painting of Jonah by Marco Benefial;
            above Thaddeus (St. Jude), far right next to the entrance: a relief of ”The Resurrection of Christ”
              by Giovanni F. Lazzoni, and a painting of Nahum by Domenico Maria Muratori.

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Lateran St. James Greater 8337 M
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A large detailed image of Camillo Rusconi’s
sculpture: St. James the Greater (1715-1718).

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Lateran St. Thomas 8340 M
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A large detailed image of St. Thomas
by Pierre le Gros the Younger (1705-1711).
Pamphili Doves (Innocent X) are in the pediments.

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Nave Sculptures St. James St.Thomas M
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When Borromini rebuilt the interior of the Basilica in the mid-1600s, he created 12 niches
for sculptures in the walls of the nave that were not filled until the early 1700s, when Pope Clement
held a contest for the 12 sculptures of Apostles to be placed in the niches. Camillo Rusconi did four
of the sculptures, including St. James the Greater (left). Pierre le Gros the Younger did two of the
Apostles, including St. Thomas (right). Camillo Rusconi was the premiere sculptor of the early
18th century (his only contemporary who came close was Pierre le Gros the Younger).

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Lateran St. John Baptist 8380
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The wooden statue of St. John the Baptist in the Confessio (the Crypt under the High Altar).

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Direct Link to the Gallery with images of St. John in Lateran

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Lateran Apse Mosaic 8306
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The dome of the Papal Cathedra (throne of the Pope) on the left and organ pipes on the right.

The apse mosaics are a composite from several eras. The dark section at the apex of the vault depicting Christ surrounded by nine seraphim dates from the 4th or 5th century, and was carefully preserved and restored in 1880 when the apse was enlarged to accommodate pontifical functions. The central section from the 6th c. shows the crux gammata, a jeweled cross above which flies a dove representing the Holy Spirit. From the mouth of the dove flow the four rivers of the Gospels, from which stags and sheep drink. The rivers flow into the Jordan, which symbolizes baptism. Between the streams is the City of Jerusalem, and in the city, a Phoenix (symbolizing rebirth) is perched on the Tree of Life. St. Peter, St. Paul, and an armed Angel are guarding the city.

On either side of the crucifix are saints, looking at the cross. To the left are Mary, with her hand on the head of Nicholas IV (kneeling at her feet), who was responsible for repairing and altering this section of the mosaics (13th c.). To his left are St. Francis of Assisi, St. Peter, and St. Paul. To the right of the crucifix are St. John the Baptist, St. Antony of Padua, St. John the Evangelist, and St. Andrew. The lower section at the level of the windows contains mosaics of seven Apostles, with the artists Jacopo da Camerino and Jacopo Torriti at their feet (Jacopo Torriti also did the 13th c. mosaics in Santa Maria Maggiore).

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Lateran Apse Mosaics 8278 M
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A 1134x 1600 detail crop of the four sections of the Apse Mosaics. The River Jordan is the oldest section, dating from the founding of the Basilica in the early 4th c. The upper section of the vault is 4th or 5th century. The center section above the River Jordan with the Cross, Dove, and Saints is 6th c. (restored in the 13th c.), and the lower section was 13th century work by Jacopo Torriti and Jacopo da Camerino.

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Lateran Apse Mosaics 8274
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Centered below the mosaics is the Papal Cathedra. The cathedra level has Cosmatesque marble decorations and a gilded niche with trefoil cusped arch and Solomonic columns.

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Lateran Baldachino Cathedra 8362 M
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A view from the central nave past the Gothic Baldachino (or ciborium) by Giovanni di Stefano (1367) from a design by Arnolfo di Cambio, towards the Apse and Papal Cathedra.

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Lateran Baldachino 8356 M
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A frontal view of the same side of the Baldachino. The section above Barna da Siena’’s frescoes is the Relic Chamber said to house the heads of St. Peter and St. Paul.

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Lateran Baldachino 8283
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The term Baldachino (baldachin, or baldacchino in Italian) is a general term for a canopy over an altar or throne. The name is derived from a luxurious cloth from Bagdad, which was often used to make the canopies. The formal name in ecclesiastical architecture is Ciborium, but as that is also the name used for containers or tabernacles used to house the Hosts of the Eucharist, many people use the general term Baldachino for these canopies, as will I for those shown on these pages.

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Lateran Baldachino 8298
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Above each of the columns is a statue of St. Peter or St. Paul. Note the coffered ceiling over the nave (detailed images are below). Below is also a composite of da Siena’s frescoes.

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Lateran Baldachino Ascension 8272
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A view from the other side of the baldachino towards the Altar of the Blessed Sacrament, showing the ceiling and fresco above the altar. Further detail in the next image and below.

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Lateran Baldachino Ceiling 8313
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The design of the gilded coffered ceiling is attributed to Michelangelo. It was begun in 1562 by Daniel da Volterra and Pirro Ligorio under Pius IV and completed under St. Pius V. It was restored by Pius VI in the late 1700s, and contains three Papal Coats of Arms (Popes Pius IV, St. Pius V and Pius VI).

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Coffered Ceiling detail 8313c
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Detail of the central coffer over the baldachino: Bust of Jesus surrounded by cherubs (Giovanni Antonio Paracca, 1642-46).

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Baldachino Frescoes
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A composite of three sides of Barna da Siena’s frescoes on the baldachino, with sculptures of Saints Peter and Paul.

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Lateran Altar Blessed Sacrament 8297 M
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The Altar of the Blessed Sacrament created by Pier Paolo Olivieri (c. 1599) is in the south transept commissioned by Pope Clement VIII. It enshrines a cedar table said to be that used by Christ and the Apostles at the Last Supper. Note the gold depiction of the Last Supper above the pediment.

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Lateran Altar Blessed Sacrament 8371
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The Ciborium tabernacle is an octagonal temple structure of gilded bronze with precious stones, designed by the Roman military engineer Pompeo Targone and built at a cost of over 22,000 gold crowns. The Ciborium is flanked by four columns of verde antico brecchia from the original ancient basilica.

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Lateran Altar Blessed Sacrament 8287 M
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Above the altar pediment is a 1000 pound gilded silver bas-relief of the Last Supper,
supported by two gilded bronze angels by Ambrogio Buonvicino. The bas-relief, designed
by Curzio Vanni (1589) and cast by Orazio Censore (at a cost of 12,000 gold crowns) was
built to protect the cedar table which by tradition held the Last Supper (detail crop below).

The gilded bronze columns are from the ancient Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill.
They were recast from the prows of Cleopatra’s ships lost at the Battle of Actium between
Marcus Agrippa (who was commanding Octavian-Augustus' navy) and Marc Antony.

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Blessed Sacrament Last Supper 8297c
(detail crop — no linked image)

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Lateran Ascension d’Arpino 8287c
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The Ascension of Christ above the Altar of the Blessed Sacrament,
frescoed by Giuseppe Cesari (Cavaliere d’Arpino, 1599-1601).

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Lateran Monument Leo XIII 8292
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To the right of the Altar of the Blessed Sacrament, above the door to the Sacristy is the monumental tomb of Pope Leo XIII by Giulio Tadolini (1907). Leo XIII was the last pope to be entombed outside of St. Peter’s Basilica. It is surmounted by a fresco of an image of Christ in the Apse, part of the series done under Cavaliere d’Arpino (detail crop shown below).

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Lateran Monument Leo XIII 8368
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The Pope is standing in benediction, flanked by a statue of a worker on the left (Leo XIII addressed the condition of the working class and workers rights during his Papacy) and a statue of Faith on the right.

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Fresco Monument Leo XIII 8292c
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Detail of the fresco over the Tomb of Leo XIII depicting the appearance of an image of
Christ in the Apse of St. John in Lateran. It is part of the series of frescoes executed by
Cavaliere d’Arpino, Cesare Nebbia, Orazio Gentileschi and Giovanni Baglione under
Clement VIII for the Jubilee of 1600 (compare this with the Ascension fresco above).

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Lateran Organ 8309M
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Below the transept organ over the side door are marble reliefs of David (left) playing a harp and Ezekiel playing an organ by Ambrogio Buonvicino, with reliefs of musical instruments above. The side door pediment has two angels supporting an Aldobrandini Papal shield with Tiara and Keys (by il Vasoldo).

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Lateran Organ 8326
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The organ was designed by Luca Blasi of Perugia in 1598, with angels, cherubs and reliefs by Giovanni Battista Montano. The central pipe is 8 feet tall and weighs over 400 pounds. The central pipe in each group of five is twisted.

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Lateran Organ Ceiling 8321
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The Coat of Arms of Pope Clement VIII is in the central coffer (the Shield of Aldobrandini, a Stripe with Merlons and Stars) Pope Clement VIII was an Aldobrandini from Florence.

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Lateran Organ Ceiling detail 8321
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A larger detail crop of the coffered ceiling.

The two Giallo Antico columns supporting the organ came from Trajan’s Forum. The carved, coffered ceiling is part of the work done by Clement VIII for the Jubilee Year of 1600, and the coffers are decorated with Papal symbols and the Coat of Arms of Clement VIII (the Shield of Aldobrandini with Papal Keys and Tiara). The ceiling was designed by Taddeo Landini and executed by a team of cabinetmakers.

This side entrance to the transept known as the Nave Clementina is one of the primary entrances to the basilica, and the ambitious renovations by Clement VIII at the end of the 16th century were intended to make this part of the basilica a showplace, leading to the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament shown earlier. The decorations of the transept served as a prototype for subsequent Baroque churches.

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Direct Link to the Gallery with images of St. John in Lateran

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