Watch the throne
The Archbasilica of St. John in the Lateran is the chief of the Major Papal Basilicas in Rome and is the official ecclesiastic seat, or cathedra (throne), of the Bishop of Rome – a title held by the Pope. The Latin inscription above the door proclaims that it is ‘Mother and Head of all the churches in the city and the world.’
This is the oldest of the five Papal Basilicas in Rome, four of which are Major Basilicas – the last, the Basilica of St. Lawrence, is Minor – and indeed it is the oldest Christian church in the West, earning it the title of Archbasilica. It even ranks above the splendid St. Peter’s
, which is the only Major Basilica inside the precincts of the Vatican State.
The church sits on the site of the ancient Roman Lateran Palace where Constantine I, the first Christian Emperor, ordered the construction of the first Christian basilica. He donated this to the Pope in the early 4th century AD and the Palace became the Papal residence for over a thousand years. The basilica and the palace were both dedicated to Christ the Saviour in 324 by Pope Sylvester I, who decreed that both the basilica and adjoining palace were the ‘house of God.’ It was only later that the basilica came to be associated with the name John: it is in fact dedicated to not one, but two famous saints named John – the Baptist and the Evangelist.
Christ and Constantine
On the roof above the main entrance to the basilica are 15 huge statues of Christ and various saints in Baroque style. The heavy bronze doors to the church date from the 1st century and are the original doors from the Curia, the Roman Senate building, taken from the Roman Forum
. Entering the portico you will see an original giant statue of Constantine the Great which once decorated the baths on Quirinal Hill.
Inside the basilica there are further large 17th century statues of the Apostles lining the nave, a spectacular 13th century mosaic floor and a magnificent altar at which only the Pope may officiate. The two sculpted heads on top of the altar are said to contain the skulls of the sainted apostles of Rome, Peter and Paul, and the wooden planks beneath are from the original 4th century altar of the Popes.
In the apse of the basilica you will find the throne of the Pope surrounded by glittering gold mosaics - although it not quite as sumptuous as the throne of St. Peter in his basilica
. The chapels dedicated to both Saints John were built in the 5th century by Pope Hilary. The more curious tourist can see the Chaise Percée, where the Pope would be examined so as to ensure he was a man: this tradition was introduced after a (probably fictional) female, known as Pope Joan, supposedly impersonated a man in order to enter the educated clergy and was so proficient in her studies that she was voted Pope. Her identity was discovered when she gave birth during her Papal procession and she was subsequently stoned to death.
St. John’s has witnessed some of the most remarkable events in the history of the Church. In the 800s Pope Stephen VI held a bizarre trial here accusing the corpse of his predecessor of treating with the king of the barbarians. Most famously, in Mussolini signed the 1929 Lateran Treaty here with the Pope granting independent sovereignty to the Vatican City. This church is a treasure of not only religious importance, but of historical, political and artistic significance. With the possible exception of St. Peter’s, this basilica should be top of your list.