A Tourist in Rome - San Giovanni in Laterano

Location:Piazza Porta San Giovanni
Metro:San Giovanni, located along my Southeastern Sights Walking Tour
Time:about 1 hour
Cost:Free
Hours:Church 7:00 AM - 6:30 PM; Scala Sancta 6:30 AM - 11:50 AM and 3:30 PM - 6:45 PM, not open during the morning in the winter.

San Giovanni in Laterano is a large church which is one of the four in Rome that are part of the Vatican, along with St. Peter's Basilica, Santa Maria Maggiore, and St. Paul's Outside the Walls. This was the first of those four basilicas, built initially by Constantine in 312 AD on the grounds of army barracks of his enemy, Maxentius.

The church is among a complex of several buildings, one of which is best visible before you enter the church itself. That building is the remains of the papal dining hall in the old Lateran Palace, built in 800 AD. All that remains of this is the apse of the dining hall, called Triclinium Leoninum, and shown in the two photos below.

    
Triclinium Leoninum, the remaining apse of the papal dining hall in the old Lateran Palace, built in 800 AD
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Triclinium Leoninum, the remaining apse of the papal dining hall in the old Lateran Palace, built in 800 AD
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The church was originally dedicated to Christ the Saviour as the inscription above the entrance indicates (2nd photo below), but John the Baptist was added in the 10th century and John the Evangelist was added in the 12th century. It is the official ecclesiastical seat of the Bishop of Rome, who is the Pope. It was destroyed by an earthquake in 897 and rebuilt. It was destroyed by fire in 1308, rebuilt, destroyed by fire again in 1360, and rebuilt again. Pope Sixtus V replaced most of the structure in the 1500s, and Pope Innocent X remodeled the church in the 1600s, creating the present church. This remodeling changed the church's appearance from an ancient Roman basilica to its current Baroque style. Only the gilded ceiling and the Cosmatesque floor were kept. Pope Clement XII commissioned a new facade (2nd photo below) which was completed in 1735. The top of the facade holds huge statues of Christ and the Apostles.

    
The nave of San Giovanni in Laterano
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The facade of San Giovanni in Laterano
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The front entrance to the church is via the portico in the 1735 facade, which faces east toward the gates in the Aurelian Wall (the back door faces Piazza di San Giovanni Laterano). (I waited out a thunderstorm on this porch along with a couple hundred other people when I visited the church. When lightening struck very nearby, the thunder made all of us jump, then laugh at ourselves.) The central door (1st photo below) in this portico was originally from the Curia in the Roman Forum. It was taken from the Curia in the year 1660. The border is a later addition to make the doors fit the church, but the main bronze doors are original. The door on the right side of the facade is called the Holy Door (2nd and 3rd photos below), and is only opened every 25 years during Holy Year. At the left end of the portico is a statue of Emperor Constantius II (4th photo below) which was originally found in the ruins of the Baths of Diocletian.

    
Main bronze doors to San Giovanni in Laterano, taken in 1660 from the Curia Julia in the Roman Forum
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The Holy Door of San Giovanni in Laterano, only open during holy years
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The Holy Door of San Giovanni in Laterano, only open during holy years
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Statue of Emperor Constantius II in San Giovanni in Laterano, originally found in the Baths of Diocletian
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As in Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Santa Maria in Aracoeli, Santa Maria in Trastevere and probably several others, the floors in San Giovanni in Laterano are excellent examples of cosmatesque pavement, a style of inlaid stonework used in medieval Italy, derived from that of the Byzantine Empire. Three fine examples from this church are shown in the photos below. They come from the 14th century, making these a late example of this technique.

    
14th century cosmatesque pavement in the nave of San Giovanni in Laterano
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14th century cosmatesque pavement in the nave of San Giovanni in Laterano
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14th century cosmatesque pavement in the nave of San Giovanni in Laterano
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Larger-than-life statues of the Apostles, six on each side, which were created from 1701 - 1721, are in niches along the sides of the nave (1st and 2nd photos below). Closed doors painted on the wall behind the statues represent the gateways to Heavenly Jerusalem. Above the statues are 17th-century relief panels with Old Testament scenes on the left and related New Testament scenes on the right. Above are oval paintings of prophets, also from the 17th century. St. Matthew is shown in the 3rd photo below, and the New Testament frieze and Jonas painting above him in the 4th photo below. St. Peter is shown in the 5th photo below, with an Old Testament frieze above him. Red granite columns that were part of the 4th century nave colonnade are still used to support the triumphal arch (brightest columnn in the 6th photo below). Columns from the 4th century nave colonnade were also re-used flanking the statues of the apostles in the nave (24 green-speckled marble columnns).

    
Apostles in the nave of San Giovanni in Laterano
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Apostles in the nave of San Giovanni in Laterano
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Sculpture of the apostle St. Matthew in the nave of San Giovanni in Laterano, with a bible scene frieze above it, and a painting of a prophet (not shown) above that
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The apostle St. Matthew, with a new testament frieze above him and an oval-shaped painting of the prophet Jonas above that, in the nave of San Giovanni in Laterano.
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One of the sculptures of the apostles in the nave of San Giovanni in Laterano, with a bible scene frieze above it, and a painting of a prophet above that
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Red granite columns that were part of the 4th-century nave colonnade of San Giovanni in Laterano
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The gothic baldacchino (1st photo below) was created during in 1369. At the top is a reliquary said to contain the heads of Saints Peter and Paul, but these may have been removed during the French occupation of Rome in the 18th century. Beneath the baldacchino is the High Altar, which can only be used by the Pope. It contains a relic said to be part of St. Peter's communion table. The Papal Cathedra (2nd photo below) makes this basilica the cathedral of Rome. The Altar of the Holy Sacrament is shown in the 3rd, 4th and 5th photos below. The four bronze columns flanking the Altar of the Holy Sacrament also were originally used in the 4th century nave colonnade of the original church, and before that in the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill, and before being recast for that temple, the bronze had been used as the prows of Cleopatra's ships, taken in battle by Augustus. The altar itself contains a cedar table said to be the one used by Christ at the Last Supper.

    
The altar and baldacchino of San Giovanni in Laterano
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The Papal Cathedra in San Giovanni in Laterano
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Altar of the Holy Sacrament in San Giovanni in Laterano
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Altar of the Holy Sacrament in San Giovanni in Laterano
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Altar of the Holy Sacrament in San Giovanni in Laterano
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The right-most column on the northern side of the Arch of Constantine was taken from the arch, replaced with one of white marble, and used in the north doorway of this church (1st photo below). The early 13th-century cloisters are shown in the 2nd photo below, surrounded by graceful double-columns of inlaid marble. The porphory slab hanging on the wall in the cloister (3rd photo below) is believed to be the surface on which Roman soldiers cast lots for Christ's robes. The height of the columns in front of it represent's Christ's height, hence their Latin name of Mensura Christi.

    
Numidian yellow marble columns inside the north door of San Giovanni in Laterano, one of which was removed from the Arch of Constantine
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Cloister in San Giovanni in Laterano
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Mensura Christi inside San Giovanni in Laterano, four columns supporting a granite slab at the height of Jesus, with a red porphory slab behind it which was the one Roman soldiers threw dice upon for Jesus' robe. The inscription above reads "They divided my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment"
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Go out the rear door of the church (at the end of the right transcept) and you'll immediately see the Lateran Obelisk. We'll see that in detail shortly. Instead, turn your attention to the small octagon-shaped building at the right (1st photo below). The small domed octagonal bapistry, commissioned in 432 AD by Constantine, can be found behind the cathedral. This was the first structure built specifically as a bapistry in Rome. The huge font in the center allowed those being baptized to stand in water to their knees while more water was poured over their head. The water was supplied to this bapistry by the Aqua Claudia. The original structure is mainly gone having been replaced by a 5th century rebuild of the ground floor and a 1637 century build of the upper floor. The legend that Constantine was baptized here by Pope Sylvester is inaccurate since it is well known that Constantine was baptized on his deathbed in Constantinople.

    
Octagonal Bapistry at San Giovanni in Laterano
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Octagonal Bapistry at San Giovanni in Laterano
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Go back outside and have a look at the Lateran Obelisk now.

Continue walking around the church in the same direction as from the bapistry to the obelisk. Straight in front of you when you round the corner of the church is the Scala Sancta (the Sacred Steps or Holy Stairs) housed in a building that was once the papal palace. The 28 marble steps, now covered in wood (1st photo below), are said to be those that Christ ascended in Pontius Pilate's house during his trial. They were brought from Jerusalem by St. Helena (Constantine's mother) in 325 AD. They were moved to this present site after the Lateran Palace was destroyed. You may not walk up (or down) the Holy Stairs, you may only climb (or descend) them on your knees, as did Santa Maria in The Great Beauty. In several places there are glass panes in the wood, through which you can see stains in the marble that are said to be drops of Christ's blood, spilled when he walked the stairs during his passion. On my 3rd trip to Rome, I finally climbed up them on my knees (2nd photo below shows the people in front of me, half way up). The windows to view the drops of blood are actually scratched up plexiglass nowadays, through which I didn't really see anything I'd swear was 2000-year-old blood. I know, I know, you're worried about my Osgood-Schlatter disease, but fear not, I brought knee pads to Rome, exclusively for this climb. Wow, did I get a nasty look from somebody at the top when I took them off since it was so darned hot! I arranged my itinerary so this climb would be during my first day in Italy, so I could throw away the kneepads and reduce my backpack weight by a couple ounces for the rest of my trip. On both sides of the main stairway are staircases you can walk up or down normally to see the chapels above. The oldest of these chapels is the Sancta Sanctorum (3rd, 4th and 5th photos below), or Holy of Holies. It contains many important relics including an image of Jesus said to be the work of St. Luke, assisted by an angel. It is a private chapel for the pope, therefore cannot be entered. The inscription NON EST IN TOTO SANCTIOR ORBE LOCUS "there is no holier place in all the world") is above the entrance. On the walls are scenes of martyrdom, including those of St. Peter and St. Paul, whose martyrdoms first turned the city of Rome into a holy place. The 5th photo below shows the cosmatesque flooring in front of the chapel.

    
The Holy Stairs, next to San Giovanni in Laterano
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Scala Santa, half way up the climb on my knees
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Sancta Sanctorum, the papal chapel at the top of the Scala Sancta
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The altar in the Sancta Sanctorum, the pope's private chapel, at the top of the Scala Santa
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Cosmatesque flooring in Sancta Sanctorum, the pope's private chapel, at the top of the Scala Santa
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Back outside, behind the building housing the Holy Stairs, along Via Domenico Fontana, are two segments of the Aqua Nero branch of the Aqua Claudia (2 photos below).

    
Aqua Nero, a branch of the Aqua Claudia, these remnants located near San Giovanni in Laterano
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Aqua Nero, a branch of the Aqua Claudia, these remnants located near San Giovanni in Laterano
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Be sure to see the nearby Porta San Giovanni and Porta Asinaria.

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