Basilica Number One in the Catholic World
The Basilica of St. John Lateran is one of four great basilicas of Rome which should be visited by Catholic pilgrims. It is also a must-see for all tourists coming to Rome because of its glorious history and unfading splendor.
The Papal Archbasilica of St. John Lateran is the cathedral of Rome and the official ecclesiastical seat of the Bishop of Rome, who is the Pope. The Lateran Basilica is the oldest and ranks first among the four Papal Basilicas or major basilicas of Rome. Being the cathedral of the Bishop of Rome, which houses the papal throne (Cathedra Romana), the Basilica has been the main cathedral among Catholic churches, i.e. its rank is higher than that of St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican.
At the main entrance of the Basilica you can see the inscription «Sacrosancta Lateranensis ecclesia omnium urbis et orbis ecclesiarum mater et caput», i.e. “Most Holy Lateran Church, of all the churches in the city and the world, the mother and head”. Although the Lateran Cathedral is located outside the Vatican, it has an extraterritorial status, as a property of the Holy See.
The basilica stands over the remains of the Castra Nova equitum singularium, the ‘new fort’ of the imperial cavalry bodyguard. The fort had been established by Septimius Severus in AD 193, but following the victory of Constantine I over Maxentius (whom the Equites singulares augusti had fought for) at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge the guard were abolished and the fort demolished. The rest of the Basilica site was occupied during the early Roman Empire by the palace of the gens Laterani. One of them, Consul-designate Plautius Lateranus, was accused by Nero of conspiracy against the emperor. The accusation resulted in the confiscation and redistribution of his properties. An amazing irony of historical justice: although the Laterani lost their possessions, their family name had been forever added to history.
The Lateran Palace fell into the hands of the emperor Constantine I when he married his second wife Fausta, sister of Maxentius. Known by that time as the “Domus Faustae” or “House of Fausta,” the palace was eventually given by Constantine to the Bishop of Rome. The Lateran Palace was the official residence of the popes for many centuries.
The Lateran basilica was the first church built by Emperor Constantine after the Edict of Milan (313 AD) had given the Christians the freedom of worship. Traditionally, the Roman churches were built on foundations of pre-existing pagan temples or burial places of Christian martyrs. The Lateran basilica was built on a “new” place that was consecrated by many centuries of the worship.
The majestic facade of the main basilica in neo-classical style was completed by architect Alessandro Galilei in 1735. It consists of a two-tiered porch with the papal lodge, from which the Pope blesses the faithful in the Holy Thursday. The facade is decorated with huge sculptures of Jesus Christ and the saints which are literally hovering over the city. Against the backdrop of stormy clouds, these sculptures made an unforgettable impression.
The left wing of the portico hosts the equestrian statue of Constantine the Great, which was discovered at the Baths of Diocletian.