The history of St.
John Lateran dates back to the time of Emperor Constantine the Great. Shortly
after Constantine
legalized Christianity in AD 313, he donated part of his imperial property
along with its buildings to Pope Melchiades (pope from AD 311-314) to be used
as a church and papal residence. The name of “Lateran” comes from the
property, which was known at that time as the Horti Laterani, since it had once
belonged to a Roman senator of the first century AD named Plautius Lateranus before
ownership of the property had passed into imperial hands. The buildings on the
Lateran property were subsequently converted into a basilica and papal
residence and the basilica was consecrated as a church in AD 324 by Pope Sylvester
I (pope from AD 314-335). Most of the popes who came after Pope Sylvester I resided
in the papal apartments of the Lateran Palace, a building adjacent to the
Archbasilica of St. John Lateran. This continued to be the pope’s main
residence for almost 1,000 years until the papacy moved to Avignon, France
in AD 1304. After the papacy returned to Rome in
1377, the popes took up resided at the Vatican because of fires that had
damaged buildings on the Lateran property during their absence.

 

During its long
history the basilica has been damaged, rebuilt and modified several times,
leaving very little of the original fourth century AD structure intact. In AD
896 the basilica was damaged by an earthquake and rebuilt by Pope Sergius III,
who added St. John
the Baptist to the dedication. Pope Lucius II (pope from 1144-1145) added St. John the Evangelist to
the dedication. After fires in 1308 and 1360 the basilica was entirely rebuilt
again. In 1586 Pope Sixtus V demolished and rebuilt the Lateran Palace,
the building directly next to the basilica. During the papacy of Pope Innocent
X (pope from 1644-1655) the interior of the basilica was completely remodeled
under the direction of the Italian architect Francesco Borromini. The
seventeenth century AD remodel by Borromini is the interior that visitors to
the basilica see today. The front facade of the basilica, which faces east towards
Piazza di San Giovanni in Laterno, was commissioned by Pope Clement XII (pope
from 1730-1740) and completed in 1735 by the Italian architect Alessandro
Galilei, a relative of the famous astronomer Galileo Galilei.

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On the balustrade
(railing) at the top of the basilica’s front facade are fifteen statues
representing Christ, St. John the Baptist, St. John the Evangelist
and 12 Doctors (meaning “teachers”) of the Greek and Latin churches.
The Latin inscription across the top of the facade reads “Clement XII, in
His Fifth Year as Pope, to the Savior in Honor of Saints John the Baptist
and  Evangelist”. In the portico (or
covered porch), five doorways lead into the basilica. In the central doorway
are the massive ancient bronze doors which were removed from the Senate House
(Curia Julia) in the Roman Forum and installed
here in the seventeenth century AD.

 

The interior of the
basilica is comprised of a nave (central aisle) with double side aisles and several
side chapels. Twelve niches in the nave display large statues of the 12
apostles of Jesus. The high altar, created in 1367, can only be used by the
pope or his proxy. Above the high altar is a baldachin, meaning “canopy
over an altar”, that dates from 1369.

 

In the apse behind
the high altar is the Cathedra Romana, or bishop’s throne, used only by the
pope, who is the Bishop of Rome. Cathedra
is the Latin word for a chair with armrests and a church in which the bishop’s
official cathedra is installed is called a cathedral. Therefore, St. John
Lateran is the cathedral of Rome.

 

Today, the Lateran
palace is no longer used as a residence of the popes, but rather is occupied by
the Vatican Historical museum and church offices. The museums features many
items, paintings and documents related to the popes and the Papal
States.

 

Finally, in the
square behind the Lateran
Palace is the Lateran
Obelisk. The obelisk is originally from the temple
of Amun in Karnak,
Egypt and was brought to Rome in AD 357 to decorate
the Circus Maximus. It was found in 1587
during the papacy of Pope Sixtus V, who then erected the obelisk in its present
location in 1588. 

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