Monday, November 9, 2009

Feast of the Dedication of the St John Lateran Basilica in Rome

Dedicated to John the Baptist and John the Evangelist, the Basilica of St. John Lateran (Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano) is the first among the four major basilicas of Rome.

It is also the cathedral of the bishop of Rome, the Pope, and is thus known as Omnium urbis et orbis Ecclesiarum Mater et Caput: "Cathedral of Rome and of the World."

Built by Constantine the Great in the 4th century, San Giovanni in Laterano was the first church to be built in Rome. It contains several important relics, a lovely 13th-century cloister and an ancient baptistery (San Giovanni in Fonte).


In ancient times, the site of San Giovanni Laterano was occupied by the palace of the family of the Laterani. Their 1st-century mansion has been located 5.55 meters below the nave of the church. In the 2nd century, the mansion was replaced by the barracks of the mounted Imperial Guard.

On the pretext that the Imperial Guard had fought on the side of Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge (312), Constantine razed the barracks and filled in the basement to form a foundation for a church that was to be the cathedral of Rome.

The Lateran Palace next to the barracks came into the hands of Constantine through his second wife Fausta, sister of Maxentius. This was used in 313 for the First Lateran Council, a church council that condemned the Donatist schism. A porticoed structure found in front of the palace has frescoes from the late 4th century depicting the Resurrection of Lazarus, Christ and the Samaritan, the Multiplication of the Loaves, and three saints: Vitus, Modestus and Crescentia.

The cathedral was dedicated to the Savior on November 9, 318. It was embellished with beautiful decorations given by Constantine, including seven silver altars with seven gilded candlesticks inlaid with images of prophets; 111 chandeliers; and gold voil for the apse vault. Constantine also built the baptistery on the northwestern corner of the church, which still survives in its original form.

From the fifth century there were seven oratories surrounding the basilica. These before long were incorporated in the church. The devotion of visiting these oratories, which held its ground all through the medieval period, gave rise to the similar devotion of the seven altars, still common in many churches of Rome and elsewhere.

In the 10th century, Pope Sergius III (904-911) added John the Baptist to the basilica's dedication, and in the 12th century, Pope Lucius II (1144- 1145) added John the Evangelist.

A Benedictine monastery of St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist adjoined the basilica and its members were charged at one period with the duty of maintaining the services in the church.

A great many donations from the popes and other benefactors to the basilica are recorded in the Liber Pontificalis, and its splendour at an early period was such that it became known as the "Basilica Aurea", or Golden Basilica. This splendour drew upon it the attack of the Vandals, who stripped it of all its treasures.

 Pope Leo the Great restored it about 460, and it was again restored by Pope Hadrian, but in 896 it was almost totally destroyed by an earthquake — damage so extensive that it was difficult to trace the lines of the old building, but the reconstruction was of the same dimensions as the old.

This second church lasted for 400 years and before suffering extensive damage from a series of fires, the worst of which was in 1308. It was rebuilt by Pope Clement V and Pope John XXII, only to be burnt down once more in 1360 and again rebuilt by Pope Urban V.

When the popes returned to Rome from their long absence at Avignon in 1377, they found the city deserted and the churches almost in ruins. Great works were begun at the Lateran by Pope Martin V and his successors. The palace, however, was never again used by them as a residence, the Vatican, which stands in a much drier and healthier position, being chosen in its place.

Pope Sixtus V replaced most of the remaining structure with work by his by his favorite architect Domenico Fontana, and a further renovation of the interior ensued, carried out by Francesco Borromini for Pope Innocent X (1644-55). This is the definitive remodeling that created the present church.

Finally, Pope Clement XII (1730 - 1740) launched a competition for the design of a new facade, which was completed by Alessandro Galilei in 1735.

-- Taken from Sacred Destinations

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