Which is the most important Catholic church in Rome? Surprisingly, it is not St Peter’s, but the Basilica of St John Lateran, on the Caelian Hill, some 5 km from the Vatican City. This imposing building is the Cathedral Church of Rome, the oldest basilica in the world, and worthy of a visit for its history, artworks, and relics.
Part Of The Holy See
The Basilica of St John Lateran (San Giovanni in Laterano) is one of four papal basilicas within Rome but outside the Vatican City. These all have extra territorial privileges, meaning that – although located in Italy – they are not subject to Italian law. (The Vatican – or the Holy See – has a number of such properties in and around Rome, such as the Papal Palace at Castel Gandolfo.)
St John Lateran is sometimes known as an archbasilica (the only such in the world), signifying its precedence over all other Catholic churches. Founded in 324 CE on land formerly owned by the powerful Lateranus family, it was for many centuries the primary residence of the Pope. The original church was damaged by earthquake and fire and in the 14th century the papacy relocated – first to Avignon in France and then to the Vatican City.
However, popes continued to be crowned at St John Lateran until the 19th century. It is still the seat of the Pope (who is also the Bishop of Rome), and he celebrates mass here every year on Maundy Thursday.
What To See At The Church Of St John Lateran
You get a sense of the grandeur of the place as you approach from the Piazza di San Giovanni in Laterano. As you walk through a large grassy area you are confronted with the ornate arched exterior, completed in 1735 and topped by outsized statues of the apostles (here St Paul takes the place of Judas Iscariot).
The interior is mostly 17th century, with five naves separated by columns. The church is full of artworks – statues, mosaics and frescoes – and the bronze doors at the entrance are the ones that once stood in the Roman Senate building in the Forum. And, unsurprisingly, there are several papal tombs.
Relics held by the basilica supposedly include the heads of St Peter and St Paul (although you won’t actually see the skulls, as they are inside the busts of the saints above the main altar). A table to the side of the altar is reputedly the one on which the Last Supper was served.
The large 13th century cloister is the only part that remains of the original monastery on the site. Built by the Vassalletto family, it is regarded as one of the best Romanesque cloisters in Rome. Enjoy the arcades and the elaborate twisted marble columns ornamented with mosaics and carved animals.
Baptistery of San Giovanni In Fonte
The 4th century San Giovanni in Fonte is the oldest baptistery in the world. It is of an octagonal design, setting the standard for future baptisteries, and has marble columns and a painted ceiling.
The Lateran Complex
The Basilica of St John Lateran is just one of a complex of buildings around the Piazza di San Giovanni in Laterano. At the centre of the piazza is the Lateran Obelisk, the tallest obelisk in Italy. Dating back to around 1400 BCE, it was brought to Rome from Egypt in 357 CE and was originally erected in the Circus Maximus.
The Lateran Palace (Palazzo Lateranese) was historically the home of the Pope. It was remodelled into a grand palace in the 16th century and subsequently had various charitable and military uses. Today it houses a section of the Vatican Historical Museum.
Sancta Sanctorum And Sacred Steps
The Sacred Steps (Scala Santa) are supposedly the same steps that once led to the praetorium of Pontius Pilate, brought to Rome from Jerusalem by St Helena. They now lead up to the Sancta Sanctorum, the original private chapel of the Pope. Visitors can walk up the steps (pilgrims climb up on their knees!) and peer into the chapel.
Guided tours of the chapel itself are possible, but you need to book in advance.