Basilica Of St John Lateran: The Cathedral Church Of Rome

St John Lateran profile

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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 Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore and 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.

Exterior of the basilica with columns and arches and statues of the apostles on the roof
Tall statues top the facade of the basilica

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 Basilica 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).

Interior

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.

The magnificent interior of St John Lateran, with arches, pillars and carvings on the walls. The ceiling is decorated and gilded
The grand interior of St John Lateran

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.

Cloisters

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.

The cloister in the Basilica of St John Lateran. Looking between the twisted columns of different designs across the grass and flower beds to the opposite side. You can see that the cloister has two storeys, both with arches all the way around
The cloister in the Basilica of St John Lateran

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.

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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.

Egyptian obelisk with hieroglyphics and writing in Latin
The Lateran Obelisk

Palazzo Lateranese

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.

Courtyard and two wings of the Lateran Palace, a building with arches and frescoes
The Palazzo Lateranese

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. People ascending the main staircase must do so on their knees, and I saw several people doing just that. However, there are alternative stairs on either side for those who want the easier way up!

Wide stairway with walls and ceiling covered with paintings of religious themes
The richly painted Sacred Steps

All of the stairways are decorated with paintings of biblical scenes. They now lead up to the Sancta Sanctorum, the original private chapel of the Pope. It contains various relics and is still used for worship. Opening times are shown on the website.

About Bewitched by italy

Bewitched By Italy is owned and managed by Karen Warren.

I have been writing and travelling for many years (almost 70 countries at the last count), but Italy remains one of my favourite destinations. This website is my attempt to inform and inspire other travellers, and to share some of the things I’ve discovered along the way. Read more…

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