The Pontifical North American College

Palm Sunday: San Giovanni in Laterano

On Palm Sunday, the stational cycle brings us to the Cathedral Archbasilica of the Holy Savior and St. John the Evangelist and St. John the Baptist in the Lateran, the formal title of this church whose significance in the history of the Roman Church can hardly be exaggerated.  It is here that the Holy Father has his cathedra as Bishop of Rome, on a site given by the Emperor Constantine to Pope Miltiades soon after the Battle of the Milvian Bridge.  While there are only a few structural segments of that first basilica remaining within the walls, the dimensions of the church have remained mostly the same through its many rebuildings, allowing us to get some sense of its original size.  This area is so called because it was originally the estate of the Lateran family.  One member of this family, the senator Publius Lataranus, was charged with conspiracy and executed by the emperor Nero in A.D. 65.  At the same time this land was confiscated, although it seems that it was returned to the family some time thereafter.  In the late second century, the emperor Septimus Severus built a cavalry camp on this spot; part of this land was also occupied by a palace, the Domus Fausta.  This would eventually come to be owned by the wife of Constantine, the emperor who would in turn give it to the pope.  In fact, one hypothesis proposes that the donation of this land to the Church took place on 9 November 312, less than two weeks after Constantine’s victory.

In time, both the palace and the military camp would be torn down to make room for the new basilica, the first major Christian building project in Rome.  It was finished by about 320, being at that time one of the most lavishly decorated churches in the Empire.  Over the next few centuries it would suffer from the various barbarian invasions of Rome, as well as the normal decay experienced by any building.  Through all of this, the local church would gather their resources to again rebuild and refurbish it.  In 896, an earthquake caused the nave to collapse.  It would be rebuilt early in the next century.  In 1291, Nicholas IV rebuilt the transept and apse, also commissioning the apse mosaic now above the papal cathedra.  Less than 20 years later, in 1308, a fire caused significant damage to the basilica, all of which was soon repaired.  This was followed by an even worse fire in 1361 which destroyed the roof.  The sad state of the basilica following this inspired the great author Petrarch to write to the pope, then living in Avignon, pointing out how the cathedral was open to the weather while the pope was residing in a palace hundreds of miles away.  This spurred the pope to call for contributions for the repair of the basilica, by which it was restored to some semblance of its former state.  The north façade of the transept, facing the Piazza San Giovanni in Laterano, was built by Gregory XI in the 1370’s, providing a more impressive appearance for the main entrance to those approaching from the city.  Martin V (r. 1417-1431) laid the beautiful marble floor in the nave.

As with many churches in the city, the period after the Council of Trent saw many architectural changes carried out on the fabric here.  Sixtus V added a loggia to the north transept in 1588, which preceded a total renovation of the transept from 1590 to 1605.  Among the new additions at this time was the magnificent Altar of the Blessed Sacrament.  The nave was completely redecorated by Francesco Borromini between 1646 and 1650, giving it the current appearance; the statues of the twelve apostles were added early in the following century.  Although this renovation replaced the previous brick columns dating from the Middle Ages with larger pillars, it nonetheless preserves the original five aisle configuration, a characteristic of the classic Roman basilica.  The façade, by Alessandro Galilei, dates from 1730-1732.  The most recent change to the basilica is the lengthening of the apse, commissioned by Leo XIII and carried out in 1876-1886 in order to provide more room for major liturgical functions (the original apse began at the rear wall of the transept).  At this time the medieval mosaics were transferred and restored in the new apse.

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