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The Lateran in the mid-18th century on an engraving by Piranesi
Inscription on the portal column of St. John Lateran
The beheading of John the Baptist in a relief on the main portal of the Lateran Basilica

The Lateran is an area in the district of Monti in the center of Rome and since the time of Constantine I. the official residence of the popes . It is located about five kilometers southeast of the Vatican on the left side of the Tiber . The Lateran includes the ancient papal arch basilica of St. John Lateran (also called Lateran basilica ), the associated ancient baptistery , the Lateran Palace from the 16th century and the largest obelisk in Rome as well as the remains of the medieval papal palace with the Scala Santa , the papal chapel Sancta Sanctorum and the Leonian Triclinium .

The Lateran Basilica is the cathedral of the diocese of Rome and one of the seven pilgrimage churches .


Pre-Christian history

The property was named after the original owners, the Roman Laterani family. It was apparently confiscated by Nero in 65 due to Plautius Lateran's involvement in the Pisonian conspiracy . In 161, Marcus Aurelius built a palace there. At the end of the 2nd century, Emperor Septimius Severus gave part of the possessions back to Titus Sextius Magius Lateranus .

Development under Emperor Constantine

Remaining column from the Basilica of Constantine

At the beginning of the 4th century there, on the Aurelian Wall , was the quarters of the elite troops, the Equites singulares of the Emperor Maxentius . After Konstantin had defeated Maxentius in 312, he ordered the rider's barracks to be razed in the course of a damnatio memoriae and had a monumental basilica for the Christian community and an associated baptistery built on this site . Fausta , Constantine's wife and sister of Maxentius, gave her house on the property to the Bishop of Rome , Miltiades , for a bishops' council in 313 ; however, this private house was not part of the later palace.

From what point in time the Lateran was the residence of the Roman bishops is still controversial in research. It was right next to the Sessorium , an imperial palace built in the 3rd century, and the residence of Helena (mother Constantine the Great) , who continues to exist in parts in the Church of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme . Of the three major Constantine churches, the Lateran basilica was located within the city walls and thus served as a cathedral. The Peter's Basilica and St. Paul Outside the Walls were over the graves of the apostles outside the city. That is why the church is still the Pope's episcopal church and as such bears the honorary title Omnium urbis et orbis ecclesiarum mater et caput (“Mother and Head of all Churches in Rome and the world”), which is why it is the highest-ranking Patriarchal Basilica . The Lateran Basilica was originally consecrated to Christ the Redeemer ( Latin Salvator ) and later also placed under the patronage of St. John the Baptist ( Italian San Giovanni ).

Middle Ages and Early Modern Times

In the 5th century the buildings on the Lateran were repeatedly plundered by Teutons , badly damaged by an earthquake in 896, but repeatedly repaired. In 897 the so-called synod of corpses took place here, at which Pope Stephen VI. sentenced his predecessor Formosus posthumously, desecrated the corpse and finally had him thrown into the Tiber.

The following councils took place in the Lateran:

Next to the church was the papal palace until 1309, the remains of which still exist in the Sancta Sanctorum chapel and the holy staircase , the Scala Santa. A competition between the clerics of both churches at the Vatican and the Lateran developed early on, in which both sides claimed to have the same relics or to have priority over the other since ancient times. The Vatican side did not shy away from insulting the Lateran clergy as "unbelieving Jews". The main place of worship was mostly the Vatican with the tomb of Peter; the Lateran could not offer anything of equal value and therefore offered an incredible number of relics.

As long as the popes wanted to portray themselves mainly as Roman bishops and lords of the city, the Lateran complex built on imperial land served them as a backdrop, in a compressed measure for their consecration and coronation. With the universalization of the papacy, however, the Vatican came more and more to the fore, even if the competition between the two was definitely not decided in favor of the Vatican until the jubilee year of 1300.

In 1377, when the Popes returned from exile in Avignon , the palace at the Vatican became the Pope's abode; However, this was not necessarily due to the structural condition of the Lateran palace, but rather to the desire of the popes to emphasize their universal claim to leadership again more clearly through the proximity to the tomb of Peter. In the Middle Ages, the equestrian statue of Marc Aurel stood on Lateran Square , which was then taken for a portrait of Constantine or a statue of Theodoric , which is why it was the only one of its kind to survive the turmoil of history. The so-called caballus Constantini was a ruling monument and place of judgment in one: Pope John XIII. there hang a rebellious city prefect by his hair on the statue. The statue was only part of an extensive program of figures, which also included the Roman she-wolf , the original of which can be admired in the Capitoline Museums today.

In 1586, today's Lateran Palace, which was attached to the church, was rebuilt as the papal summer residence.

Interior of the Basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano

The dilapidated ancient church was stabilized in 1646 by Francesco Borromini for the Holy Year 1650 and given a baroque style. Among other things, he redesigned the interior by reducing the original 14 arcades of the central nave to 5 per side. He had huge statues of the twelve apostles placed in the walled-in niches. These were made by students of Gian Lorenzo Bernini , among others .

The main facade was unadorned and was therefore clad with an ephemeral display for special festivities. In 1736 the main facade with its colossal figures up to seven meters high was built by Alessandro Galilei . In the middle you can see Jesus , on the left is John the Baptist, on the right is a statue of the Evangelist John, next to it are statues of the most important doctors of the church .

Modern times

The Popes were crowned in the Lateran until the 19th century. In 1929, the Lateran Treaty of Vatican City secured statehood, and u. a. the Lateran and the papal residence in Castel Gandolfo the status of an extraterritorial possession of the Holy See .

On July 28, 1993, the side entrance and parts of the palace front were badly damaged by a car bomb, and fourteen people were injured. Although the statics of the facade were even at risk, the damage was quickly repaired. The attack was understood as a warning to Pope John Paul II , who had preached passionately against the mafia on May 9, 1993 at a Eucharistic celebration in the "Valley of the Temples" in Agrigento , Sicily.

Building of the Lateran Complex


The Lateran Basilica is the episcopal church of Rome and the highest-ranking of the four papal basilicas in Rome. Its full name is Archibasilica Sanctissimi Salvatoris et Sanctorum Iohannis Baptistae et Evangelistae in Laterano , ("Archbasilica of the Most Holy Redeemer, St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist in Lateran"). The current archpriest is Cardinal Agostino Vallini . San Giovanni in Lateran is the actual cathedral of Rome because the church is the seat of the Bishop of Rome (i.e. the Pope).


Lateran Baptistery, exterior view

The octagonal Baptistery of the Lateran today is probably the oldest in Christendom and is considered the “prototype of all baptisteries”. It was probably originally built around the year 315 by Constantine and in the years 432 to 440 under Sixtus III. converted into an octagon.

Lateran Palace

Old Lateran Palace

The medieval Lateran Palace, damaged by fire in 1308, represented a conglomerate of the most varied of buildings: In addition to living and state rooms , there were several chapels , several dining rooms (triclines), cloisters, auditoriums and a large number of rooms whose function is still not available today could be clarified, but its existence is known from plans or images. It was “until around 1200 the most important ruler's residence in Europe” and served as a model for many early medieval palaces in the West.

When the Popes moved to Avignon in 1309, the fate of this palace building was sealed: Despite numerous renovations, for which Avignon instructions came, the building fell into disrepair. When the popes returned from Avignon, they turned their backs on the palace as the ideal main residence: With the definitive move to the Vatican palace, they emphasized their position as universal bishop, because their rule over Rome - for which the Lateran was a symbol - was largely secured . It was not until Pope Sixtus V had the palace demolished - which the humanists of his time resented him extremely badly - and only had the Sancta Sanctorum and its foundations combined in a new building with Scala Santa.

Lateran Palace and side view of the Lateran Basilica

New Lateran Palace

The newer Lateran Palace , which is directly adjacent to the Lateran Basilica, was built on behalf of Pope Sixtus V, so it dates from the 16th century. Some of it is open to the public and is now home to Vatican authorities.

On February 11, 1929, the Lateran Treaty between the Holy See and the then Kingdom of Italy (represented by the fascist Prime Minister Benito Mussolini ) was concluded here.

SS. Salvatore della Scala Santa

Side view of the Church of SS. Salvatore della Scala Santa with the Leon Triclinium

The building of the Church of SS. Salvatore della Scala Santa is diagonally opposite the Lateran Basilica in front of the remains of a Roman aqueduct . It contains the oldest, still preserved remains of the medieval papal palace, mainly parts of the former dining room, the triclinium. The current complex includes the so-called Holy Stairs , the Cappella Sancta Sanctorum (originally consecrated to the patronage of St. Lawrence and only attested under its current name since the 12th century), the Cappella di S. Silvestro and the Leonian Triclinium ; The latter was originally a little further from the complex, but was moved to its current location in the 19th century. The mosaics fell off and were added after a 17th century engraving. This building was designed by the builder Domenico Fontana on behalf of Pope Sixtus V between 1585 and 1590.

Other parts of the former palace are invisible behind the walls of the Passionist Convention: There are foundations and wall remains integrated into the new building, as well as some of the old frescoes on the ground floor of the palace. The oldest surviving depiction of Augustine in the small chapel to the right of the entrance to the building is famous.

Papal Chapel Sancta Sanctorum

Papal Chapel Sancta Sanctorum
Altar of the Sancta Sanctorum

The papal chapel Sancta Sanctorum ("the holy of holies") is one of the oldest remains of the ancient medieval papal palace. Legendary mentions go back to the 4th century, but the sources allegedly cited cannot be found; The first reliable mention of the chapel is a note from the Vita of Gregory IV in the Liber Pontificalis around the middle of the 9th century: There it still bears its old name, that of a capella / basilica sancti Laurentii. The name Sancta Sanctorum is not found until the 12th century.

The chapel is now located between two other chapels, one of which is dedicated to St. Lawrence and the other to St. New Year's Eve . The church got its current appearance under Pope Nicholas III. At the end of the 13th century: Nikolaus had two of the three originally existing altars torn down, the chapel was repainted and decorated with a cosmatic floor and marble slabs on the walls. The inscription by the builder Kosmatus can be found on the left side of the entrance to the chapel behind the so-called anticamera , the low passage that leads into the chapel.

The frescoes on the walls depict scenes from the lives of the saints: the saints Agnes , Petrus and Paulus, Stephanus , Laurentius and Nikolaus as the patron saint of the founder Nikolaus III are depicted . Orsini. Above the presbytery , the consecration of the chapel to Christ enthroned by the kneeling Pope, flanked by the apostles Peter and Paul, is depicted. The cycle of saints below, framed by twisted columns, was painted over from the 17th century; One can only speculate about the previous painting. The presbytery itself is mosaicked in Roman style, like the apses of the great basilicas. Again the saints of the fresco cycle are depicted, as well as a large Christ medallion (clipaeus) carried by angels . The hard-to-reach side behind the architrave with the inscription NON EST IN TOTO SANCTIOR ORBE LOCUS (“There is no more sacred place in the whole world”) shows mosaic lamps. There is no final agreement about the age of the mosaics in the presbytery. However, they are predominantly the work of Byzantine artists in the pontificate of Honorius III. designated; these artists had also created the apse mosaic of the Pope in S. Paolo fuori le mura .

The chapel was the palace's house chapel, which once housed the most important relics in Rome. The head relics of the apostles Peter and Paul were originally here before they were transferred to the Lateran basilica by Pope Urban V. Besides the heads of the apostles, important relics were above all relics of Christ, Mary, John 'the Evangelist and John' the Baptist. These church treasures were housed in a cypress wood drawer under the main altar behind two solid bronze doors and in two niches above the presbytery. The reliquaries were recovered at the beginning of the 20th century by the Austrian Jesuit Hartmann Grisar and can now be admired in the rooms of the Vatican Library within the Vatican Museums; however, the relics are still in the chapel, which is now under the care of the Passionist brothers.

Above the only remaining altar after the renovation is an almost life-size image of Christ enthroned, which may have been made around the middle of the 5th century. Over the centuries, various popes covered the original picture with cloths, on which copies of the picture were sometimes painted. Innocent III. covered it with a large silver plate so that only the face could be seen. The silver plate itself has also been supplemented with numerous additions over the centuries. a. by pilgrims, thoughtful. Since its appearance in the Vita of Stephen II in the Liber Pontificalis, the picture itself has not been considered to have been made by human hands ( acheiropoieton ) : The evangelist Luke had begun it, but since he was unable to complete it, angels would have colored it, so the cleric Maniacutius in the 12th century. According to documents, it was already carried in procession through Rome by Pope Stefan II in 756 in order to ward off an invasion of the Lombards . In later centuries the popes also marched in a procession on the Assumption of Mary with the icon from the Lateran across the Roman Forum to S. Maria Maggiore.

In the Mulisch bestseller The Discovery of Heaven , filmed by Dutch director Jeroen Krabbé with Stephen Fry , the stone tablets of Moses with the Ten Commandments are stolen from the chapel. In fact, these are considered lost and therefore never belonged to the relics that were venerated in the chapel.

Scala Santa

Holy stairs

The Holy Stairs or Holy Stairs lead up to the Chapel of Sancta Sanctorum , which come from the palace of Pontius Pilate and which Jesus is said to have entered during his trial. According to tradition , it was brought here from Jerusalem by the mother of Constantine, Saint Helena , in 326 . In memory of the sufferings of Christ, the stairs should only be kneeled on.

The staircase was originally the access staircase to the Lateran's Palace. At the end of the 16th century, the previously free-standing staircase received its current superstructure on behalf of Pope Sixtus V by master builder Domenico Fontana.

Since 1723 the marble steps have been protected from wear and tear with a walnut cladding. At the second, eleventh and twenty-eighth steps, a viewing window was left open through which one can see alleged traces of Christ's blood.

The Church grants every pilgrim who climbs the steps on their knees and prays an Our Father on each step a general indulgence once a year or on certain holidays . Partial drainage is possible every day.

At the foot of the stairs there are two sculptures and one that was added later, completed by Ignazio Jacometti in 1852. These depict scenes from the Passion with Pilate and Judas .

Leonean triclinium

The Leonian Triclinium
Mosaics of the Leon Triclinium

On the south side of the building of the Church of SS. Salvatore della Scala Santa is the Leonic Triclinium . As the name suggests, it is part of the former dining room of the Papal Palace. It is dated to the time of Pope Leo III. The information about the origin fluctuates between the years 796 and 810. The mosaic of today's outer apse is a reconstruction from the 18th century. Depicted within the apse calotte is the issuing of the missionary order to the apostles by Jesus. On the front of the triclinium there are two further representations to the right and left of the apse. The left mosaic shows the handing over of the key to Peter and the Labarum to Constantine by Jesus. The right is to award the pallium to Leo III. and depict the simultaneous handover of the flag of Rome to Charlemagne by Peter. A reliable interpretation is made difficult by the fact that during the two transports of the entire triclinium the mosaic on it fell off and had to be reconstructed, so that its original condition is at least controversial.

Obelisk from the south


The obelisk on the Piazza San Giovanni in Laterano in front of the Lateran Basilica is the largest and oldest known obelisk in Rome and measures 31 meters (47 meters with a base). In the 15th century BC Created in BC, it is reminiscent of Pharaoh Thutmose III. In 357 it was brought to Rome on a specially constructed ship under Emperor Constantius II and placed on the spina of the Circus Maximus . It broke in an earthquake. It was excavated in 1587 and placed at its current location, where it is linked to the church of Santa Maria Maggiore by a baroque visual axis .


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  • Gerhard Wolf: Salus Populi Romani. The history of Roman cult images in the Middle Ages. Weinheim 1990

Web links

Commons : Lateran  - collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. z. B. in 1729 on the occasion of the canonization of John Nepomuk . This facade is shown on a copper engraving owned by the Albertina in Vienna.
  2. ^ Basilica papale ( Italian ) Vicariatus Urbis - Portal of the Diocese of Rome. Archived from the original on January 17, 2009. Retrieved August 7, 2008.
  3. Manfred Luchterhandt : From the Bishop's House to the Locus Sanctus: The Lateran Palace in the cultural memory of the Roman Middle Ages , in: M. Featherstone et al. (Eds.), The Emperor's house. Palaces from Augustus to the Age of Absolutism (Urban Spaces 4), Berlin 2015, pp. 73–92, there p. 73
This version was added to the list of articles worth reading on May 21, 2005 .