Basilica San Juan de Letran

Basilica San Juan de Letran
Basilica San Juan de Letran

The Basilica of Saint John Lateran, whose real name is The Archbasilica of the Savior and Saints John the Baptist and John the Evangelist, although due to its history it is also known by the nickname of the Lateran or even Lateran Basilica. The Basilica of San Juan is part of the well-known group of major basilicas -those that hold a high rank- together with San Pedro del Vaticano, San Pablo Extramuros and Santa María la Mayor; in fact, the basilica that concerns us here is the oldest of all the major basilicas and unlike what it might seem, it is the cathedral of the diocese of Rome.


The construction of San Juan de Letrán is dedicated to Christ the Savior and is owned by the Holy See, it is an extraterritorial building that, despite being located in Rome, does not belong to Italy but to the Vatican. In this context, the complex of San Juan de Letrán - not only the chapel but also the baptistery and the episcopal palace - were declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1980.

The original construction dates back to the 6th century AD. when Emperor Constantine gave Pope Melquiades an ancient piece of land that had belonged to a Roman noble family fallen from grace under Nero. We do not have much news about this primitive building, it is hardly known that it was consecrated in the year 324 and dedicated to the Savior; I only knowthey preserve a few remains since the complex was destroyed in the 9th century due to a fire and had to be rebuilt. This was not, however, the only reconstruction, since in the 18th century Borromini carried out an authentic restructuring of the temple to give it a more baroque appearance.

Of the original building, however, we know that it was a basilica with a longitudinal plan with five naves oriented from East to West, of which the largest was wider and higher than the lateral navesthus allowing the illumination of the temple. Each of the naves was separated from the naves by columns that supported large arcades in the central nave and other smaller ones on the sides. At the head, a huge semicircular apse was flanked by small cubicles with a flat headwall that served as a sacristy.

According to the documentary sources in the primitive basilica of San Juan de Letrán, the faithful found a strong dichotomy between a simple exterior and little decorated with the interior where ornament had been wasted and worked with noble materials such as the gilding of the dome that opened in the presbytery or the green, red and yellow marble used in the columns that separate the naves.

Next to the basilica was the baptistery, an independent space for baptisms that in ancient times was only found in cathedrals– octagonal in plan as was customary in this types of constructions - is the oldest western baptistry thathas survived to this day.

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