Friday 23 February 2024

Rome: San Giovanni Lateran Basilica and Scala Sancta

According to Wikipedia, the title of this basilica is "Major Papal, Patriarchal and Roman Archbasilica Cathedral of the Most Holy Savior and Saints John the Baptist and the Evangelist in Lateran, Mother and Head of All Churches in Rome and in the World."  It must be important.  It is definitely an impressive building.  The above photo does not convey the awe that I felt outside the building looking at at how huge it is.

Even this photo of the portico does not give justice to how large it is.  (If you look out from this portico, you will look out to see busy traffic around the San Giovanni Porta.)

So here is a photo of me against the green door that you will glimpse in the previous photo.  That is one big door!  It looks like I have drunk the "shrink me" potion in Alice in Wonderland.

I took this photo of the chapel on my left as I walked in and later read that it was the resting place of someone significant.  I should have written notes because now I cannot find who it is.  Rome is like that.  So much history that what might be notable elsewhere is just a drop in the flood of significance.  It is hard to keep up.  

I was so overwhelmed by this basilica that I bought a guidebook in a chapel; something that I rarely do these days given the information online and the piles of tourist detritus in my house.  But even trying to read it is difficult because it condenses so much information.  

So many architectural changes to the building. 
So many beautiful and symbolic works of art. 
So many significant people involved as popes, artists and architects. 
So many significant moments related to world history and the Catholic Church.  

My blog post can only skim across the surface and express my awe because I would be here for years if I were to say everything that should be said about it.  

And to return to my uneasiness with the Vatican, so much wealth has been poured into this building, which might have been used to bring material comfort to those in need rather than focusing on spiritual needs.  One might argue that the wealth of the spirit is from attending to the material needs of others rather than creating grand buildings.  And yet I can't get over how amazing the building is so I am conflicted in seeing such beautiful creations!

So after my digression, I return to the astonishing size of the basilica.  If you look carefully towards the bottom right corner, you will see a guide sitting in a chair to give you some perspective.  This is the view towards the back of the church.

This is the view from the same place as the previous photo but it is looking towards the nave.  The opulent golden ceiling draws the eye.  I wish I had had more time to study the statues of the apostles in the alcoves.  I am fascinated by the lives of the saints and wish I knew more about them.  (Thanks for the start, Sister Mary at my Catholic school!)


Here is a statue of Bartholomew, one of the apostles.  He is depicted with his flayed skin and a knife to represent his death being skinned alive and beheaded.  Apparently this is one of the ways he is said to have died but I guess it is the most memorable.  This is immediately recognisable.

Also fascinating in Catholic iconography is that way that people are represented.  In the above scene I think the saints (or is that God the Father and God the Son?) look odd because their heads are out of proportion.  The pope is holding up a building to .  Show and tell?  

Did I mention that when I went in, Sylvia decided to wait outside.  At this point while I was walking through the basilica, I realised I was taking longer than I had expected and messaged Sylvia who was tired of waiting and decided to come in.  I was glad because there was so much to see that I needed quite a bit more time and she got to see the splendid building.

The nave is a great example of art covering every surface possible.  In the middle is the "papal cathedra" otherwise known as the chair of the pope which is the reason it is a cathedral.  I was quite confused by the Lateran Basilica being the Cathedral of the Diocese of Rome.  The Pope is the Bishop of Rome so this is his seat.  It shows me that I just don't understand how the Vatican is a separate nation to Italy and yet the Pope is Bishop of Rome.  Maybe it is a bit like Jesus being both God and the Son of God.

The Organ is as ornate as the rest of the basilica.  It would be amazing to come to a Mass here and here the music.

More artwork over the walls and long aisle of arches.

There are many lovely chapels for private prayer.

And of course there is the confessional.  I think confessing your sins in this one would be a bit challenging given the insouciance of the statue lying across the top.

The Basilica is but we had to pay to visit the Cloisters.  Who could resist!  The history of the building goes back so far that they had lots of old stones all the way around. 

The tomb slab of Elisabetta Orsini, Noblewoman from Rome, dated 1 December 1496.  I am not clear where it has been for over 500 years but it shows the ravages of time.

 The pillars in the archways are quite lovely.

This is the tomb of Ricardo Annibaldi, a subdeacon and papal notary who died on 28 August 1289.  He came from a notable family and had an impressive tomb and freize, which is partially preserved here.

This tomb slab of one of the Lateran canons from the first half of the 16th Century.  I love how tired he looks.  It is so relatable.

There was a lot to see around the cloisters.  Finally we cast one last admiring glance, returned to the basilica and walked down the last aisle to the exit. 

I went to see the Scala Santa but it was closed for the afternoon break.  So Sylvia came for some pizza for lunch with me and she headed home while I went in search of an English language novel (at the main station aka Termini).  I returned alone later in the afternoon when it was open.  This is quite an impressive structure to house the holy stairs. 

The marble stairs are said to be the ones that Jesus ascended to speak to Pontius Pilate during the Passion, and brought to Rome from Jerusalem by the Empress Helena in the 4th Century.  They have long been a site of pilgrimage for Catholics.  People are only able to climb the stairs on their knees.  They were covered in wood in the 1700s to prevent continued wearing of the marble.  Staircases have been built either side but I am so confused about who goes on which staircase.

I read about these holy stairs before going to Rome and was confused about if people still had to climb the stairs on their knees.  There is nothing like being there watching people actually climb stairs on their knees to know the tradition continues.

I was really pleased we got to visit the Lateran basilica and the holy stairs.  They were a wonder to see even if I could not get my head around how it all fits together.  The Catholic Church is a complicated institution.


  1. This is an awesome post, which I much appreciated and enjoyed reading: great 'tour' of such a beautiful, historical, venerable place, with many great photos. And thanks for sharing your opinions/questionings on aspects of institutional Catholicism; all valid.

  2. Sorry, forgot to mention, re your interesting description of the 'holy stairs', and people on their knees: During a couple of weeks' stay in Mexico City, twenty years ago, on the way to volunteer in Nicaragua for a year, I witnessed people crossing the vast, stone tile paved Zocalo on their knees, en route to the Cathedral. I get why people were doing this, but it was shocking to witness, and I will never forget it.


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