Catholic Dictionary




One of five great basilicas in Rome and the mother and head of all churches. It was founded by Emperor Constantine (c. 274-337) near the Lateran Palace, which he presented to Pope Sylvester as his episcopal residence and which was used by all the popes until 1309 when the papacy moved to Avignon. The church was dedicated to the Holy Savior and became the prior church of Christendom. Its canons even today take precedence over those from St. Peter's. The primitive church was destroyed by earthquake in 898. The reconstruction was partly burned in 1308 and rebuilt. The present interior is severe but rich in its proportions. Paired columns, with niches between and holding mammoth statues of the Apostles, fill both sides of the nave, while above them are reliefs taken from the Old and New Testaments. Still higher up are medallions of the Prophets leading the eye to the gorgeous ceiling with the numerous papal arms and emblems of Christ's Passion. The apse, reconstructed by Pope Leo XIII, contains precious mosaics of the thirteenth century depicting the union of the kingdom of earth and heaven as united in baptism. The high altar covers many relics including the heads of Sts. Peter and Paul, and St. Peter's small altar from the catacombs. Preserved here is the cedar table that according to tradition was used at the Last Supper. As long as the popes were in residence at the Lateran Palace, the basilica saw the coronations and entombments of the popes and was the place where four ecumenical councils were held in 1123, 1139, 1179, and 1215. Connected with the famous basilica is the Lateran Baptistery, for a long time the only one in Rome and since then the model for all others. Constantine was baptized in the year 337 shortly before his death, at the porphyry bath that is still preserved there.