Basilica of St. John Lateran, Baptistery, Scala Sancta

Basilica of St. John Lateran, Baptistery, Scala Sancta


  • Founder: Constantine I
  • Built: 313–318
  • Consecrated: 324
  • Damaged by an earthquake: 896
  • Burnt (twice): 14th century
  • Rebuilt: 16th–17th centuries
  • Name: Archbasilica Cathedral of the Most Holy Savior and of Saints John the Baptist and John the Evangelist in the Lateran

The Basilica of St. John Lateran is the first public church in Rome and the first basilica in the West. It is "the Mother and Head of all the churches of the City (of Rome) and of the World." It has a primary Patron—Christ the Savior—and two co-patrons—Sts. John the Baptist and John the Evangelist. It is the Cathedral of the Pope—the Bishop of Rome.

The adjacent Lateran Palace was the papal residence from the 4th to the 14th century. From the 12th to the 16th centuries, 5 ecumenical councils were conducted in Lateran.


  • Statues of the Apostles
  • The Cathedra (Chair) of the Pope
  • Apse Mosaic: The First Image of Christ
  • Octogonal Baptistery

Prayer Spots

  • Last Supper Table (Altar of the Blessed Sacrament)
  • Scala Sancta


Rome Saint John Lateran facade by Alessandro Galilei
©2022 Kenny Ang

Date: 1735 | Artist: Alessandro Galilei

Damaged by two fires in the 14th century, it was rebuilt in the late 16th century during the papacy of Sixtus V. The Latin inscription on the façade reads:

Pope Clement XII, in the fifth year [of his Pontificate, dedicated this building] to Christ the Savior, in honor of Saints John the Baptist and [John] the Evangelist.

The façade is crowned by statues of Christ, St. John the Baptist, St. John the Evangelist, and Doctors of the Eastern and Western Churches.

The First Jubilee

First Jubilee was declared by Pope Boniface VIII in 1300.

The first column on the right-hand side of the interior has a portion of the celebrated fresco by Giotto, which depicts Pope Boniface VIII's announcement of the first Holy Year in 1300.

Statues of the Apostles

Rome Saint John Lateran Statue of St. Peter sponsored by Clement XI
Statue of St. Peter, sponsored by Clement XI. ©2020 Kenny Ang

Date: 18th century | Artist: Carlo Maratta and others

Francesco Borromini's architecture had twelve empty spaces for a long time. In 1702, Pope Clement XI and Cardinal Benedetto Pamphili announced that they wanted to put twelve sculptures of the Apostles in those niches, with the exception of Judas Iscariot, who was replaced by St. Paul (instead of St. Matthias).

Each statue was to be sponsored by a distinguished prince. The Pope himself sponsored St. Peter, while Cardinal Pamphili sponsored St. John the Evangelist. Most of the sculptors were given a sketch by Carlo Maratta, the Pope's favorite painter, as a guide.

Papal Altar and Ciborium

Rome Saint John Lateran Papal Altar used by Peter
Papal Altar. ©2020 Kenny Ang

This Basilica's papal altar is one of the most revered in Rome. Enshrined inside it are the remains of a wooden table where the first popes and martyrs—St. Peter included—celebrated Mass.

The papal altar is positioned under a triumphal ciborium. The two silver reliquary busts placed on top of this altar contain relics that have touched the remains of Sts. Peter and Paul.

Rome Saint John Lateran
Ciborium with reliquary busts inside. ©2020 Kenny Ang

The Confessio, located in front of the altar, houses the tomb of Pope Martin V, who restored St. John Lateran and ended the Great Western Schism (1378–1417) that had split the Church for 39 years.

Last Supper Table

Rome Saint John Lateran Tabernacle and a piece of Last Supper table above it
Tabernacle and a piece of Last Supper table above it. ©2022 Kenny Ang

In Jerusalem, St. Helen—Constantine's mother—found a piece of the table Jesus used during the Last Supper and brought it here. It is located above the altar where the Blessed Sacrament is kept, surrounded by a bronze relief depicting the Last Supper.

Apse Mosaic

Image of Christ: 4th century | The rest of the mosaic: 13th century (by Jacopo Torriti)

The First Image of Christ

Rome Saint John Lateran First Image of Christ
First Image of Christ. ©2022 Kenny Ang

At the center of the apse mosaic is the first public image of Christ dating to the 4th century. It served as the model for the later representations of Christ.

Six saints were added to the mosaic in the 6th century. In the 13th century, Jacopo Torriti added the depictions of Pope Nicholas IV, St. Francis, and St. Anthony. Both Nicholas IV and Torriti were Franciscans.

Christ's Divinity

Rome Saint John Lateran Apse Mosaic by Jacopo Torriti
©2022 Kenny Ang

The apse mosaic emphasizes Christ's divine nature and the salvific power of baptism. Positioned from left to right are Paul, Peter, Francis of Assisi (small), Nicholas IV (smaller), Mary, John the Baptist, Anthony of Padua (small), John the Evangelist, and Andrew.

Of these figures, four hold scrolls that proclaim Christ's divinity. Paul’s scroll reads:

we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ (Philippians 3:20).

Peter’s scroll contains his profession of faith:

You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God (Matthew 16:16).

John’s scroll says:

In the beginning was the Word (Jn 1:1).

Andrew's refers to his calling:

You are my Teacher (see John 1:38–41).

Baptism: New Creation

Rome Saint John Lateran Deers, streams of water, and a Phoenix on a Tree of Life
Deers, streams of water, and a Phoenix on a Tree of Life. ©2022 Kenny Ang

From the Cross adorned with precious gems flow four streams of water from which the deers drink. The four streams point back to Eden:

A river flows out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it divides and becomes four branches (Genesis 2:10).

This scene recalls our yearning for God:

As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God (Psalm 42:1).

It also represents Ezekiel's vision:

Then he brought me back to the entrance of the temple; there, water was flowing from below the threshold of the temple … Wherever the river goes, every living creature that swarms will live, and there will be very many fish, once these waters reach there (Ezekiel 47:1, 9).

Ezekiel's vision narrates the restoration of all creatures—the new creation. For this reason, between the streams lies the Tree of Life. Perching on this Tree is a phoenix, a bird that symbolizes resurrection and regeneration. Below the Tree, we see the New Jerusalem. The river at the bottom is the river Jordan, a symbol of Christian baptism.

Lateran Baptistery

  • Founder: Constantine I
  • Built: 313–318 (with later modifications)
  • Name: San Giovanni in Fonte

The First Baptistery

Rome Saint John Lateran
©2020 Kenny Ang

Since the first century, baptisms in Rome happened near flowing water. Tertullian, a lawyer and Christian convert from the 2nd century, tells us that St. Peter baptized people in the Tiber.[]

The Lateran Baptistery is the first baptistery in Rome. Tradition has it that Constantine was baptized here. It has a circular structure. For the Romans, circles denote perfection. Hadrian’s Mausoleum is also circular, for instance.

Pope Sixtus III (432–440) redesigned the baptistery into its current octagonal layout. The octagonal shape represents Christ's resurrection on the eighth day, which is also known as the "first day of the week" (John 20:19). It also signifies the new creation: after the seven days of creation comes the eighth day, representing the new creation: through baptism, we are reborn and created anew. That is why baptism is also known as regeneration.

Catechesis on Baptism

Rome Saint John Lateran
©2020 Kenny Ang

Engraved on the architrave is the catechesis of Sixtus III on baptism:

  1. Here is born a people of noble race, destined for Heaven, / whom the Spirit brings forth in the waters he has made fruitful.
  2. Mother Church conceives her offspring by the breath of God, / and bears them virginally in this water.
  3. Hope for the Kingdom of Heaven, you who are reborn in this font. / Eternal life does not await those who are only born once.
  4. This is the spring of life that waters the whole world, / taking its origin from the Wounds of Christ.
  5. Sinner, to be purified, go down into the holy water. / It receives the unregenerate and brings him forth a new man.
  6. If you wish to be made innocent, be cleansed in this pool, / whether you are weighed down by original sin or your own.
  7. There is no barrier between those who are reborn and made one / by the one font, the one Spirit, and the one faith.
  8. Let neither the number nor the kind of their sins terrify anyone; / once reborn in this water, they will be holy.

Renewal of Baptismal Promises

Priest: Dear brothers and sisters through the Paschal Mystery we have been buried with Christ in Baptism, so that we may walk with him in newness of life. Let us renew the promises of Holy Baptism, by which we once renounced Satan and his works and promised to serve God in the holy Catholic Church. And so I ask you:

Priest: Do you renounce Satan?
All: I do.

Priest: And all his works?
All: I do.

Priest: And all his empty show?
All: I do.

Priest: Do you believe in God, the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth?
All: I do.

Priest: Do you believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was born of the Virgin Mary, suffered death and was buried, rose again from the dead and is seated at the right hand of the Father?
All: I do.

Priest: Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting?
All: I do.

Priest: And may almighty God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has given us new birth by water and the Holy Spirit and bestowed on us forgiveness of our sins, keep us by his grace, in Christ Jesus our Lord, for eternal life.
All: Amen.

The Priest sprinkles the people with the blessed water, while all sing:

Syukur kepada-Mu, Tuhan, sumber segala rahmat. / Meski kami tanpa jasa, Kau-pilih dan Kau-angkat. / Dosa kami Kau-ampuni. Kau-beri hidup ilahi, kami jadi putra-Mu.

Kami hendak mengikuti jejak Yesus Sang Abdi: / mengamalkan cinta bakti di masyarakat kami. / Syukur kepada-Mu, Tuhan, atas baptis yang mulia, tanda rahmat dan iman.

Scala Sancta

The Holy Stairs (Scala Sancta) are a set of 28 white marble steps, originally located in Jerusalem, encased in wooden risers. Jesus climbed the marble steps during his Passion on the way to Pontius Pilate's praetorium:

Then they took Jesus from Caiaphas to Pilate’s headquarters [praetorium] (John 18:28).

St. Helena, the mother of Constantine I, is credited with bringing the stairs to the Lateran Palace in the 4th century. In 1589, Pope Sixtus V relocated the steps to their current location, in front of the personal chapel of the early Popes called the Sancta Sanctorum (Holies of Holies).

The Holy Stairs may only be climbed on the knees.

  1. See Tertullian, De baptismo 2, 3.