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St. John Lateran

Apse of St. John LateranToday is the feast day in commemoration of the dedication of the basilica of S. Giovanni in Laterano (see some pictures here, here, and here), the cathedral church of Rome and the historical seat of the pope Bishop of Rome. Although the present church has been extensively altered, it is still honored as the first place of public Christian worship in Rome, which is why the inscription on its walls reads "Omnium urbis et orbis ecclesiarum mater et caput" (Mother and head of all churches of the city and the world). It is on the site of the Laterani family palace, seized by the emperor Nero when a consul of that ancient family was accused of treason. It passed into the belongings of Constantine who gave it to the church of Rome no later than 311. The basilica or meeting-hall of the palace was apparently adapted to serve as a church, and it was dedicated as the church of Sancti Salvatoris (Holy Savior). A monastery named for St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist was established next to it, and that name of San Giovanni has come to be the principal name of the church. The early popes, who lived in the Lateran Palace, decorated the church so extensively that it came to be known as the Basilica Aurea (Golden Basilica), all of which splendor was destroyed or removed in the fifth-century attack of the Vandals. Very few original elements of the church have survived its many destructions and rebuildings, with the major exception being the fourth-century mosaic of the original apse which was incorporated into the larger apse built in the late 19th century. (You can see this oldest part of the mosaic, the head and shoulders of Jesus surrounded by nine angels, at the top of the image at right; for a better view see the top of this image.)

The feast celebrating this church's dedication was considered quite important in many churches throughout the Middle Ages. For example, there is an unusual set of chants for the office of S. Salvatoris that was celebrated in the Cathedral of Florence, which is recorded in a manuscript (Florence, Arcivescovado, s.c.) that I worked on for Project CANTUS when I was a graduate student. This is certainly the most elaborate body of liturgical music that I know of for this particular feast. The texts recount the story (De Imagine Domini) of a miraculous image of Jesus that is possibly related to the mosaic preserved at the top of the Lateran apse. The liturgy of Florence Cathedral has been studied extensively by Marica Tacconi (now teaching at Penn State) in her dissertation, Liturgy and Chant at the Cathedral of Florence: A Survey of the Pre-Tridentine Sources (Tenth-Sixteenth Centuries), and in her book The Service-Books of Santa Maria del Fiore: Cathedral and Civic Ritual in Late-Medieval and Renaissance Florence (forthcoming from Cambridge University Press).

At the National Shrine today, the choir sang Anton Bruckner's motet Locus iste (text is the gradual of the Dedication of a Church), written for the dedication of a chapel in the cathedral of Linz, Austria. In 1993, I was with the choir of the National Shrine on a trip to Rome, where we sang a private concert for the Holy Father. One of the performances we gave on that tour was for a Mass in S. Giovanni in Laterano. One of the pieces we sang was a polyphonic Mass ordinary by Francesco Soriano, who was maestro di cappella at the Lateran from 1599 to 1601. We were seated in the choir stalls at the left of the image shown above.


Anonymous said...

is st. john latern a person or?

Charles T. Downey said...

The St. John part comes from the monastery dedicated to the two Sts. John in the Bible (Baptist and Evangelist). The Lateran part comes from the fact that the church and papal residence were on the site of the Laterani palace.