Editorial: Mater et Caput

O God, look how your prayerful people makes song ring out in your temple to honor the Church whose feast we gather to celebrate. This house rises up and is rightly dedicated to you, here your people receive from the altar your consecrated body and drink of your holy blood….This is the place truly known as the Court of the heavenly King, the shining gate of heaven that welcomes all those in search of life’s homeland. Christe Cunctorum

It is a poignant and even sobering experience to visit the cities of the dead we call cemeteries. To remember and to want to be remembered is a human urge, as is the desire to provide a fitting marker or monument for those who have passed on. Whether large or small, stepping stones or tomb stones, temples or obelisks, each marker is a monument to someone. In November, we particularly re-member the saints who guide us on our way along with the souls whom we pray will join them in heaven. Constructed for permanence, these monuments to the dead are signs of hope and faith in an eternal home.

Much of the great art and architecture produced by mankind down through the centuries reflects the human impulse towards memorializing. Temples, palaces, churches, chapels, equestrian sculptures, altarpieces, and frescoed ceilings have all been commissioned by individuals and communities interested in remembering or being remembered. Even during the modernist hegemony in the twentieth century, this monumental impulse continued to inspire architects to build museums, skyscrapers, and houses which would immortalize their patrons.

The early Christian basilica is a monument to the greatest of men, the son of God. The atrium space, the monumental façade, the processional interior, the raised sanctuary with its altar and columnar screen are all designed to help remember the teachings of the messiah, his life, his sacrificial death, and his resurrection. The church, rather than turning its back on death, becomes the ultimate monument to the awareness and conquest of death.

November is also a month in which we celebrate a feast dedicated to a building. In the feast of the Basilica of St. John Lateran we are reminded of the primary early Christian monument. While there were places of Christian worship since the time of the apostles as well as earlier basilica types, the Lateran is the oldest church in the world still serving its original purpose. As the first church commissioned after the legalization of Christianity, the Lateran is the first among equals and mater et caput. Pope St. Sylvester and Constantine saw the basilica as a worthy monument to the Most Holy Savior, giving it a size similar to the largest of public structures, thus ennobling body of Christ to gather there in remembrance and expectation.

The Lateran Basilica is the exemplar of the Christian church building, a living monument which is continually being embellished and beautified. Down through the centuries this memorial to the Savior took on additional dedications to St. John the Baptist and to St. John the Beloved just as it took on artistic and architectural additions. In its cruciform plan and its rich iconography, the Lateran Basilica expresses beautifully the Pauline description of the body of Christ. The wonderful marble Cosmatesque floor from the Medieval period is complemented by a rich gilt and coffered ceiling designed by Pirro Ligorio in the Renaissance. A Gothic high altar and baldacchino with multicolored marbles, gold, paintings, and reliquaries of the heads of Peter and Paul is the exclamation point of the lofty interior. In 1649, Francesco Borromini encased the ancient colonnade in baroque walls with giant pilasters, arches and marble aedicules of the twelve apostles following Durandus who stated that “the piers of the church are bishops and doctors, who specially sustain the Church of God by their doctrine.”

The transept or crossing is the location of a magnificent Blessed Sacrament chapel completed for the Jubilee Year of 1600, with frescoes of the Ascension and the history of Constantine and the basilica . The vibrant colors and radiant gold complement nicely the medieval mosaic of the Savior and six saints by Iacopo Torriti, which may have been a partial restoration of a Constantinian mosaic, restored again and moved in 1886. Historically, the transept or north entrance has been the way in which most pilgrims coming from the direction of Saint Mary Major and Saint Peters entered. Constructed by Domenico Fontana in 1586, it is a double arcade with twin bell towers from the twelfth century. The piazza in front has the largest and most ancient Egyptian obelisk in Rome. Nearby to the north entrance is the octagonal baptistery, also constructed by Constantine, which has been embellished over the centuries and is traditionally the site of Constantine’s own baptism. One of the most important additions to the basilica is its main Eastern façade designed by Alessandro Galilei in 1735 as a result of a major competition. The Large composite columns on pedestals and pediment over the central bay provides a fitting entry loggia and a papal loggia above while referring to the façade of St. Peters. It is here that the famous quotation in Latin is inscribed “The most holy church of the Lateran, the mother and head of all the churches in the city and the world.” On the roof are twelve doctors of the Eastern and Western Churches while the two Saints John flank a larger pedestal upon which stands the image of the risen Savior.

The Basilica of St. John Lateran is a worthy monument to Christ’s triumph over death, it is a marker of a holy place in which the faithful of all times have celebrated his sacrifice. We are reminded of the life of Christ in the walls, in the artwork, and in the artwork of the saints whose lives are intertwined with the Savior. The faithful down the centuries have honored this King by building this monument, restoring it, and embellishing it with stylistically differing, though harmonious, parts. Is it not right and good that we who remember our loved ones through monuments should also construct our finest monuments to the one who became obedient to death, death on a cross.

Duncan G. Stroik is the editor of Sacred Architecture Journal.