Rome, S Giovanni in Laterano.

Also known as The Lateran; , St John Lateran
Era 4AD
Location Piazza di S. Giovanni in Laterano, 4, 00184 Roma RM, Italy
Placement The head of Christ only in the apse mosaic.

The Lateran was the first of Constantine the Great’s Christian foundations, probably built in a period between 312-24, on his own land. In size, it was a match for any of the other great public buildings of Rome: it was about 100 metres in length and 55 metres wide, and it contained a range of magnificent fixtures and fittings, most notably a vast amount of costly marble in the form of columns and veneering. The Liber Pontificalis also records that in the Lateran, Constantine installed a silver fastigium on which were silver statues of Christ and the twelve Apostles, all about a metre and a half in height. This fastigium tends to be understood as some sort of screen-like structure, almost like the later rood-screens or iconostases of western and eastern churches, and its statues seem to echo the Roman practice of donating silver statues of the gods to temples. It does not seem to have caught on widely in churches, partly surely for reasons of cost, but also perhaps as coming too close to copying non-Christian practices. Whether the church had mosaics, specifically in the apse, is uncertain. The Liber Pontificalis (‘Book of Popes’), a compilation of the lives of the popes from St Peter to Stephen V in the ninth century, also claims that the emperor adorned the apse vault with ‘finest gold’ whilst a later inscription suggests that the patrician Flavius Felix replaced the original mosaic with a figural mosaic in 428-30. This mosaic may have been of plain gold, in which case it would have served as a foil to the fastigium, if this object really was an enormous partition. Alternatively, it is conceivable that there were figural mosaics in the apse: their absence from the text proves nothing. If the central piece of this mosaic was a bust of Christ with angels and a triumphal scene, that in turn may have formed the model for the thirteenth-century replacement mosaic, itself redone in the nineteenth century, and still adorning the apse.

The apse Pope Nicholas IV (1288-92), the first Franciscan pope, demolished the facade of the Lateran, rebuilt it and gave it mosaics. The fourth-century Constantinian apse was demolished and replaced with a larger one with new mosaics between 1287 and 1292, and Nicholas also added an ambulatory. The apse mosaics were redone in the nineteenth century (I think they look horrid) but it is widely accepted that the programme was little altered. The focal point of the mosaic now is a bust roundel of Christ which might have been a part of the original Early Christian mosaic. Below this is a large jewelled cross flanked by the Virgin and the Baptist. The four rivers of paradise flow from it, and deer drink from these (like at S Clemente). More animals are present in the border, and a dove hovers above the cross. Below this stands a collection of saints: Peter, Paul, and Francis (at a smaller scale) on the side of the Virgin; John the Evangelist, Andrew and a small St Anthony of Padua with the Baptist. Nicholas himself is present, kneeling at the feet of Mary. Beneath are the remaining nine Apostles and at their feet are two small kneeling figures dressed in the robes of Franciscan friars. One is identified by inscription as ‘Brother Jacopo of Camerino, assistant to the master of the work’; the other is not identified but is surely the master of the work himself, Jacopo Torriti, who had signed his name (‘Jacopus Torriti pictor hoc opus fecit’) in the apse itself.

The presence of Francis and Anthony was unprecedented in Rome – the patron saints (and only recently dead and canonised at that – Francis in 1228 and Anthony in 1232) of a specific religious Order, the Franciscans, favoured in a papal basilica and in the company of the Apostles too. Along the bottom, a donor inscription celebrated the pious works of Nicholas, presenting his intervention as the continuation of the basilica’s Early Christian heritage by calling attention to his salvaging of the bust of Christ at the apex of the apse, and hailing him as ‘son of the Blessed Francis’. These were bold and assertive moves, so bold that they met with hostility: a story was told of Nicholas’s successor, Boniface VIII, wanting Anthony removed from the apse, only for the saint himself to intervene. Incidentally, that story intimates that work on the mosaic was not complete until after Nicholas’s death.

Nicholas also had a pair of monumental mosaic inscriptions set in the church. One detailed the relics held in the church. The other, either on the wall of the main apse or by the entrance to his new ambulatory (it is now by the door to the sacristy) is dated to 1291 and specifically associates the papal rebuilding with the Vision of Innocent IV and thus with St Francis himself. Innocent (who had approved the Rule of the Poor Clares, the female branch of the Franciscans) had had a vision in which he saw the weight of the Lateran supported by a ‘little poor man’, preventing it from falling. Interpretation of this had been a source of dispute, for the Franciscans had identified the ‘little poor man’ with their own Francis whilst the Dominicans knew him to be St Dominic.

The presence of Francis in the new apse mosaic of the Lateran highlighted the Franciscan version of the story and gave it Nicholas’s papal seal of approval. It seems from inscription and apse mosaic alike that Nicholas had both a personal and a political vision in his work in the Lateran: his salvation; his Franciscan identity; his papacy as the historical consummation of Innocent’s Vision; the greater glory of St Francis. Not only was the mosaic was commissioned by a pope who was a Franciscan, it was executed by two artists, Jacopo Torriti and Brother Jacopo, who were themselves members of the Order. Torriti moreover was Nicholas’ favoured artist: he was a leading painter in the early decoration of the new Upper Church of S Francis at Assisi, another project supported by Nicholas, and he disappeared from there to come back to Rome and work on Nicholas’ second great mosaic commission, that of S Maria Maggiore. In many ways, Nicholas’ work at the Lateran can be seen as a reassertion of that site over St Peter’s and the Vatican (dominated by the great family of the Orsini), but one that furthermore placed Francis and the Franciscans as central.


Not much is known about Jacopo Torriti despite his being Pope Nicholas IV's favourite artist. Vasari did not bother giving him a life, which is typical of Vasari's attitude to mosaicists. We do know Torriti worked on the Lateran and S Maria Maggiore and that Pope Nicholas brought him back from working on his church at Assisi (commemortaing Francis, of course) to work on S Maria Maggiore, much the more important commission.

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