Rome, S Giovanni in Laterano, Baptistery, Chapel of SS. Cyprian and Justina,
|Also known as||The Lateran Baptistery; ; Baptistery of S Giovanni in Fonte; Chapel of SS. Secunda and Rufina|
|Location||Piazza di San Giovanni in Laterano, 4, 00185 Roma RM, Italy|
|Placement||Through the baptistery building to what is now a portico opposite the entrance.|
The church of S Giovanni in Laterano (St John Lateran – it has an entry of its own) is the cathedral church of Rome and indeed of the world! It is one of the earliest if not the earliest basilicas to have been built in Rome; its founder was Constantine the Great.
The Baptistery of the church is besides the north front of the church in the corner of the Piazza di S Giovanni in Laterano. It is an octagonal brick building, supposedly the work of Constantine, and according to legend the site of his actual baptism. Sixtus III (432-40) remodelled it, as did Hadrian III in 884. It was designed for total immersion – early Christian practice was that baptism involved submerging the whole body under water. The porphyry columns date to Sixtus and the foul seventeenth-century bits to Urban VIII. Several of the chapels have mosaics.
The Chapel of SS. Cyprian and Justina (also known as SS. Secunda and Rufina) has been remodelled. It was originally the apse of Sixtus’s baptistery, but it now forms one end of a rather odd sort of portico-cum-chapel with a door out into a courtyard. The remaining mosaic (which has been restored and had areas painted in) has the form of a great green and gold acanthus scroll on a blue filling the conch. At its base are lines of green (solid ground) and below that a dark blue band filled with gold crosses. At the top is a semi-circle of tromp l’oeil mosaic – a grey band designed to look like sculpted marble as if forming an oculus, an open space (as in the Pantheon) open to the sky. Doves stand on this band, flanking a Lamb (Christ, the Lamb of God). Above them, arches support flowers and above that a canopy, seemingly tied to the arches is spread over the heavens. This feature – the canopy of heaven – is used in lots of mosaics in Rome. It reminds me of the canopies that we know were stretched over open-air amphitheatres such as the Coliseum to screen the audience from the sun. Here it perhaps screens the glory of God from mortal eyes. Jewelled crosses dangle from the marble rim into the acanthus scrolls. Up the centre is a sort of straight line flanked by gold acanthus-y leaves; it’s said to be the lance used to stab Christ at the crucifixion. I’ve never been able to get close enough to see or check this out. You’ll see that the apse is fenced off by elaborate gates and that much later and nastier marbles and an altarpiece do their best to obscure the mosaic.
There was once a mosaic in the apse opposite, long gone, depicting four shepherds with their sheep.