Rome, S Giovanni in Laterano, Baptistery, Chapel of St Venantius

Era 7AD
Location Piazza di S. Giovanni in Laterano, 4, 00184 Roma RM, Italy

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 St Venantius is the easy chapel to get into – people like to nip in for a slightly confused look around and then nip out again. Sometimes it’s used for services. was added by Pope John IV (640-642) John was from Dalmatia (the Roman province along the seaboard of modern Croatia) and built the chapel to house the relics of a group of slightly obscure saints, including Venantius, Domnius, Maurus and Anastasius, whose relics he had saved from Dalmatia - their memorials in Salona were under threat from Slav invasions - and brought to Rome. This church was therefore a martyrium, a shrine made specifically for the veneration of relics. The mosaics may have been John’s commission or they may have been those of his successor, Theodore I (642-49). What we see is that here, in the Lateran complex, the key church for the bishop of Rome, the pope maintained the tradition of housing the relics of martyrs, but from a very personal perspective is apparent, both in the origin of the saints and in the choice of patron, Venantius, after whom Pope John’s father was named.

The mosaics occupy the apse and the apse arch, though a later horrid baldacchino does a very good job of obscuring them. In the centre of the apse, a huge, dominating bust of Christ, set amid red and blue fluffy clouds, blesses the congregation. The bust is flanked by two half figures of angels. Below, a row of standing saints (Peter, Paul, John the Baptist and John the Evangelist, Venantius and Domnius, and the two popes, John and Theodore) is arrayed either side of the Mother of God in the centre. She has her hands upraised in the prayer position – orant is the technical term. On the arch are more saints (the Dalmatian martyrs), the heavenly cities, Jerusalem and Bethlehem, and right at the top, the symbols of the four beasts of the apocalypse, also known as the symbols of the evangelists (Man = Matthew; lion = Mark; ox = Luke; eagle = John). It is a very full set of mosaics. Both theophanic elements (Christ and clouds, Jerusalem and Bethlehem, beasts/evangelists – things about the glory of God and suggesting the Second Coming) and aspects relating specifically to the Dalmatian saints are included in the programme. The Mother of God is there, and the donor-popes. It is reminiscent of other Roman apse mosaics, SS Cosmas and Damien and S Lorenzo, for example, with the same details re-arranged to particular effect (the bust Christ moved from the centre of the arch into the apse, the saints put below him).

The remains visible below the floor are of second century Roman baths built over a first century house.

Look out for the haloes of Christ and the angels, which are deliberately constructed to appear made from solid light, for they block out part of the background and the clouds.

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