To: (Multiple email addresses may be specified by separating them with a comma)
BY Steven D. Greydanus
Intro | #1 | #2 | #3 | #4 | #5 | #6
Wednesday afternoon, another papal basilica, Saint Mary Major. The smallest of the papal basilicas, it is also the most architecturally ancient, and possibly the most beautiful (always bracketing St. Peter’s as another experience entirely). The building dates to the fifth century (from the reign of Pope Sixtus III), and its fifth-century mosaics of Old Testament scenes and the life of Christ may be the sacred works of art that speak most powerfully to the devout Catholic in me, as opposed to the art student, in all of Rome. (The art student in me would probably go for the Sistine Chapel.)
I’ve seen St. Mary before, but with a guide you learn things you don’t necessarily discover on your own. I’m fascinated to learn that the ornate golden ceiling, uniquely among all the churches in Rome, is actually solid gold, not gold-plated or gold-filled (allegedly Inca gold); that the marble columns in the nave predate the church, and may go back to the original church or even some more ancient Roman building; that the distinctive recurring disc pattern in the floor was created by slicing up pillars borrowed from some previous structure.
Then it’s off to Mass at St. John Lateran, celebrated by Archbishop Myers. Though little remains of the original building, St. John Lateran is still in principle the first legally recognized church building in history—that is, the first church building constructed with imperial approval under Constantine’s Edict of Toleration, which legalized Christianity. As the pope’s cathedral, St. John Lateran is Christendom’s first church in another sense: It’s the home church of the universal pastor, the mother church of the whole world.
In some ways, the basilica today conveys a sense of a mini-St. Peter’s, with rows of immense arch-bearing piers inset on both sides by massive Renaissance statuary. (Also, both St. Peter’s and the cathedral have been criticized for what some critics consider clumsy façades.) In other ways, though, St. John Lateran more resembles the other basilicas outside Vatican City, such as its golden apse mosaic. Also, only St. Peter’s has a barrel-vaulted ceiling; the Lateran, like the others, has a ceiling that is—I don’t know, what do you call non-vaulted ceilings? You can’t call them “flat,” because the basilica ceilings are all elaborately coffered, with gilded panels and recesses. Horizontal, anyway.
Throughout our pilgrimage, different members of our group have been asked to do one of the readings at our Masses (I did the first reading on