Guide To The Basilica Of St. John Lateran Complex

Founded by Emperor Constantine in the 4th century, San Giovanni in Laterano is considered the mother church of the Catholic faith. It’s one of the four major basilicas under the jurisdiction of the pope.

Until 1870, all the popes were crowned here. It houses the tombs of six popes.

The Lateran was the first church established by the Emperor Constantine. Legend holds that Constantine himself dug the foundation with his bare hands.

St. John Lateran

The church has been rebuilt several times. Its current appearance dates from the 17th century, after major overhauls of the interior and facade.

Highlights you can see on a visit to the complex are:

  • facade
  • nave
  • high altar
  • chapels
  • cloister
  • treasury
  • baptistery
  • Holy Stairs
  • Sancta Sanctorum

>>> Click here to buy a ticket to the Lateran complex

Guide To San Giovanni in Laterano: What To See

Here are the must see highlights.

sculptures at the top of the facade


Alessandro Galilei designed the rather bombastic facade in 1735. It’s made entirely of travertine marble from Tivoli.

On the top are 15 enormous statues of Jesus, saints, and the doctors of the church, created by the best sculptors of the era.

Each one is 23 feet high and visible from miles away. They’re a nice backdrop against the blue sky.

The three central figures are Christ, St. John the Baptist, and St. John the Evangelist. They are flanked by six doctors of the church on each side.

Five doors lead in a barrel vaulted portico which houses a massive statue of Constantine from the 5th century. It was discovered in the foundations of Palazzo Mazzarino in the Quirinal. It was once in the Capitoline Museums, but was moved here in 1737.

bronze door


The central bronze doors open up onto the wide central nave. The doors originally stood in the curia (senate) in the Roman Forum.

As with St. Peter’s Basilica, the door to the farthest right is the “Holy Door.” It’s only opened every 25 years.



The nave is somewhat severe and unwelcoming. There is a central nave — over 425 feet long — and four side aisles. Its central aesthetic is grandeur, befitting of a place where popes are crowned.

The nave was once a forest of columns. Fearing the roof would collapse, the renowned architect Borromini did a total renovation of the basilica in 1650 for the Holy Year.

Borromini created five large piers on each side of the central nave. In each pier is a niche, holding dramatic Baroque -style sculptures of the apostles.

The statues are labelled and you may be able to identify them by their signs. The best ones are the four by Cammillo Rusconi. Each apostle stands as a guard to the entrance of the City of God.

Above the sculptures are high reliefs in stucco, designed by Alessandro Algardi. One side tells Old Testament stories, the other New Testament.

The Cosmati floor is beautiful too. It’s from the 15th century, made of porphyry, serpentine, and granite.

The side aisles are fairly nondescript by comparison. But there is one thing you must see, a fresco attributed to the great artist Giotto.

It’s mounted on the first pillar on the left of the right aisle. It depicts Pope Boniface VIII declaring the start of the Holy Year in 1300.



The transept of the church is the part set crosswise to the nave. The two arms give the basilica its cross-like shape. They are warmly hued.

The transept was renovated in the late 16th century by Michelangelo’s pupil, Giacomo della Porta.

Cavalier d’Arpino designed the fresco decoration, including The Ascension to Heaven in one of the chapels (more on that later).


High Altar

The high altar were once used by Saint Peter himself. The Gothic baldachin has a 14th century gold canopy.

It stands on massive granite columns. Above those are 12 frescos by Barna da Siena. There are 3 on each side, with statues in the corners.

Above the frescos, a grill safeguard two silver bust-shaped reliquaries. They reputedly contain the heads of St. Peter and St. Paul, the two founders of the Church of Rome.

apse mosaics and Papal Throne
apse mosaics and Papal Throne


The apse mosaics are striking and portions date from the original 4th century basilica. They were added to, in seamless fashion, in the 13th century.

The mosaics are divided into three horizontal sections. A bust of Christ surrounded by angels is at the top.

The middle section has a field of gold mosaic tiles with the jeweled Christ of Constantine in the center. It’s flanked by saints and the Virgin Mary.

At the bottom, the apostles stand surrounded by slender trees.

Below the mosaics is the Cathedra of the Pope. The Papal Throne is a symbol of the Pope’s authority as the Bishop of Rome and the leader of the worldwide Catholic Church.

Altar of the Blessed Sacrament
Altar of the Blessed Sacrament

Altar of the Blessed Sacrament

This altar is located in the transept. Pope Clement VIII commissioned the piece in the early 1600s.

The altar has four golden bronze columns resting no marble bases. Above the altar is a bronze relief of The Last Supper.

In the center is a metal tabernacle in the form of a small temple. It bears symbols relating to the eucharist and is studded with sculptures.


A door in the left side leads to the 13th century cloister. It’s worth it to pay a bit extra to see it.

The cloister was created by the Cosmati Vassalletti brothers in the early 13th century. It has unique twisting double columns and a lovely mosaic frieze running around the garden side of the portico.

Monuments from the original basilica are on display. You’ll see ancient altars, reliefs, tombs, statuary, and some of the oldest surviving papal thrones.

Lateran Palace

The former papal residence now houses the Museo Sorico Vatican. There are papal apartments with frescos, tapestries, furniture, and sculptures. I didn’t go inside, so don’t have anything specific to report.

video of the Baptistery


The Baptistery dates back to the time of Constantine. It’s a few hundred feet in back of the church in a rather nondescript brown brick building.

I almost didn’t go in! There are literally no signs pointing you there.

But you should venture in. The baptistery retains its original octagonal shape.

Inside, the circular space is surrounded by eight Porphyry columns. They’re surmounted with an architrave with eight smaller white marble columns above.

In the center is a green basalt urn for baptisms. And 17th century frescos on the outer wall depict scenes from the life of Constantine.

The Chapel of St. Venantius, on the left, has some beautiful 7th century mosaics. They’re hard to see because of the altar. But you can walk around the back and up the stairs to view them.

video of the Santa Sanctorum
Sancta Sanctorum

Scala Sancta & Sancta Sancotrum

Across the street, you’ll the Holy Stairs and the Sancta Sanctorum.

The Holy Stairs is a ceremonial staircase believe to be the one ascended by Jesus in Pontius Pilate’s palace. The highly religious climb the 28 marble steps on their knees.

At the top is the Sancta Sanctorum, the former private chapel of the pope. You’ll need to buy a ticket for 3.50 euros to inspect the “Holy of the Holies” up close.

You’ll see gorgeously restored frescos, relics, and an icon of the redeemer that was supposedly not painted by female hands.

For me information, you can check out my guide to the Holy Stairs and Sancta Sanctorum.

chapel mosaics in the baptistery
chapel mosaics in the baptistery

Practical Guide & Tips For St. John Lateran

Address: Piazza di S. Giovanni in Laterano, 4. Please note that the entrance is around the back of the church, not through the front.


  • Basilica: 7:00 am – 6:30 pm
  • Sacristy: 8:00 am – 12 am & 4:00 pm – 6:00 pm 
  • Cloister: 9:00 am – 6:00 pm 
  • Museum: 10:00 am – 5:30 pm
  • Baptistery: 9:00 am – 7:00 pm


The basilica itself is free to visit. To visit the treasury, Sancta Sanctorum, cloister, and baptistery you need to buy a combination ticket for 10 euros. If you also want to visit the palace as well, it’s 26.50 euros.

fresco in the baptistery
fresco in the baptistery

Click here to pre-book a ticket for the complex. Entry to the sites is also included in the Rome and Omni Vatican Pass, a very handy city pass.

When I visited, I paid 3.50 euros to visit the Sancta Sanctorum and 4 euros to visit the cloister. The treasury/museum was closed when I was there. And there was no one checking tickets at the baptistery.

Guided Tours: Every Tuesday at 10:30 am, you can take a guided tour of the basilica and the cloister for 15 euros. You can also book a guided tour of the basilica and holy stairs.

Pro Tips: If St. Peter’s Basilica is mobbed, the Lateran is a great alternative. You won’t have to spend hours waiting to get through security. And you’ll likely have the place mostly to yourself.

nativity scene
nativity scene

I hope you’ve enjoyed my guide to visiting St. John Lateran. You may find these other Rome travel guides and resources useful:

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