Mater et Caput

by Brent Klaske

In a housekeeping note, tomorrow’s online book club will give an outline of the first chapter only, since many have not had time to purchase it. We will then review chapters 2-5 next week. Please jump in for discussion, interesting notes, etc.

As we now enter the interregnum between the reigns of Pope Benedict XVI and his successor, the thoughts of all Catholics naturally turn towards prayers and sacrifices for the election of his successor. As stated in the last post, if we truly want a pontiff who will have the knowledge, will, and strength to fix the great crisis in the Church, then we must be willing to do our part, which is primarily one of prayer. For this reason, the General House of the Society of St. Pius X is asking all Catholics to join in praying a novena to the Holy Ghost for this intention, starting tomorrow, March 1, and going through Saturday, March 9. The text of the novena may be found at Let us all pour our prayers to Heaven that Almighty God may bring about a restoration in His Church.

Since all of our thoughts are turned towards Rome at this time, and many commenters have focused on the question of the election, I thought it would be worthwhile to take a look at a church often overshadowed by St. Peter’s, the Pope’s own cathedral: St. John Lateran.

(Excerpts below taken from “The Pilgrim’s Guide to Rome’s Principal Churches)

“This is Rome’s cathedral. In the early part of the fourth century, Constantine (emperor 306-337) gave Pope Melchiades (311-314) a parcel of imperial property, together with its buildings, for a church and papal residence. The property was known as “Lateran” since it had previously belonged to Plautius Lateranus. Melchiades may have begun, but Sylvester I (314-335) completed converting the buildings into a basilica, which he then consecrated in 324 and dedicated to the Savior. The basilica was sacked by Alaric in 408 and by Genseric in 455; it was restored by Leo the Great (440-461), and again, centuries later, by Hadrian I (772- 795). The basilica suffered from an earthquake in 896 and was rebuilt by Sergius III (904-911), who also dedicated it to St. John the Baptist. In the twelfth century Lucius II (1144-1145) added St. John the Evangelist to the dedication. After the fires of 1308 and 1360 the church was again rebuilt. Later Clement VIII (1592-1605) had the transept redone, and Innocent X(1644-1655) asked Francesco Borromini to modernize (1646-1649) the nave. This is the interior the visitor sees today. Five ecumenical councils (1123, 1139, 1179, 1215, 1512) were held in the basilica and adjoining palace. The popes resided here from the time of Constantine until 1304, when they moved to Avignon; but on their return (1377), they made the Vatican their usual residence. Excavations (1934-1938) beneath the basilica have uncovered remains of Christian and pagan buildings, portions of paved streets, and the foundations of the fourth-century Constantinian basilica.”

It is said that the building fell into such disrepair during the Avignon Papacy, that cows were seen wandering inside the walls of the hallowed basilica. Upon returning from Avignon, the Popes set up residence in the Vatican, though the Lateran Basilica never lost her place as the Pope’s Cathedral, and is still known as the omnium urbis et orbis ecclesiarum mater et caput, the mother and head of all the churches in the city (Rome) and the world.

Loving this basilica, the Sovereign Pontiffs enriched it through the ages. For example, the

“The Gothic papal altar (reconstructed in 1851 during the time of Pius IX [1846-1878]) dates from 1367; it was commissioned by Urban V (1362-1370) and executed by Giovanni di Stefano. The tall, stately baldachin is supported by four columns (three granite and one marble), and is decorated with saints’ statues on the corners; the frescoes (1369), three on each side, are by Barna da Siena. Behind the grille are two gilded silver busts, which contained what were once thought to be relics of the heads of Sts. Peter and Paul. The altar beneath the baldachin is of white marble, ornamented with small mosaic columns; it was restored in 1851 and, thus, has Pius IX’s coat of arms in the center. Its upper portion contains a wooden altar, which legend says was used by the earliest popes, from St. Peter to Sylvester I. The confession in front has the tomb of Martin V (1417-1431); the bronze slab, bearing the pope’s image, is by Simone Ghini. There is also a statue of St. John the Baptist.

But perhaps, the most awe-provoking relic in the basilica sits above the altar in the left transept. Above that altar, behind a bronze relief of the Last Supper, there is a fragment of wood from the table used by Our Lord at the Last Supper.

Finally, in the back of the Church, is the apse. Considering that this apse has been the papal throne, in the mater et caput of all the world’s churches, let’s close by taking a look at this space, which will soon see the 265th Successor of St. Peter.

The Constantinian basilica had an apsidal mosaic, and it is believed that when Nicholas IV (1288-1292) commissioned the friars Iacopo Torriti and Iacopo da Camerino to restore it (1292), the artists preserved as much of the original as possible. When the apse was again in need of repair in the nineteenth century, Leo XIII had the presbytery extended (1876-1886) by Virginio Vespignani and his son Francesco, and had Vatican mosaicists remove the thirteenth-century mosaic from the old tribune and reconstruct it in the new apse. Leo’s coat of arms is on the ceiling. The mosaic’s topmost portion has a bust of Christ with angels in adoration. This depicts the miraculous appearance of Christ in the basilica’s apse at the time of its consecration by Sylvester and may be a remnant of the fourth-century mosaic. Below, placed in the center on a solid gold background, is a jeweled cross over which the Holy Spirit hovers. Beneath the cross flow the four rivers of Paradise, from whose waters deer and sheep slake their thirst. The rivers then flow into the Jordan, which runs along the bottom of the mosaic and in which children and sea creatures play. This lower portion with its animals and river may also be from the fourth century.

The saints that occupy the middle area are of different sizes, an indication of their relative importance. In resetting these figures the two friars may have salvaged as much as possible from the earlier mosaic, but they likewise added figures of their own. The Virgin Mary and St. John the Baptist are on either side of the cross. Then come Sts. Paul and Peter on the left, with Sts. John the Evangelist and Andrew on the right. Inserted between St. Peter and the Virgin is St. Francis of Assisi (1182- 1226), and between Sts. John the Baptist and John the Evangelist is St. Anthony of Padua (1195-1231). These two Franciscan saints were added because the two mosaicists were Franciscan friars, and Nicholas IV, who commissioned the mosaic, was likewise a Franciscan. Nicholas also appears in the mosaic, kneeling at the Virgin’s right; she gently places her hand on his head. The pope’s name appears beneath him: “Nicholas IV, servant of the Mother of God.” On the far left bottom is the autograph: “This is the work of Iacopo Torriti,” and there used to be on the far right, “and of his assistant Iacopo da Camerino.”

Next to the windows below are the other nine apostles; between the second and third apostle on the left, and the same on the right, is the figure of a friar craftsman; perhaps the two mosaicists meant these as self-portraits. The papal throne and wall beneath the mosaic are decorated with panels and disks of porphyry. The upper side walls have two large frescoes by Grandi: on the left, “Leo XIII Approves the Plans for the Apse,” and on the right “Innocent III Approves the Franciscan and Dominican Orders.” Both organs (1886) are by Morettini of Perugia. The walls are lined with forty-two modern walnut choir stalls. The spandrels of the triumphal arches have Doctors of the Church.

Brent Klaske
Brent Klaske


Director of Operations at Angelus Press. I have worked in Catholic publishing for more than 20 years. I currently live near St. Marys, KS with my wife and 10 children.

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