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The Basilica of St. John Lateran (S. Giovanni in Laterano) is approached by a vast piazza, in the centre of which is the largest and oldest of the obelisks brought to Rome from Egypt. This church is the Cathedral of Rome, the first in dignity, the “Mother and Head of all the Churches in the city and throughout the world.” (“Omnium urbis et orbis Ecclesiarum Mater et Caput.") Here each new Pope is crowned, and his first act as supreme Pontiff is to take possession of this Metropolitan Church. Founded in the year 319, overthrown by
an earthquake in 896, burnt down in 1309, and each time rising from its ruins grander and more beautiful, it stands to-day a magnificent monument of the religion of Rome. The interior is very sumptuous, but its distinctive character as a basilica has been marred, if not lost, by the alterations made by Borromini in 1650. One chapel—the Corsini Chapel is a marvel of richness and beauty, unsurpassed by any other in Rome. It is in the form of a Greek cross, and is adorned with “the richest marbles, the most elaborate ornaments and gildings, columns of precious marbles, bas-reliefs, and even gems lavished with a profusion quite without parallel, and the whole controlled and subdued by a correct taste.” The high altar, standing beneath a magnificent tabernacle, supported by columns of marble and granite, was erected to receive the heads of St. Peter and St. Paul-said to have been found among the ruins of the old church. The altar of the Holy Sacrament is ornamented with four magnificent gilt bronze columns, said by some to have been taken from the Temple of Herod at Jerusalem, and by others from the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus; at the back of it is the table at which, it is alleged, our Lord instituted the Holy Sacrament.
There are many chapels, many monuments, and an endless number of relics in this church, which is celebrated, however, more for its associations in connection with Church history, and for its Church ceremonials. Here, as has been said, the Pope is crowned, here he blesses the people from the balcony on Ascension Day, and here the heads of the two great Apostles are exposed to the vulgar gaze in Easter week. Here too the five great councils, known as the Lateran Councils, were held.
The beautiful Gothic cloisters contain many curious monuments; the baptistery, said to have been built by Constantine, contains the font in which he is believed to have been baptised by St. Sylvester, and in which “Rienzi bathed on the night of the 1st August, 1317, previous to the grand ceremony in the basilica, when he assumed the insignia of knighthood, and was crowned with the seven crowns of the Holy Spirit.”
The Lateran Palace was the home of the Popes for a thousand years, but when the papal residence was removed to the Vatican, it was converted into a museum of pagan antiquities and Christian art. The Sculpture Gallery is full of fragments, of interest chiefly to archæologists; the Christian Museum, founded by Pius IX., and arranged by Padre Marchi and Signor de Rossi, is a collection of sarcophagi, inscriptions, and bas-reliefs, chiefly found in the catacombs; while in the Picture Gallery are frescoes, mosaics, and copies of pictures, many of them found in the catacombs, and others taken from churches and monasteries.
A short distance from the Lateran Palace is the building containing the Scala Sancta, or Holy Staircase, which our Lord is said to have ascended when He went to the Judgment Hall in the house of Pilate, and which was brought here from Jerusalem by the Empress Helena. No one may walk up these stairs, although there are side steps by which persons may descend on foot. It was while ascending these stairs on his knees—as the devout, and scoffers also, may be seen doing every day—that Martin Luther had brought to his mind the words, “The just shall live by faith ;” and starting to his feet, he stood upright, like a man, and with the firm step of a free man he descended the staircase, and walked from the place. At the top of the stairs is the Sancta Sanctorum—a chapel held in such sacred veneration that only a Pope can officiate at its altar. It contains the “Acheiropoëton "-picture made without handssaid to have been begun by St. Luke and finished by an angel.
The Basilica of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme was founded on the site of the Sessorian Palace, the residence of the Empress Helena, mother of Constantine. Scarcely anything of the original church remains, it having undergone complete modernising during the last century, and whatever beauty it may have possessed is now to so great an extent marred by“ improvements," that the interior may be said to be tasteless, if not ugly. The festival of "the Invention of the Cross,” in honour of which event this church was built, is celebrated here with great solemnity. In the Chapel of St. Helena—a part of the original edifice-underground, there are some important relics, among them one which is claimed to be the veritable superscription which was placed upon the cross, and which, it will be remembered, was discovered by Helena, together with a singularly complete list of other memorials.
Santa Maria Maggiore—sometimes named, after its founder, the Liberian Basilica—was, according to the legend, erected by Pope Liberius in A.D. 352, to commemorate a miraculous fall of snow which covered this spot of ground and no other on a hot day in August, indicating thus clearly to the Pope and a wealthy Roman patrician, named Johannes, who was with him, that on this spot the Virgin, who appeared to them in vision in the midst of the snow, desired a church to be built. This was done, and every year, on the 5th August, the festa of La Madonna della Neve is observed in the Borghese Chapel, when, during a solemn high mass, showers of the leaves of choice white flowers are scattered from the dome, giving the appearance of a snow-storm, and covering the floor of the chapel like a white mantle of snow.
There is hardly a more beautiful church in Rome than Santa Maria Maggiore, the Sixtine and Borghese Chapels exhibiting a sumptuous profusion of sculpture, painting, gems, and marbles. The campanile of this church is the largest in Rome.
Of the three basilicas outside the walls, that of St. Paul (S. Paolo fuori le Mura) is by far the most magnificent; indeed, it is difficult to conceive anything more magnificent or beautiful than the interior of this church. It stands on the alleged spot where, immediately after martyrdom, the body of St. Paul was buried, and from the year A.D. 78 there has always been a place of worship here. The first was an oratory, built by Anacletus, third Bishop of Rome, in A.D. 78, and successive structures were reared here; but in 1823, on the night preceding the death of Pius VII., the basilica was burnt down, and the present magnificent edifice has only recently risen upon its ruins. It retains its original form, and is an exact reproduction of one of the larger basilicas of the time of Constantine. It is impossible to describe the effect produced on the mind of the beholder when looking down the nave for the first time. It is three hundred and six feet long and two hundred and twenty-two wide, with four ranges of granite columns, eighty in all, surmounted by a series of portraits of the Popes in mosaic, and paved with shining marble. The transept is separated from the nave by a grand triumphal arch with ancient mosaics—a relic of the old basilica, built by Galla-Placidia, sister of Honorius, in the year 440. There are few monuments or relics of interest in the church, the building being so entirely modern ; but an examination of the materials used in the construction of this marvellous edifice fills the mind at each step with fresh wonder. The baldacchino is supported by four splendid columns of Oriental alabaster, the gift of Mehemet Ali, and these stand on pedestals inlaid with lapis-lazuli and malachite, the gift of the Emperor of Russia. The windows of the external aisles are filled with stained-glass, each giving a full-length representation of an Apostle or Father of the Church. The Confession—where the remains of St. Paul are supposed to repose in the sarcophagus in which they were placed by a Christian lady named Lucina, whose property was on this site—is approached by two steps of red Oriental granite, and is paved with ancient marble of the rarest quality. In short, every inch of the vast space enclosed by the walls of this remarkable church is worthy of inspection. The exterior of the basilica is unsightly, and, like many of the churches of Italy, makes the surprise of the interior more surprising.
The Basilica of St. Laurence (S. Lorenzo fuori le Mura) is on the spot where Constantine first founded a church. It marks the burial-place of St. Laurence and St. Cyriaca. The Basilica of St. Sebastian, erected on the catacombs, is the least interesting of the seven basilicas of Rome.
It would be impossible in our limited space even to name the remainder of the three hundred and sixty-five churches of Rome; we can but hastily glance at two or three of special interest. The Church of St. Clement is built over an ancient basilica, discovered in 1857 by one Father Mullooley, prior of the Irish Dominicans, who caused extensive excavations to be made. It is one of the most interesting of modern discoveries, the house of St. Clement having been also excavated, and the oratory in which the first Christian converts probably
worshipped. In the Church of S. Pietro in Vinculi—so called because the chains which bound St. Peter are said to be preserved in it—is the great masterpiece in sculpture of Michael Angelo—the Moses-forming part of the decorations of the unfinished monument of Julius II. It is, according to one, “the masterpiece of sculpture since the time of the Greeks,” and of another, “one of the most marvellous creations ever hewn by the hand of man from a block of stone.” " It is so full of life that one would scarcely be surprised to see it rise from its seat, or hear it speak in the commanding tone of the great ruler and lawgiver of Israel.” S. Maria degli Angeli was converted by Michael Angelo from a large vaulted hall, forming part of the Baths of Diocletian, into a church. On the walls are a series of pictures brought from St. Peter's, and replaced there by copies in mosaic. The Church of Santa Maria sopra
Minerva, built upon the ruins of a temple to that deity, is the only example in Rome of pointed
mentation in painting, gilding, and sculpture of the costliest kind, as to be at first bewildering, and then offensive by its very prodigality. In the Church of Santa Maria della Pace—where it is the custom for newly-married couples to attend their first mass—is the fresco of the