San Giovanni a Porta Latina
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According to Tertullian, as quoted by Saint Jerome, in year 92, St John the Evangelist survived martyrdom at Rome under the Emperor Domitian by being immersed in a vat of boiling oil, from which he emerged unharmed. He was later exiled to island of Patmos. This event was traditionally said to have occurred at the Latin Gate (located on the southern portion of the Roman wall). The nearby chapel of San Giovanni in Oleo is said to be on this very spot. The event was referred to in the Roman Martyrology, which was begun in the seventh century, when already there was a celebration of the event. A feast in the Roman calendar also celebrated the event until 1960, when Pope John XXIII removed most second feasts of a single saint.
The tradition for the building of the Basilica of St. John at the Latin Gate places its construction during the pontificate of Pope Gelasius I (492-496). This is consistent with the oldest of the roof tiles, which have the imprint of a taxation stamp for the Ostrogoth King and ruler of Italy Theodoric the Great (reigned 493-526). One of these ancient roof tiles is now used in the Basilica as a lectern.
In the 8th century, the Basilica was restored by Pope Adrian I, and later the bell-tower and portico were added, and at the end of the 12th century the Basilica was reconsecrated by Pope Celestine III. In the 16th and 17th centuries, a Baroque ceiling and other Baroque features were added to the interior. In the years 1940-1941, the Baroque features were removed and the Basilica was returned to a more primitive simplicity. This last renovation was carried out by the Rosminian Fathers, who, in 1938, were given care of the Basilica and the nearby building, where they opened the Collegio Missionario Antonio Rosmini which houses their International House of Studies.
The main entrance to the Basilica is fronted by a small square with a 100-year-old cedar and an 8th-century well-head, nearly reproducing the aspect of the Basilica that would have been seen at the reconsecration by Pope Celestine III in the 12th century.
The portico (or porch) of the Basilica is supported by four re-used classical columns (each of a different marble) supporting five arches. The main door is framed with a simple mosaic of red and green porphyry.
The well-head, from the time of Pope Adrian I, has a double row circular design around its barrel and a Latin inscription completely around its crown:
- IN NOMINE PAT[RIS] ET FILII ET SPI[RITUS SANT]I "In the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost"
and a quote from the Prophet Isaiah:
- OMN[E]S SITIE[NTES VENITE AD AQUAS] "All you who are thirsty come to the water"
and the name of the stone-carver:
- EGO STEFANUS "I Stephen".
The interior of the Basilica is divided into three naves, divided by two rows of columns on which rest semi-circular arches. The two columns closest to the sanctuary are of white marble with deep fluting. The other columns are of various types of marble and granite, capped with a diverse collection of Ionic capitals. The central nave terminates with a half-hexagon apse. Each of the three sides of the apse opens with a large window filled with honey-coloured onyx.
Occupying the ledge of the central window is a carved wooden crucifixion scene including Saint John the Evangelist and the Blessed Virgin Mary. In front of the altar is a mosaic pavement in Cosmatesque style. The geometric pattern of red and green porphyry is framed in white marble (as well are reused fragments of white marble with Latin lettering) is thought to have been created before the 12th century. Inserted in the front step of the altar, is the titulus of the basilica, of ancient origin, discovered during the renovations of 1940:
- TIT. S. IOANNIS ANTE PORTAM LA[TINAM]
In the years 1913-1915, then recently discovered frescoes were restored of above the main altar. After this work, another search of the along the face of the central nave revealed the presence of a full circle of medieval frescoes. The restoration of these frescos was completed with the full restoration of the Basilica in 1940-1941. The central nave is decorated with about 50 scenes representing the Old and New Testaments, from the creation of the world to the glorious apocalypse of the New Jerusalem. The frescoes were executed by several artists under the direction of one master.
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- Giovanni Mario Crescimbeni, L'istoria della chiesa di St Giovanni avanti Porta Latina (Roma: A. de Rossi, 1716).