Liturgical Arts at the Lateran Archbasilica (Pavilion and Tintinnabulum Revisited)

Some readers with a special interest in Rome and the Vatican  may be happy to know the Lateran Archbasilica's pavilion and tintinnabulum have both been returned to their proper place in the sanctuary of the Lateran.  I do  not know if this move is permanent; time will tell.

In recent years these objects have been displayed in the adjoining sacristy museum, attached to the Lateran gift shop.  A worthwhile visit, I might add, with many various liturgical furnishings from the papal court, including altar cards and  liturgical vessels. 

Photo credit: Jacob Stein


The basilica pavilion is a recognized sight in the world's Catholic basilicas.  It can be seen here in the rear of the photo, on the right.  Note: it is only opened whenever the pope visits the basilica.

The pavilion, also known as the umbraculum, is the distinctive heraldic emblem of the basilica.  This one is especially unique - it is the emblem of the Patriarchal (Papal) Archbasilica of the Most Holy Savior and Saints John the Baptist and Saint John the Evangelist in the Lateran.

Because the Lateran is the cathedral of the Pope, as Bishop of Rome, it is the principal mother church mater et caput ("mother and head" or sometimes called "mother and mistress") of Rome and the world's Catholic churches.

This unique status is represented by the pavilion, which takes the shape of a large umbrella.  For major basilicas, it is made of rich velvet and gold damask with red brocade (historically the papal colors, later changed by Pope Pius VII to white and yellow).   For minor basilicas, it is made of yellow and red silk.

The design includes pendants of vair fur diagonally partitioned in alternating colors.

The physical representation of the form actually represents a tent on pilgrimage, a symbolic representation both of the Church advancing and moving together in procession, the faithful in humble obedience following Christ.

This creative imagery also recalls the biblical "tabernacle" of the congregation, set up by the children of Israel on their journey toward the promised land, Israel.

Further, it brings to mind the imperial military tent, or the sinnichium (or sinichium, in Medieval Latin), in which on the evening of the 27th of October in the year 312, the Emperor Constantine had the miraculous vision which commanded him to place a symbol of Christ on the standards of his armies at the battle of the Milvian Bridge.

In all examples, the basilica pavilion symbolizes both the Roman Catholic Church and the papal authority over it, although it was specifically in the later sense that Pope Alexander VI (Borgia), started to use it regularly as a heraldic symbol of the papacy's temporal power.

The emblem of the Lateran Archbasilica was the badge not only of the Most Reverend Lateran Chapter of Canons, but also, as a special heraldic privilege, of every Roman basilica (major and minor), inside and outside the City of Rome.

From 1521 it was the essential symbol of the Holy See as well as of the Cardinal Chamberlain of the Holy Roman Church (the temporal power continues to exist even in the interregnum between two pontificates).


The Lateran tintinnabulum was made in Rome of wood and gold leaf, during the mid-seventeenth century.  This object, seen in the foreground of the photo, is the second distinctive emblem of the Lateran Archbasilica.

It consists of a small bell mounted on a shield with the effigy of the Most Holy Savior and the papal symbols of the tiara with crossed keys.

This heavy object was carried in strong arms at the opening of the processional cortege, followed by the pavilion of the basilica, followed by the pavilion of the Most Reverend Lateran Chapter, as well as by the two ancient Lateran crosses of the stations.

During the processions it was continually rung with the dual function of both summoning the faithful and marking the passing of the liturgical procession.

Perhaps some day local traditions such as this will gradually come into play once again.  It has been said by wise teachers, a tradition is a solution to a forgotten problem.  Throw away the solution, and the problem returns.

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