Traditions of the Lateran Archbasilica: The Portable Altars of Pius IX

The Lateran Archbasilica should be on everyone's pilgrim map.  It is the highest ranking church in Rome, it is the oldest public church in Rome, and it is the oldest basilica in the West.  The Lateran is unique for many reasons.  It holds the rare title of "Archbasilica."  Founded in 324, it has the privilege of holding the 'cathedra' or episcopal throne of the Roman Pontiff, the Patriarch of the West.  Once called the Basilica Aurea ("Golden Basilica"), the Lateran has always been a special place for all the world's Catholics.    

Over the centuries pilgrims have flocked here for these reasons.  Also, not to mention because the Lateran is one of the traditional Seven Pilgrim Churches of Rome.  In former generations pilgrim priests (and professors from the nearby Lateran University) were welcome to celebrate Mass here.  Today it is rare to see Mass celebrated on the side altars of the Lateran.  It is supposed to be a house of prayer.
These days the canons are few and aged.  Some daily Masses are held in two side chapels, in Italian, with few in attendance.  There is also a side chapel that is open during the day for Eucharistic adoration that draws visiting pilgrims for quiet prayer.  The liturgical life at the Lateran is at a very low ebb, with not much done for the Sunday (Capitular) High Mass and nothing extra is done for the titular feast day of the Transfiguration, a day that was celebrated with the greatest solemnity on August 6th since the 12th century. 

One tradition that has been lost is that the papal altar is no longer reserved exclusively for papal celebrations.  Other bishops and canons celebrate on the altar on Sundays and special celebrations.  The current papal altar in white marble was refurbished during the reign of Pius IX.  It is decorated with cosmatesque mosaic columns and a golden coat-of-arms of Pius IX in the center on the front along with golden arms of Urban V and Gregory XI.  

The project to furnish this new altar came about in 1851 when Pius IX (1846-1878) entrusted the architect Filippo Martinucci (1783-1862) with the task of expanding and restoring the confession in front of the altar, updating the altar itself and making upgrades to the mighty Medieval fourteenth century ciborium above the altar.  The position of the coats of arms of Urban V and Gregory XI are not only seen on the altar, but also on the pediment of the ciborium, dating back to this intervention. 

Martinucci when designing the new altar scheme kept the golden grille placed by Innocent X in front of the altar where the popes stand and had new ornamental elements created. He extended the confessio and inserted here the tomb of Martin V, who died in 1431, formerly entombed in the central nave.  He also preserved on the shorter sides of the altar the shield of Cardinal Guglielmo d'Agrifoglia and the other side a shield sown with lilies (the ancient blazon of the royal house of France).  Lastly, from the adjacent cloister of the Vassalletto he transferred two small statues depicting the apostles Peter and Paul which he placed on the right and left of the rear altar frontal where the popes stand.

This altar is one of the most revered in Rome, positioned under the triumphal ciborium. The historical sources handed down to us relate stories of the enormous importance of the altar because enshrined inside is an old wooden altar that is believed to be a primitive relic, the remains of a wooden table where the first popes and martyrs of Christianity celebrated their liturgical functions.  It is believed that even St. Peter may have celebrated Mass atop this original wooden table.  

The current marble altar built by Pius IX preserves inside the fragments of this original wooden table.  This large nineteenth century altar is the last and most recent of a series that over the centuries has alternated on the site of the original altar, destroyed or damaged over the years by the devastations such as invasions and fires.  Miraculously through it all the wooden altar entombed inside the marbled altars has survived the centuries and has remained unharmed by the many desolations suffered over the centuries.  

The Lateran has various bygone traditions that are worth mentioning.  One was the two portable altars set up during the reign of Pius IX (one is seen in the photo in front of the papal altar confessio and another in front of the cathedra).  The use of the papal altar was reserved exclusively for the Roman Pontiffs.  In the good old days morning Masses were celebrated on these portable altars by canons, professors, student clergy, and visiting priests.  Ordinations by the Cardinal Vicar of Rome or Cardinal Archpriest were done in front of the portable altar set up in front of the cathedra.  The altars were dismantled and disappeared sometime in the late 1960's - no one remembers exactly when. 

As a side note, another interesting tradition kept at the Lateran was the red curtain inside the 14th century Gothic ciborium or baldacchino, today no longer seen.  It was opened each year on the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul for the faithful to see the golden busts of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, said to contain the heads of the martyred saints.  A nice little tradition for the Cathedral of the Pope, the Bishop of Rome.  Let us pray for a return to little traditions of the Faith.  They are part of our rich heritage and inspire belief and reverence.  Traditions are either divine or ecclesiastical.  Divine traditions belong generally to the Faith.  Ecclesiastical, to discipline.  These beautiful disciplines of the Church are ecclesiastical and should not have been so hastily cast aside, most certainly not in the wake of such a cultural revolution.  Hopefully a future generation of canons will revisit these traditions and restore them to the consciousness of the faithful.  

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