The Pope’s Chair, St. John Lateran, Rome

st john lateran rome 5If you said that St. Peter’s Basilica is the Pope’s “home church” in Rome, you’d be wrong. In fact, the Pope’s seat (cathedra in Latin, hence the English word cathedral) is at St. John Lateran Church, outside of Vatican City.

The original church was built in the 4th Century, just after Emperor Constantine legitimized the Christian Church in the Roman Empire. St. John Lateran is actually the oldest church in the Western Roman Empire. But over the years, and because of a couple of fires and an earthquake, the church was entirely rebuilt, and today is an enormous mostly 18th Century Baroque masterpiece, which you can see a bit of here.

But the half dome of the apse, over the cathedra, maintains an earlier style, derived from the Byzantine, called Cosmatesque, after the Cosmati family, the Italian masters of mosaic. So in the shot, you see the mosaic half dome and the inlaid decoration of the chair and platform, flanked by the two organs set into their more “modern” decorative style walls.

This was one of those days I did lug the Nikon D800E around, along with its wide 14-24 f/2.8 zoom. I had a feeling there was going to be one very wide shot I wanted, and I was right. It was a little dark in there, so the exposure was ISO 3200 at f/4.0 and 1/100 sec. I wanted a little more shutter speed and an f-stop not wide open to sharpen the image as much as possible. I don’t think a little bit of grain brought on by the higher ISO is too high a price to pay.

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  1. otto January 3, 2015 at 8:39 am - Reply

    Beautiful photo, Tom (often the case).

    Now the pedantic bit (apologies for being an annoying wordNazi). Cathedra is Chair or Throne. The word for seat is Sede (or See, as in Holy See). Sure they’re close as synonyms, but in the Catholic rulebook world one is the physical object while the other is used for the conceptual idea of authority so they’re normally kept apart. And by the way I’m not Catholic, but after living 20+ years in Catholic countries this kind of trivia rubs off on you 🙂

  2. Tom Bartel January 3, 2015 at 9:17 am - Reply

    Well, since we’re going all Word Fascist, the Latin word is actually sedes, not sede, unless you’re talking about the ablative case, in which case the translation would probably be something like “on the seat.” (Sede is good Spanish, though.) But, you’re right about cathedra’s first meaning being “chair” and I was perhaps being a little cavalier in my equation of seat and chair, although when you’re talking about something you sit on, there is probably little distinction in English. That said, I think though, that an official place were someone sits is usually called a seat, e.g. a seat in Congress. Strangely, the etymology of English chair is from Greek καθέδρα, which is the same word in Latin, cathedra. Seat, though, according to my quick research, doesn’t come from sedes, but from an old Norse word sit, which means to sit. It all comes from Proto-Indo European though.

    That sort of got out of hand, didn’t it?

  3. otto January 3, 2015 at 9:19 am - Reply

    Nothing there that I didn’t deserve, Tom 🙂

  4. Tom Bartel January 3, 2015 at 9:40 am - Reply

    And, while I’m on my pedantic rant, when the Pope speaks “infallibly” he speaks “ex cathedra,” i.e. from the chair.

    • otto January 3, 2015 at 9:54 am - Reply

      Indeed. If memory serves (i.e. refraining from the Google machine), the last ex-cathedra was in 1950 and the Pope has to physcially sit on that nice shiny chair you have in the photo in order to make it official.

      You got me ruminating about the memories of seat/chair differences in English (how they’re synonymous but not perfect fits). I’d guess the above is why we talk about a “seat of power” rather than a “chair of power”, as seat’s conceptual leanings suit the concept of power better. Meanwhile, chair of power sounds like an execution device 🙂

  5. Tom Bartel January 3, 2015 at 9:56 am - Reply


  6. Tom Bartel January 3, 2015 at 10:02 am - Reply

    When will this ever stop? I just looked up “ex cathedra” on Wikipedia, and there’s a whole paragraph in the entry on the distinction between “cathedra” and “sedes.”

    I’m going to dinner now. Anyone else reading this thread is restricted to commenting on the beauty of the church. Or what their favorite color is.

  7. Corinne January 4, 2015 at 10:11 am - Reply

    My favorite color is green. Ha! I love the photo…whatever it’s called!

  8. Tom Bartel January 4, 2015 at 10:46 am - Reply

    Actually, Corinne, I was thinking it should be called a pew. My favorite color is green, too. You have good taste.

  9. Lisa January 31, 2016 at 8:26 am - Reply

    I’m coming late to this discussion. My favorite color is green, too!

    • Tom Bartel January 31, 2016 at 8:48 am - Reply

      Mine, too. Although I’m also partial to red.

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