The Lateran Church in Rome and the Ark of the Covenant

There are many loose ends in history. I have tied up one of them, which is the Ark of the Covenant in St John the Lateran in Rome. Today almost no one knows about this tradition. The canons of the Lateran, however, claimed that their cathedral housed the Ark of the Covenant for over six hundred years, from the beginning of the twelfth century to middle of the eighteenth century, when it all came to a sudden end.

Oil painting of Pope Benedict XIV, 1741.
Source: Wikimedia commons

In 1745 Pope Benedict XIV was on a pastoral visit at the Lateran and observed the so-called Ark of the Covenant, the rod of Moses and the rod of Aaron on display, together with the table of the Last supper. The Ark was a decorated wooden chest covered with a cloth of silk. Cult lamps in front of the objects designated their sacredness. The following night the pope pondered on what to do with the objects. I imagine him in his bed, perhaps with red slippers, making his decision. On the subsequent morning, he ordered that the table of the Last Supper should be kept for veneration. It can still be seen enshrined above the sacrament altar in St John the Lateran. The Ark and the rods of Moses and Aaron were to be removed and no longer shown. No physical traces can be found of these objects after this papal visit.

When I started to wonder what this was all about, I found far more than I had expected. The investigation brought me first of all to the Lateran Archive, but also to manuscript transmission in Flanders and even to Jerusalem and the Dome of the Rock.

I worked on my main source which was the description of the Lateran from the twelfth century, Descriptio Lateranensis Ecclesia, which I also have edited at the end of my book. In the beginning I was not very concerned about Jerusalem—more than as a literal reference from the Old Testament. Then I discovered a convincing connection between the Lateran and the holy city. I can still remember sitting in the Manuscript Reading Room in the Vatican Library and studying the BAV Reg.lat 712 and the Descriptio as it appeared in this (and several related) manuscript, all from monasteries in Flanders, and all concerned with the First Crusade. There were obvious connections, almost literary similarities, between the Descriptio and the descriptions of Templum Domini (the Dome of the Rock) in crusader Jerusalem. As far as I know, no-one had recognized or studied this connection before.

Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem. Circa 1920.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Besides tracing the transmission of the Descriptio, my book dives into the ideological meaning of claiming the Ark at the Lateran. The Ark guarantees the Lateran as the Temple of the New Covenant. What I propose is that this argument appears in the aftermath of the first Crusade, when the Temple site in Jerusalem gained importance for the Christians, after centuries of neglect. What the sources reveal is that the claim of the Ark appears as an argument in a discussion going on in both Jerusalem and Rome about the continuity of the old Temple.

The Lateran Ark of the Covenant tells a story of the legitimization of sacerdotal authority in twelfth-century Rome. It was a discussion of legitimization that took place within communities both in Rome and Jerusalem—all relating to the same sacred traditions and objects. Broadly viewed, the story of the Lateran Ark of the Covenant belongs to the larger, intertwined history of the Jews, Christians and Muslims. Each of these religious communities claimed—and still claim in different ways—ownership of, and continuity with, the traditions of Jerusalem.


This guest post was written by Eiover Andersen Oftestad . Eiover holds a PhD in Church History and is currently a senior researcher at MF Norwegian School of Theology, Religion and Society.

The Lateran Church in Rome and the Ark of the Covenant: Housing the Holy Relics of Jerusalem
with an edition and translation of the Descriptio Lateranensis Ecclesiae (BAV Reg. Lat. 712)
by Eivor Andersen Oftestad

Hardback / 9781783273881 / £56.25 or $90

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