After Santa Croce, we went to St. John Lateran, the oldest legal church in Rome. It was founded by Emperor Constantine in 313, on the site of the battle that made him emperor after a vision showing a cross and the words "In hoc signo vinces" ("In this sign you shall be victorious"). Roman emperors would often build temples to gods when they won battles - in Constantine's case, this was Christ, so the Christians in Rome got their first church...and got to stop being persecuted.
St. John Lateran, considered the mother of all Roman churches, doesn't completely resemble its 4th century origins - it was severely damaged by fire in the 16th century. It is the same size, which is rather large, and some of the mosaics and frescoes salvaged from the original were incorporated into the new. The nave is quite large, with marble tiled floors, and larger-than-life sculptures of the Apostles in ornate marble niches on either side.
The apse has a very large gilt mosaic of Christ and the apostles, reaching up into the dome. There are also two ornate side chapels, at least that I saw. The one downside to being on a tour is that there really wasn't as much time as I'd have liked to just explore the place further.
The next stop in our whirlwind tour of really early churches was St.Paul-outside-the-Walls, built on the site of a shrine that housed the mortal remains of St. Paul after his martyrdom. This church was also rebuilt after a fire in 1823. Unlike Santa Croce and the Lateran basilica, it didn't get a kitschy neo-classical facade in the 18th century. Apparently when tourists looking at classical history started outnumbering the pilgrims visiting Rome, the government put neoclassical facades on the more popular tourist spots. (Until then, the Lateran was just a boring brick building on the outside and beautiful on the inside.)
St. Paul's actually has a large courtyard in front, as initially designed, with a statue of the Apostle in the center. The facade has some nice gilt frescoes, and the nave is quite beautiful, with mosaics and frescoes from the life of St. Paul. At the time of its building, it was the largest church in the world, a title it held until the building of the cathedral in Florence. There are two side altars of malachite, and impressive works in stone and marble.
Before the high altar area, a little staircase leads down to where the sarcophagus of St. Paul is. There's unfortunately not much of Paul left (gee thanks, pirates...) but the chains that bound him are on display. Like the Lateran, I wish we'd had more time.
The one I most regret not staying longer at was St. Maria Maggiore. Like the Lateran and Holy Cross, it ended up with a neoclassical facade, but inside it was absolutely beautiful. It is quite opulent, with mosaics and guilding, but I was most struck by the use of a staggering variety of colors of marble in the decorations.
We had Mass with the Archbishop in the Pauline (Borghese) Chapel there, so I had time to admire the use of marble and sculpture in that small space. I got to see very little of the rest, though, and would love to go back again.
After our all-too-brief tour, we attended a reception for the Archbishop at the home of the US Ambassador to the Holy See, Miguel Diaz. With all the august personages there, I felt a little out of my depth, but it was a nice reception anyway. And the Archbishop was joking about matchmaking DD with the Ambassador's 13-year-old son, which was amusing but embarrassed DD a bit.
The evening after then has been quiet - a gelato and some dinner, and tomorrow will mostly be free.
(The Vatican website has some very nice virtual tours:
St. John Lateran
St. Paul outside the Walls
St. Mary Major
Very good picture quality, and a blessing since most of my interior pics didn't turn out...)