The most extensive exposition of medieval liturgical ideas comes from the Rationale Divinorum Officiorum of Willam Durandus of Metz (1230-1296). Durandus’s Rationale is insightful because rather than being simply an ordo, or book of rubrics, Durandus intended to write an exposition of the Church’s liturgical rites, explaining their purpose and symbolism. The content of the Rationale focuses on liturgical rites as they would have been observed in 13th century cathedrals, but he includes commentary on papal liturgies as well. Nor does Durandus restrict himself to liturgical ceremonial; architecture, vestments, and symbolism are covered as well. It was an ambition project spanning multiple volumes written over many years.
In the course of such a lengthy work, Durandus occasionally incorporates popular legends to support his allegorical explanations. In Book I, “The Symbolism of Churches and Church Ornaments,” Durandus devotes his second chapter to considerations of the altar. Within this chapter, he alludes to a fascinating legend about the fate of the Old Testament Ark of the Covenant popular in medieval Europe.
Consideration of Altars
Durandus begins his chapter with a consideration of altars in the Old Testament. He explains the simple altars of the patriarchs Noah, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as well as the altars constructed by Moses. He also reviews different words used to designate altars. The study is very restrained for a medieval commentary, considering the physical construction of altars only.
The following section, however, begins his allegorical exposition. He notes that Scripture contains various types of altars, “a higher, a lower, an inner, an outer; of which each hath both a plain and symbolical signification.” (1) He interprets various altars to represent the Church Triumphant, the Church Militant, and the inner altar of the Temple he considers representative of a clean and upright heart; the external altar where evening sacrifices were made signifies the sacraments of the Church. He goes on to say that the altar also “signifieth the body of Christ, as shall be explained…[it also] signifieth the table at which Christ did feast with His disciples.” (2)
It is this consideration of the altar as a symbolic table that leads Durandus into a tangent about the Ark of the Covenant. He does not explain this segue, but his implicit reasoning seems to be the functional similarities between the Ark and a Catholic altar: Just as the Ark of the Covenant was a place of reservation for the bread from heaven, so the altar is a place of repose of the Body of Christ; as the Israelite table of showbread was set up in the presence of the Ark, so is the Bread of Life offered in the presence of the New Testament tabernacle. He discusses this in the context of Church architecture:
It is written in Exodus, that in the Ark of the Testament or of the Testimony the witness was laid up: that is, the tables on which the law was written…and on these accounts is it called the Ark of the Testimony or Testament; and also the tabernacle of the testimony thence derived its title. But over the Ark was made a mercy seat: of which we shall speak in the introduction of the fourth book. In imitation whereof some churches have over the altar an ark or tabernacle, in which the body of the Lord and relics are preserved. (3)
The discussion of the Ark of the Covenant is too much for Durandus to restrain a side note about the fate of the Ark. He continues on with a story of the Ark being plundered from Jerusalem at its fall in 70 A.D. and being relocated to Rome and installed in the Lateran basilica by Emperor Constantine:
And note that in the time of St. Silvester, Pope, Constantine the Emperor built the Lateran church, in which he placed the Ark of the Testament, which the Emperor Titus had brought from Jerusalem, and the golden candlestick and its seven branches. In which the ark are these things: the rings and staves of gold, the tables of the testimony, the rod of Aaron, manna, barley loaves, the golden pot, the seamless garment, the reed, a garment of St. John the Baptist, and the scissors with which the hair of St. John the Evangelist was shorn. (4)
Durandus’s assertion that the Lateran Church contains the Ark of the Covenant is not unique to his writings; it was a common belief in the high Middle Ages and appears in multiple medieval manuscripts.
What was the origin of this belief? And could the Ark have actually been kept in the Lateran Basilica?
The Descriptio Lateranensis Ecclesiae and the Lateran Canons
Around the year 1100, the canons of the Lateran Basilica prepared a document called the Descriptio Lateranensis Ecclesiae (“Description of the Lateran Church”). The Descriptio was like a medieval guidebook, explaining to pilgrims and tourists what they would find on a visit to the Lateran church. Based on references to papal burials within the Descriptio, the document must have been composed between 1073 and 1118; likely, it was written after the First Crusade, as the Lateran-Ark tradition seems to have been influenced by the Frankish seizure of Jerusalem in 1099, as we shall see.
After describing the history of the Lateran and listing many of the martyr relics kept within, the Descriptio tells us:
In the Lateran Church, which is the capital of the world, which is the patriarchal or imperial see, there is a pontifical throne of the Apostolic church, and the principal altar of the same church is the Ark of the Lord’s Covenant; or rather, as they say, the Ark is on the inside, and on the outside it is hidden by an altar, which measures the same as the Ark in length and width, between four columns of red porphyry, beneath a certain beautiful canopy, in which indeed, as they say, is a great sanctuary…This very Ark, with the candelabra and other temple objects, Titus and Vespasian carried off from Jerusalem…(5)
The Descriptio mentions “the candelabra and other temple objects” contained within the altar as well; elsewhere, these “other temple objects” are said to be the rods of Aaron and Moses, the Tablets of the Law, and a number of relics from the lives of Christ and the Apostles. The candelabra refers to the Temple Menorah carried off to Rome after the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D., as depicted on the Arch of Titus. These were all held to be contained within the high altar of the Lateran.
The Descriptio was produced by the Lateran canons for the purpose of glorifying the basilica by describing the priceless treasures it held. But why was the basilica in need of promotion of this sort?
The Lateran Basilica is a unique church among the holy places of Rome. Most of Rome’s other pilgrim sites were associated with the tomb of a martyr. But St. John Lateran was originally an imperial palace, donated by Constantine to Pope St. Sylvester. Neither the location nor the structure itself had any association with a martyr.
Following the growth of papal power during the 11th century, St. Peter’s basilica became an increasingly popular pilgrimage destination. The Lateran canons appeared to have feared that their church—lacking the tomb of any eminent martyr—might be overshadowed by St. Peter’s. They therefore wrote the Descriptio Lateranensis Ecclesiae as a kind of “must see” pamphlet about the basilica, in hopes that the marvels housed within the Lateran would attract pilgrims.
The Maundy Thursday Papal Mass
The only relics that could compare in importance with those of the early martyrs were those associated with Jerusalem and the life of Christ. Thus the Descriptio stresses the presence of the most renowned items of the Old Testament: the Ark of the Covenant, Temple Menorah, and rods of Moses and Aaron. Unlike other the claims of other sites to have the Ark of the Covenant, it is known with certainty that there was some object that was kept inside the high altar. Whatever it was, it was generally kept concealed, save for once a year on the liturgy of Holy Thursday. The ritual of this lavish spectacle has been preserved in a document called the Ordo Officiorum Ecclesiae Lateranensis, the official liturgical book of the Lateran Basilica. The Ordo tells us that the high altar at the Lateran was equipped with a removable top. The pope would arrive at the Lateran at noon on Holy Thursday to say Mass and prepare the sacred chrism for use at Easter. During the papal homily, the top of the high altar was removed by the cathedral canons and moved to an adjacent chapel, exposing the interior of the altar where the Ark of the Covenant and other sacred objects were kept. The pope then consecrated the Eucharist immediately above the sacred Ark, he alone having a view of the interior of the altar and its sacred contents. He communicated alone, symbolizing the yearly entrance of the High Priest into the Holy of Holies.
After Mass, the high altar was kept open until Holy Saturday. The opened altar was covered with a pallium and wooden cover specifically designed for this use. The altar was sealed at its four corners by the chancellor of the curia and then watched day and night by the canons to make sure nothing was disturbed. Seven lamps were lit to designate the exposure of the holy Ark. When the altar top was replaced after Holy Saturday, the canons had to physically inspect the seals to make sure nothing had been tampered with.
Temples Old and New
The emphasis on the presence of the Ark in St. John Lateran during the high Middle Ages appears to have developed in the wake of the First Crusade. At the time the First Crusade captured Jerusalem in 1099, the city had been in Muslim hands for around 464 years. The loss of Christian Jerusalem in the 7th century had caused most Christians to conceive of Jerusalem purely in spiritual terms—as an image of heaven, the Church, or a symbol of the restoration of the world at the end of time. With the Crusader’s capture of the city in 1099, however, Jerusalem unexpectedly reentered Christian consciousness as a physical, political reality. The coming years saw a drastic increase in the numbers of pilgrims flocking to Jerusalem.
As we have seen, the church of St. John Lateran was already competing with St. Peter’s Basilica as a pilgrim destination; after 1099, both had to compete with the renewed interest in Jerusalem. There seems to have been a deliberate effort on the part of the St. John Lateran canons to identify the Lateran as the Temple of the New Covenant, with the cathedral chapter correlating to the priests of the Old Testament Temple. This is testified to in many texts from the time of the Crusades. For example, in the Ordo of the Maundy Thursday service mentioned above. Note the correlation the text makes between the pope and the Old Testament high priest when explaining why the altar-top is removed to allow the pope to celebrate over the Ark:
…this is done so that the lord pope himself, in the figure of the hands of the high priests can enter the temple to sacrifice, according to what is written by the apostle: “…into the second tent went the high priest alone once every year, not without blood, which he offered for himself, and for the errors of the people (Heb. 9:7)”(6)
This is also attested in the liturgy to the annual Feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica on November 9. This feast began sometime in the 1100; the Ordo describes its celebration as it occurred around 1145. The theme of the feast is set by the first vespers, when the pope, bishops, and other cardinals entered the basilica to celebrate with the canons. Eivor Andersen Oftestad, in her exhaustive study of the Lateran basilica of the high Middle Ages, observes that the content of the vespers is rich with temple imagery:
The psalms of the office refer to Jerusalem and the temple as the dwelling place of God. In particular Psalm 131 (132) demonstrates the connection between the first construction of the temple, the promise of God’s permanent presence, and the promise of the priesthood. The psalm opens with a reference to the oath of David that he would find a dwelling place for the Lord. It continues with an exhortation and plea sung by the priests: “We will go into his tabernacles: we will worship at his footstool. Arise, O Lord, into thy rest; thou and the ark of thy strength…for the Lord hath chosen Zion; He hath desired it for His habitation. This is my rest forever: here I will dwell; for I have desired it.” On the lips of the Lateran clergy, surrounding the altar and the presumed Ark of the Covenant, the words of this psalm expressed nothing less than the Lateran basilica as the new dwelling place of the Lord. (7)
This was followed by readings from St. Augustine, which stressed the continuity of cult between the Jewish temple and Christian church. The Descriptio Lateranensis Ecclesiae calls the church “the highest sanctuary of God” (8), and elsewhere the canons are referred to as the Levites of the New Testament temple. The Church of St. John Lateran was the spiritual successor of the Temple of Solomon.
The concept of translatio is essential to understanding medieval thought. Translatio (“translation”) has been used to describe many medieval ideas (translatio imperii, translatio legis, translatio sacerdotii, etc). The Lateran canons promoted the idea of translatio templi, that is, “the translation of the Temple.” By this was meant that the spiritual importance of the Old Testament Temple of Jerusalem was “translated” to the Basilica of St. John Lateran. While the physical Temple of Jerusalem may have passed away, the spiritual realities underlying its physicality endured, transferred to the Lateran Basilica.
But this spiritual succession was manifest by physical succession as well: the cultic objects of the Old Testament Temple were believed to be present in the Lateran Church. This essay focuses on the Ark of the Covenant, but there were many others as well. The Descriptio mentions the candelabra, Aaron’s rod, the rod of Moses, and the tablets of the law. This was not all; the medieval Jewish traveler Benjamin of Tudela mentions bronze columns from the Temple of Solomon that had been incorporated into the Lateran an were venerated by Rome’s Jews:
In the church of St. John in the Lateran there are two bronze columns, taken from the temple, the handiwork of King Solomon, each column being engraved “Solomon, Son of David.” The Jews of Rome told me that one every year upon the 9th of Ab [the date commemorating the destruction of the temple] they found the columns exuding moisture like water. There also is the cave where Titus son of Vespasian stored the temple vessels which he brought from Jerusalem. (9)
The spiritual continuity of St. John Lateran with the Jerusalem Temple is signified by the presence of temple objects in the basilica, brought thither by Titus during the reign of Vespasian. Chief among these relics is the Ark of the Covenant, the tangible sign of God’s presence.
It is interesting that the Descriptio seems to anticipate the skepticism of some who say that the Ark could not be in Rome due to the passage in 2 Maccabees which says that Jeremiah hid the Ark on Mt. Nebo (cf. 2 Macc. 2:7). It thus includes the following disclaimer, explaining how the Ark came to Rome despite the passage about Jeremiah from 2 Maccabees:
Since some people doubt that the Ark of the Covenant is in the church of the Savior because of what we read in the second book of Maccabees, that when some wanted to mark the place where it was hidden, Jeremiah rebukes them and says that the place should be unknown until God gathers the congregation of his people, and shows his mercy, and then God will make this clear, and the majesty of God will appear, etc.
But St. Ambrose, in the book De officiis, plainly dissolved the fog of this kind of ambiguity, asserting that the time had already come, and the majesty of the Lord appeared at the time when our Savior himself deigned to appear in the flesh. This very Ark, with the candelabra and other temple objects, Titus and Vespasian carried off from Jerusalem, or rather, they caused them to be carried away by the Jews themselves, just as it still can be seen until this day on the triumphal arch celebrating the victory, their monument, built by the Senate and the Roman people. (10)
The Fate of the Ark
The heyday of Ark devotion at the Lateran was from around 1100-1300, roughly corresponding to the age of the Crusades. In 1308, a fire in the Lateran necessitated the opening of the high altar. The canons found therein relics of Christ’s blood, the wooden altar of St. Peter, and the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark was moved to the side chapel of St. Tommaso. This chapel was demolished in 1647, at which time the Ark was installed in the apse for the veneration of the faithful. Not only Christians, but Jews of Rome came to venerate the sacred object. In 1661, the renowned antiquarian Famiano Nardini came to study the object. He wrote:
But after having diligently studied this Ark, which resembles the one described in Exodus, I cannot imagine that it is a thing produced in Rome for some other use, nor do I dare declare that it is a work made out of vain pretense. (11)
With the advent of modern science and archaeology, doubt began to be cast on the authenticity of the Lateran Ark. By the 18th century, the claims of the Lateran to possess the Ark were widely ridiculed, such that the popes began to wonder whether its presence was detrimental to the cause of religion. In 1745, Pope Benedict XIV ordered the Ark and other Temple objects laid out in the ambulatory of one of the Lateran side chapels for his inspection and judgement. The Ark was held within a decorated wooden chest covered with a cloth of silk, encased in a glass box. Votive lamps were burning in front of the sacred object.
Benedict XIV spent time observing the object. He left his examination without making a judgment, but presumably he spent the night pondering and praying over the matter. The next day, Pope Benedict ordered the Ark removed from the basilica. No physical or textual trace of the Ark has been found since 1745. We simply don’t know what Pope Benedict XIV did with it.
What was the mysterious object that lay hidden inside the Lateran for at least six centuries? Could it have been the Old Testament Ark of the Covenant? Where did Benedict remove it to? Was it discarded, or is it still sitting in some clammy cellar beneath the Vatican somewhere? In her book on the Lateran Ark tradition, The Lateran Church in Rome and the Ark of the Covenant, Dr. Eivor Andersen Oftestad relates the following story about her attempt to find some trace of the lost object:
In 2008, I wrote to the head of the Vatican Museum in Rome asking whether there were any remnants of an object known as the Ark of the Covenant, which had been removed from San Giovanni in Laterano in the eighteenth century. Was it perhaps stored with many other objects in the Vatican collection? I received a reply a few weeks later. I was not surprised that neither the curator nor his colleagues were familiar with such a tradition, which apparently stemmed from medieval sources. (12)
Whatever Benedict XIV removed in 1745, it is almost certainly lost.
What Was the Object in the Lateran?
It is undeniable that there was something present in the Lateran basilica that was purported to be the Ark of the Covenant. What was this object? Could it have been the Ark?
It is highly unlikely that the story of the Ark coming to Rome from Jerusalem at the time of Titus and Vespasian is true, for the simple fact that the Ark of the Covenant had gone missing centuries before. The Ark went missing after the destruction of the Temple of Solomon in 587 BC..; in fact, depending on how we interpret 2 Chronicles 35:3, it may have even gone missing prior to this, during the reign of King Josiah (640-609 BC.) If Jeremiah did hide the Ark on Mount Nebo at that time, there is no explanation for how or when it was found and returned to Jerusalem to be taken by the Romans in 70 AD. When Pompey the Great took Jerusalem in 63 BC, he entered the Holy of Holies and found it empty. Had it been found on Mount Nebo and returned to Jerusalem, it is inconceivable that neither Josephus nor any other ancient Jewish scribe would have mentioned it. It would have been equivalent to some medieval knight actually finding the real Holy Grail.
Of course, we can always say, “The Jews retrieved it but had kept it hidden.” This is unlikely as well; the possession of the Ark was tangible sign of God’s presence with the Israelites. Had the Temple authorities come into possession of it again—after centuries of lack—they most certainly would have wished to broadcast their possession of the holy relic as far and wide as possible. Furthermore, suggesting the Jews had it all along but “in hiding” is an unverifiable hypothesis, inasmuch as we cannot prove a historical negative. History can only speak on what has demonstrably happened or been recorded; it cannot speak to theories about hidden objects and secrets. Arguing that the Jews hid it all those years it not an explanation; it is a deus ex machina theory offered in lieu of an explanation. It is simply not feasible that the Ark of the Covenant was in the Jerusalem Temple at the time the Romans sacked the city in 70 AD.
What was the object in the Lateran, then?
Though the Ark tradition of the Lateran claims to go back to Constantine, who allegedly installed the relic there, it is noteworthy that the story is not attested before the early 12th century, around the time of the First Crusade. The First Crusade saw the movement of thousands of relics—true and false—from the Holy Land to western Europe. Many of these relics undoubtedly wound up in the Lateran. The Descriptio mentions a vast catalogue of relics possessed by the church, including relics from the Lord’s manger, the purple robe of Christ and His seamless tunic, the sudarium of Christ, the blood of John the Baptist, his cloak of camel’s hair, the tunic of St. John the Apostle, the shoes of Jesus, a piece of His umbilical cord, a piece of the True Cross, and even His foreskin. And this is not counting the innumerable relics of saints and martyrs assembled there as well.
It is likely that many of these relics were shipped to Rome during the Crusades. All accounts of the Lateran Ark say that it was filled with relics, not only of the Old Testament but also “the seamless garment [of Christ], the reed, a garment of St. John the Baptist, and the scissors with which the hair of St. John the Evangelist was shorn.” (13) It is possible that this Ark was originally a chest or reliquary from Palestine used for the transport of relics. This would explain why Famiano Nardini said, “I cannot imagine that it is a thing produced in Rome for some other use.” If it was a reliquary of the Holy Land, this would explain its foreign appearance—and if it were a reliquary, that would also explain why Nardini thought it could not have been made for any other use.
This theory becomes more plausible when we consider that the Latin word for Ark, archa, simply means “box.” It may have happened that, during the chaotic days after the seizure of Jerusalem in 1099, a reliquary was pilfered by the Crusaders somewhere in the Holy Land and sent to Rome, where it wound up in the Lateran. The Latin inventories would have recorded this reliquary as an archa—that is, a box or chest—containing important relics from the Holy Land. As the years went by, this archa from Palestine became confused with the archa testamenti, the Ark of the Covenant. The existing imagery of the translation of temple treasure from Jerusalem to Rome as found on the Arch of Titus supplied the backstory for how the object arrived in the basilica. The canons, seeking to popularize the Lateran as a pilgrimage destination, promoted the Ark story as part of their grand narrative of identifying the church of St. John Lateran as the successor to the Temple of the Jerusalem, the Temple of the New Covenant.
(1) William Durandus, Rationale Divinum Officiorum, ed. Neville Blakemore Jr. (Fons Vitae: Louisville, KY., 2007), 27
(2) Ibid., 28
(5) The Descriptio Lateranensis Ecclesiae, Cap. 20, 52. This text can be found in The Lateran Church in Rome and the Ark of the Covenant, Eivor Andersen Oftestad (Woodbridge, U.K.: The Boydell Press, 2019), pp. 227, 231
(6) Ibid., 128
(7) Ibid., 147
(8) Ibid., 224
(9) The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela: Critical Text, Translation, and Commentary, ed. and trans. by M.N. Adler (London, 1907), pp 5-6
(10) Descriptio Lateranensis Ecclesiae, Cap. 49, 52
(11) Oftestad, xv.
(12) Ibid., 187
(13) Durandus, 28
Phillip Campbell, “Ark of the Covenant in the Lateran Basilica,” Unam Sanctam Catholicam, October 9, 2022. Available online at https://unamsanctamcatholicam.com/2022/10/ark-of-the-covenant-in-the-lateran-basilica