Rome visit 1: a beautiful mosaic

We returned on Monday from a five-day visit to Rome – our first holiday abroad (apart from visiting family in Spain) since the pandemic began. We loved the city, and in particular the overlaps seen everywhere between sites and artefacts of different periods of history: step off a busy modern shopping street and stumble upon a first-century theatre or temple.

One of the most interesting examples of this layering of history is seen in the basilica of San Clemente, just a few hundred meters from the marvels (and tourist crowds) of the Colosseum. Friends had recommended a visit, and we’re so pleased we did. There are hundreds of beautiful churches in the city; there seems to be one on every corner (or tucked in the middle of an otherwise unassuming block). This one stands out.

St Clement lived towards the end of the first century; he was the third Pope, and is said to have been consecrated by St Peter. During the emperor Trajan’s anti-Christian persecution he was exiled to Chersonesus (near modern besieged Kherson) in the Crimea, and put to work in a quarry. Legend has it that he angered his captors by ministering to his fellow prisoners (and performing miracles). He was martyred by being tied to an anchor and thrown into the Black Sea.

St Cyril, a scholar born in Thessalonika, who developed the glagolithic alphabet (later adapted into the Cyrillic one), and translated the gospels as part of his mission to evangelise the Slavic peoples, found Clement’s relics (and the supposed anchor to which he’d been tied) and had some of them brought to Rome in about 867. They are still preserved in a shrine beneath the basilica’s high altar. St Cyril’s own relics are also preserved in this basilica, along with those of his brother and fellow author, theologian and missionary, Methodius.

A relic of Clement’s head was claimed by a cave monastery at Kiev. It’s sobering to think of these events as Ukraine suffers now at the hands of the same Russians who plundered and destroyed much of their Christian heritage over the centuries (and rewrote their history), and in particular under the Soviet regime of the 1920s-30s.

The existing building dates from about 1100, with 17C alterations. What’s fascinating is that it stands on a subterranean layer of earlier structures. Just beneath is a 4C church, converted from an earlier Roman nobleman’s villa. Underneath this is an even earlier space that had been used as a mithraeum – an altar and temple for rituals in honour of the Roman god (adapted from Persian practice) Mithras. From the 1C this area would have been used for clandestine Christian worship when this was still forbidden by the Roman authorities.

You have to book online to see these lower levels and their famous 11C frescos; unfortunately we weren’t able to do so when we were there – but it’s easy to find out about them (and find interesting images) online.

But it’s worth visiting just for the medieval basilica at street level. It’s stunningly beautiful. You enter through a nondescript door in a plain façade into a charming cloistered open courtyard, once used by the Irish Dominican monks who took over administration of the basilica in the 17C when they fled Protestant persecution in their homeland (see the pattern emerging here?)

San Clemente apse mosaic

Source Wikimedia Commons, licence CC-BY-SA 3.0; my own pictures weren’t very good

Apart from the sumptuously decorated ceilings and walls (with some lovely 15C frescos by Masolino in the chapel of St Catherine), the eye is drawn most to the gorgeous 12C mosaics and wall paintings in the apse.

The central image is of a vine growing out of a tree surmounted by a crucifixion scene. Figures of Mary, Jesus’ mother, and John stand beside the cross. Twelve doves (perhaps symbolising the apostles, as well as peace) perch on the cross. Paradise is represented, but also the earthly church and its people.

Various figures appear in the curved, gilded mosaic: various saints and prophets, but also, charmingly, peasants sowing seeds being eaten by birds, and others with their livestock and fowl. Two stags drink from the rivers flowing from Eden – an allusion to the opening line of Psalm 42.

Beneath these images stands a row of twelve sheep, representing the apostles, all facing the agnus dei in their centre. At each side are symbolic representations of Bethlehem and Jerusalem. On the walls beneath the apsidal dome stand figures of the apostles in human form.

The style and iconography are a mix of Byzantine and western tropes – a fitting blend for this city of historical congruences, cultural influences and historical layers.

More images and details of this mosaic can be found at this site.

 

 

 

 

 

Anastasia the Pharmakolytria, or deliverer from potions

I posted yesterday on the word ‘demonifuge’ – a substance or medicine used to exorcise a demon. Today I came across a note I made a couple of years ago that has some bearing on that.

St Athanasia of Sirmium is known as PHARMAKOLYTRIA, meaning ‘deliverer from potions’. The website Christian Iconography has this account of her:

St Anastasia

Byzantine icon from late 14C, now in the Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Medieval lives of St. Anastasia, including the one in the Golden Legend, conflate elements from the stories of two different saints of the same name and same century. One is Anastasia of Sirmium, who was burned at the stake. The other is Anastasia of Rome, a disciple of St. Chrysogonus who was crucified and then beheaded. The conflated Anastasia in the Golden Legend and the Roman Martyrology is a Roman noblewoman who was both “tied to poles” and then burned at the stake, apparently an attempt to reconcile the different deaths in the two stories.

She acquired her name because of her practice of visiting Christians who’d been incarcerated for their faith during the persecutions of Diocletian, and using her medical knowledge to tend to their illnesses and wounds. Legend has it that she protects those who invoke her name from poisons and other harmful substances.

St Anastasia

From a Book of Hours, Liège, late 13C; the saint holds a book and palm of martyrdom

Later legends introduced hagiographical tropes such as the miraculous protection of her three Christian serving girls: when the pagan prefect locked them in a kitchen and tried to molest them sexually,

In his folly he thought he was grasping young women as he kissed and embraced the pots, pans, kettles, and the like. When he was sated, he left the room with his face all sooty and his clothes in tatters.

(the Golden Legend); Anastasia was herself protected from malicious sexual advances by her cruel pagan captor by his being struck blind; she survived 60 days of starvation in prison, was delivered miraculously from execution by drowning, etc. When her corpse was burned after execution finally succeeded, it remained unscathed.

Her relics are preserved at the cathedral named for her in Zadar, Croatia. She is commemorated in the Roman liturgy on December 25th (22nd in the Orthodox church) though her feast-day is January 15th.

St Anastasia

Fresco at the Gesù, Rome. Image from Christian Iconography site, which attributes the photo to Richard Stracke

The iconography site above states that she’s normally depicted holding a flame, either in a bowl, as in the image left, or in the palm of her hand (presumably an emblem of her mode of martyrdom in some legends).

Sirmium, the saint’s home town, was in the ancient Roman province of Pannonia, modern-day Serbia.

Compare the legend of the Holy Unmercenaries, Cosmas and Damian, another pair of Eastern saints associated with medical aid, about which I wrote a while ago HERE and HERE

Images are in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons, unless otherwise stated.