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?)
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.