San Clemente

[Il Gesù and S. Ignazio] [S. Andrea della Valle]

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A Journey Backwards In Time
A visit to Rome's Basilica of San Clemente is more like a journey backwards in time, across centuries where history mingles with legend and phantoms and mysteries accompany the voyager every step of the way.

In fact, San Clemente is not one, but three churches constructed one above the other, resting on the remains of earlier Roman habitations. Each of these strata evokes its own historical fantasy.


Nero Sings While Rome Burns
O
ur journey begins at the lowest point of the basilica complex. At the third level below the present church we find ourselves in a musty tufa-walled corridor, peering through an iron grill into a dark tunnel eighteen feet below. A sound of rushing water is constant and disquieting.

It is the year A.D. 64. An ocean of flame and smoke is engulfing the narrow streets and crowded apartment buildings between Rome's Coelian and Appian Hills. From his Domus Transitoria Palace on the Coelian Mount, the Emperor Nero sings a tale of the Sack of Troy and watches the panic-stricken populace flee their flaming dwellings below. The first stratum of San Clemente is reduced to smoldering rubble.

Through the grilled opening we glimpse a section of orange brick wall and a piece of brick pavement. These were discovered during construction (1912-14) of a tunnel to drain a lake located under the basilica and have been identified as the charred remains of houses that existed before and were destroyed by the Neronian fire of 64. The ruins of these gutted dwellings were filled in and used as the foundations for a later residential area.




Clandestine Christian Meetings
W
e retreat from our first corridor into a labyrinth of dark and moldy chambers, tunnels and niches. Thick tufa walls alternate with lateral surfaces of square bricks in network (the Roman opus reticulatum) patterns and the floors are composed of herringbone tiles. On this third level there are two buildings separated by a narrow passageway: on one side a brick insula or apartment complex, and on the other a more imposing rectangular structure of tufa blocks, travertine, brick and stone. This second building consisted of the ground-floor rooms of a first-century villa, surrounding a great open space or courtyard.

We are in the last decades of the first century A.D., the dawn of Christianity and the era of persecution. Here, only a few steps from the Colosseum in the very heart of imperial Rome, is the city mansion of Titus Flavius Clemens, Roman Consul and cousin of the Emperor Domitian (81-96 A.D. ). Clemens' wife Flavia Domitilla is a recent convert and the family has transferred its home into a clandestine house of prayer, a secret meeting place for the Christian Community. This small community boasts a particularly holy personage, Clement, Clemens' freed Jewish slave, who has worked and preached with Sts. Peter and Paul. Later Clemens himself will be martyred and Flavia will carry on the cult as best she can.

Historical records suggest that the large building raised on the ravages of Nero's fire in the late first century belonged to the consul-martyr Titus Flavius Clemens. The church built here centuries later was identified as the "Titulus Clemens" (titular churches in early Rome were so-called after original title holders whose private homes had been used for Christian worship), and named after Pope St. Clement I (88-97), who according to legend had served as a slave in the first-century household.


Secret Pagan Rituals
The atmosphere of mystery increases as we cross the passageway dividing the Clementine villa from the Roman apartment complex on the other side. Here, deep beneath the pavements of the modern city, emerge the shadowy images of Corinthian columns, Roman bas-reliefs, and the fragments of large granite pots.

About twenty men are seated along the carved stone benches of a cramped, low-roofed temple. The cave-like setting (an artificial grotto carved into the tufa of a Roman residential complex) and the constant sound of water (a secret spring accessible to nearby residences) are calculated to increase awe among the participants. It is the end of the second century A.D., and a small group (only men allowed!), are reenacting a Mithraic ritual, in an atmosphere of soldierly fraternity. Soon a mythic drama will be performed: the symbolic slaying of a bull and participation in a communal liturgical meal. In an adjoining room younger catechumens are attending a Mithraic school which will assist them through a seven-stage initiation.

In fact, a small Mithraic temple dated to the end of the second or early third century A.D. was built into the first-century insula described above. Exploring the area, we first come upon the temple antechamber, with stone seating for the initiated, thick pilasters supporting the vestibule arches, and a stucco ceiling with geometric and floral patterns. Across, the triclinium, or banquet hall, is an artificial cave with stone benches on two sides. What was probably the altar, a marble block between the benches, has a classical bas-relief portraying Mithra in his Phrygian cap, plunging his dagger into a bull. (In Mithraic dogma the bull was thought to give birth to all living things, and Mithra, its slayer, was worshipped as a creative force. The ritual banquet commemorated Mithras' feast with Apollo, before he ascended into heaven.) At the end of a corridor leading from the triclinium and vestibule another room has been identified as the probable instruction room. There are seven niches here, taken to represent the seven-stage Mithraic initiation, a black and white mosaic floor, and the faded wall portrait of a bearded and scarlet-cloaked Roman.

Mithraism, introduced to Rome during the time of Pompey (67 B.C.), became popular among the Roman legions in Asia Minor and spread rapidly throughout the Empire, reaching its peak in the late second century, when even the Emperor Commodus (180-192) converted. The cult was finally banned in the late fourth century.


A Fourth-Century Church
W
e proceed upwards to the second level of San Clemente. Here the air is less dank and the sound of water fainter. Nevertheless, an aura of distant times and unsolved mysteries still prevails. For this is a fourth-century church, which was filled in, abandoned and forgotten for eight long centuries, until an amateur nineteenth-century archeologist dug his way through hundreds of years of rubble and refuse. Four long, shadowy hallways of varying widths stretch before us, separated by thick walls and square pilasters supporting the more recent basilica above. Here and there wide-eyed Byzantine figures peer out from the crumbling frescoed walls. A modern stone altar at the end of the largest corridor reminds us that we are, in fact, looking on the nave, narthex, and north and south aisles of an early Christian church.

The age of persecutions is over. Constantine's victory and the Edict of Milan (313) have facilitated the confident expansion of the Christian Church in Rome. In the Pontificate of Pope Siricius (384-399) the clergy attached to the small titular church of the Clement family has also acquired the adjoining apartment complexes. Fourth-century architects are filling in the rooms and courtyards, constructing a central nave over the large area of early Christian worship, and triumphantly extending an apse over the former Mithraic temple. The new church, mentioned by St. Jerome as early as 392, is dedicated to Pope St. Clement, a contemporary of the Roman Consul Clement. As the centuries pass, San Clemente becomes one of Rome's best loved and most adorned churches. In the sixth century Justinian's wife, the Byzantine Empress Theodora (d. 548) has her portrait -- very similar to another in Ravenna's San Vitale -- painted in a niche in the north aisle. (Later she will be provided with a throne and infant and thus converted into a ninth-century Madonna and Child.) In the following centuries artists compete to embellish the basilica with colorful frescoes.

We skip forward in time to the year 1084. The Normans under Robert Guiscard have advanced to Pope Gregory VII's relief and chased the German Emperor Henry IV from the streets of Rome. That accomplished, they commence upon a pillage which will last for several days. Huge areas of the city are laid to waste and many churches are burned to the ground, among these San Clemente. Several years later the gutted rooms are filled with rubble to provide foundations for a new building and the original structure is utterly forgotten for eight centuries.

Now, wandering through the rows of squat supports for the basilica above, we can imagine the wonder the Irish Dominican Father Mullooly must have felt in 1857, as he broke through tons of rubble to discover the treasures hidden in the abandoned fourth-century church: besides the Byzantine mosaics of the ninth century, a Roman pagan sarcophagus later used for Christian burial, the tomb of the ninth-century Slav missionary St. Cyril, and some charming frescoes depicting the life of St. Clement. But thereby hangs another tale.


A Legendary Saint
T
he St. Clement frescoes in the fourth-century basilica lead us through another time warp, backwards once again to the church's first-century origins. The historical Pope St. Clement, to whom our church is dedicated, was the third successor of St. Peter in the See of Rome, and the author of a famous letter to the Corinthians (96 A.D.). According to legend, St. Clement was banished by Trajan (98-117) to the Crimean mines, where he converted so many soldiers and fellow prisoners that the Romans tied an anchor to his neck and threw him into the Black Sea. Rescued by angels and conveyed to an underwater tomb, the saint was revealed to believers once every year by a miraculous ebbing of the tides. A delightful fresco in the narthex of the fourth-century church shows how, on one of these occasions, a small child was whisked away by the waves, to be recovered safe and sound at the next year's ebbing.

Across from this, another fresco shows the Slavic missionaries, Sts. Cyril and Methodius, who supposedly recovered St. Clement's body from the Crimean Sea, solemnly escorting the saint's remains to be interred in Rome in the Church of his name. When St. Cyril died in Rome some years later, he was also buried in San Clemente, where his tomb became a place of pilgrimage for many Slavic Catholics.

Another humorous fresco located in the nave of the fourth-century church tells the story of a jealous husband, complaining of his wife's constant attendance at St. Clement's masses, and making a fool of himself by mistaking a ponderous column for the saintly Pope. His surprising expletive (Fili dele pute) is the earliest known writing in the Italian vernacular.


After The Normans
We now climb to San Clemente's top - and present - level. Here, inside an eighteenth-century restoration, we find a typical medieval church, central nave and two side aisles divided by marble and granite columns, a Cosmetesque pavement, and a white marble choir enclosure. This is the "new" basilica, constructed under Pope Paschal II in 1108, and replicating, on a slightly smaller scale, the fourth-century structure destroyed by the Normans and filled with rubble, below.

After the dark mysteries of San Clemente's lower levels, we are almost overwhelmed by the brilliant gold and jewel-like colors of the basilica's apsidal mosaic. The central crucifixion, represented as a graceful "tree of life," sprouts from a leafy base fed by bright blue streams. Deer, peacock and geese cavort below, while curling vines, flowers, and charming scenes from everyday medieval life unfurl against the sparkling background.

It is difficult to tear ourselves away from these delights, but the basilica has other treasures to offer: the white marble choir donated by Pope John II (533-535) to the earlier basilica and transferred above; two high marble pulpits and a mosaic-encrusted Paschal candlestick; the confessio, or martyr's tomb below the altar, containing the relics of Sts. Clement and Ignatius; Arnolfo di Cambio's thirteenth-century wall tabernacle with a portrait of Boniface VIII; and above all, Masolino's early fifteenth-century frescoes (presently under restoration) in the chapel of St. Catherine of Alexandria. A sun-lit medieval atrium, supposedly the only example remaining in Rome, is a welcome resting place after the dank depths below.


Recent Ravages And Dominican Care
On one wall of this courtyard a wall plaque signed by Pope Clement XI (1702-15) exults that "This ancient church has withstood the ravages of the centuries," a curious reminder that at that time the twelfth-century structure was assumed to have been the same described by St. Jerome in the year 392. In any case, Clement XI then inflicted his own ravages on San Clemente. His eighteenth-century restorations, including an ugly façade, ponderous gilded ceiling, and large rectangular windows over the nave, were carried out by the currently fashionable architect Carlo Fontana.

San Clemente has been under the care of the Irish Dominicans since 1667, when the English outlawed the Irish Catholic Church and expelled the entire clergy. At that time the Order was given refuge at San Clemente, where to this day they maintain a convent for priests studying and teaching in Rome. The basilica's youthful Prior, Father Seamus Tuohy, told us that his 16 Dominicans are working with the Italian Cultural Ministry on several restoration projects, including the St. Catherine frescoes (formerly attributed to Massaccio, and now considered to be the work of Masolino da Panicale and his assistants). Wall paintings in the fourth-century church are being examined and maintained by a series of "high tech" computers. A deep cavity in the underground narthex, formerly identified as a baptismal font, is now thought to have been part of a small forge for church bells.

by June Hager

Reprinted by kind permission of June Hager and the magazine "Inside the Vatican," published in Rome.

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[Il Gesù and S. Ignazio] [S. Andrea della Valle]