Pope Leo, San Clemente, and Cardinals (pt 1)

On Sunday, I took the opportunity to visit the Basilica di San Clemente, just a few minutes’ walk from the Colosseum. It is a gem, well worth visiting; the upper church, the main basilica, dates to ca. 1100 (after the old one got trashed by some Normans* [typical behaviour on their part]). It is built on the basilica plan I discussed here and has some lovely frescoes as well as a sixth-century schola cantorum down the middle, not dissimilar to the fourth-century one at Santa Sabina, and a few sculptures to be admired.

The star of the show, however, is the mosaic. It is one of those gilt masterpieces of Late Antique and Romanesque art, with the Cross as the Tree of Life at the centre, and persons from all walks of life as well as animals living in the branches of the tree. It is flanked by Evangelists and Prophets, surmounted by (essentially) Christ Pantokrator, and stands above lambs whom I assume represent the Apostles. The little book I bought, written by an Irish Dominican (after we suppressed them in the 1600s, the Irish Dominicans moved to San Clemente), says that, given its Late Antique feel, this apsidal mosaic is possibly either a reproduction of the original, fourth-century mosaic or at least the same sort of iconography.**

After viewing this lovely upper church, I bought some postcards and a ticket to visit what lies beneath. Beneath 12th-c San Clemente lies 4th-c San Clemente. After the Norman troubles of 1084, it was filled with rubble to form the foundation of the new church, and you can clearly see that the low, vaulted ceiling is not original, not least because the frescoes all end partway up. The frescoes depict scenes from the life of Saint Clement (saint of the week here) as well as some other folks and Sts Cyril and Methodius (saints of the week here) who brought St Clement’s (alleged) remains home to Rome. These frescoes are Romanesque, not Late Antique, though (although the architecture is fourth-century), dating to the ninth century. The lower church is wider than the upper church.

Below it you will find a Roman house (possible storage facility, in fact) and a Mithraeum. Sadly, I could only view the Mithraeum through bars. Alas. These were filled with rubble to serve as the foundations for the basilica in the fourth century. San Clemente operates on a pattern.

It was a most exciting event to visit a fourth-century basilica, no matter how low-ceilinged and dimly-lit. The earliest I’d yet visited were fifth-century basilicas such as Santa Sabina and Santa Maria Maggiore. There is an elegance and simplicity to these oldest church buildings in Rome.

A church to Saint Clement is mentioned as early as St Jerome, and it is assumed it is that fourth-century building down below. I highly recommend San Clemente — it even ties (marginally) into my research, as my next post will show!

*In their defence, they were in Rome to support the pope.

**Note that this makes it a Romanesque fresco in Late Antique style, not Byzantine, despite what one of the other tourists was saying while I was there. It is true that art at Rome in the Middle Ages maintains many of the Late Antique features shared with Byzantine art, and that in the Early Middlel Ages Rome was part of Byzantine Italy, but that does not mean we should run around calling these items Byzantine. (End of rant.)

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