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.)

Saints of the Week: Cyril and Methodius

There has been talk of upping the number of female saints included on this blog. This is a good thing (cast your votes now: St. Teresa of Avila or Mary Ward, who first?), as would be upping the number of non-monastic persons, especially adding some who were even married. Holiness is attainable to all persons, regardless of gender or marital state. Somehow, though, the monastic men make the bulk of the big ST’s…

Apologies also for how Orthodox this blog is getting. I’ll try to play to my Anglican and Evangelical constituents a bit more someday. For now, though, I would like to discuss two stellar exemplars of missionary work who can inspire Christians of all stripes, from evangelical Baptists to charismatic Anglicans to Pope Leo XIII (who enrolled them into the western calendar of saints in 1880) and the Russian Orthodox.

In the West, the “Holy-Equal-to-the-Apostles” Cyril and Methodius, Apostles to the Slavs and co-patrons of Europe with St. Benedict of Nursia, are commemorated in the West on the same day as St. Valentine (he was the weekly saint a year ago), in the East they share a feast on May 11.

Sts. Cyril (d. 869) and Methodius (d. 885) were brothers from Thessalonica. St. Cyril started his career as a librarian at Ayia Sophia (librarians can be destined to greatness, and not just Rex Libris!) while St. Methodius served as a soldier. Both left their secular employment to become monks.

It seems that they began their work not among the Slavs but among the Khazars when their king asked the Byzantine Emperor Michael to send missionaries for them to learn more about Christianity and the Trinity. There is a chance that they converted the king and many noble Khazars to the Christian faith, but I don’t vouch for the accuracy of that (if you CAN, please tell us in the comments with a citation).

Their big work, their life’s work, began in 862 when a similar petition was made by Rastislav of Moravia for people to come and instruct him in the Christian faith. The monastic brothers from Thessalonica were sent to fulfill King Rastislav’s request.

There was already a Christian presence in Moravia, founded by western missionaries, and Cyril and Methodius came to continue their work, as Rastislav had expelled the western missionaries in his angling for political power against the Frankish King (Mediaeval and Byzantine religion is never far from politics). They set about organising the church ministry and hierarchy.

Whilst in Moravia, it is said that they met some of the western missionaries whom they said believed the “Heresy of the Three Languages” — that worship and the Scriptures could only be in one of three languages — Hebrew, Greek, or Latin. This was clearly contrary to how Cyril and Methodius envisaged the church operating, for they devised a new alphabet for the Moravians and their language, then proceeded to translate service books into the local tongue. The Heretics of the Three Languages opposed this, but, apparently, the pope supported such action and protected Sts. Cyril and Methodius (see abbamoses).

Indeed, their work was so highly favoured by Rome that Pope St. Nicholas I himself invited them to Rome and praised them for their work, despite the attempts of certain Roman clergy to claim that the Thessalonian brothers were messing around in their turf. This was in 867. They returned to Moravia and continued their work, not only structuring the state-supported church but evangelising as well.

In 869, Cyril died. St. Methodius continued the work alone until his death. Unfortunately, after the death of these brothers, the pressure against their followers in Moravia (from fellow Christians!!) was so great that they left and brought the Gospel and the Cyrillic alphabet to the Bulgars instead. That alphabet was the basis of the alphabet for all Slavic languages today, Russian, Ukrainian, Bulgarian. That missionary enterprise was the basis of the Slavic churches today as well.

God bless Sts. Cyril and Methodius. Their approach, going so far as to create a new alphabet, is reminiscent of missions to the First Nations of North America, especially the efforts among the James Bay Cree to create a syllabary (by James Evans) with the New Testament for the new believers (adapted for Inuktitut by Edmund James Peck, saint of the week here). May we all seek to translate the everlasting Gospel of Christ into the language of the people, be that language postmodern English, modern Greek, an Amazonian language, or Scots — and communicate it to the hearts of the people that they may understand and find Jesus, with the Gospel taking root in their lives and producing the fruit of the Spirit.