Even today a visitor to the churches of Rome can step into rooms where, two millennia before our times, the first Christians professed their new faith and often awaited suffering and death.
AFTER THE NORMANS
S. Clemente’s top – and present – level was for centuries considered by worshippers and scholars alike to be the church St. Jerome visited in 392 and described as ‘preserving the name of Clement in Rome’. In fact, this is the ‘new’ basilica, constructed under Pope Paschal II in around 1100, and replicating, on a slightly smaller scale, the fourth-century structure that may have been destroyed by the Normans.
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 beautiful mosaic pavement, and a white marble choir enclosure. After the dark mysteries of S. Clemente’s lower levels, the brilliant gold and jewel-like colors of the basilica’s apsidal mosaic are almost overwhelming. The central crucifixion, represented as a graceful ‘tree of life’, sprouts from a leafy base, with bright blue streams flowing below. Deer, peacock and geese cavort by the water, while curling vines, flowers, and charming scenes from everyday medieval life unfurl against the sparkling background.
The basilica has other treasures to offer: the white marble choir donated by Pope John II (533-5) 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 relics of St. Clement and St. Ignatius (the first-century Bishop of Antioch and author of seven authoritative letters written on his way to martyrdom in Rome).
Above all, the early fifteenth-century frescoes in the chapel of St. Catherine of Alexandria have been recently restored and are wonderful. Delicate yet colorful scenes show the young Alexandrian disputing with learned doctors, her conversion of the Emperor Maxentius’ wife, her miraculous escape from torture on the spiked wheel and eventual decapitation, and the angels’ transfer of her body to Mt. Sinai. Art historians are still debating the authorship of these paintings. Were they done by Maolino da Panicale (1383-1447) or by Masaccio (1401-1429)? Or did they represent a harmonious collaboration between two early Renaissance artists?
RECENT RAVAGES AND DOMINICAN CARE
On one wall of st. Clemente’s outside courtyard a wall plaque signed by Pope Clement XI (1700-1715) exults: ‘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 one described by St. Jerome in 392. Clement XI then inflicted his own ravages on S. Clemente: his eighteenth-century restorations, including an ugly facade, ponderous gilded ceiling and large rectangular windows over the nave, were carried out by the currently overall medieval ambiance of the basilica complex.
S. Clemente has been under the care of the Irish Dominicans since 1677, when the English outlawed the Irish Catholic Church and expelled the entire clergy. At that time the Order was given refuge at S. Clemente, where they still maintain a monastery for priests studying and teaching in Rome.
Excerpt from Hager, June. Pilgrimage: A Chronicle of Christianity Through the Churches of Rome. (Weidenfeld & Nicolson: London), 1999.
For more information on San Clemente, you can visit our YouTube channel and watch our Virtual Pilgrimage to San Clemente (here)