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Rome’s Secrets: the Triple Church of St. Clement

Discovering in Rome the historical intricacy of a unique superimposition of four construction levels spanning many centuries

San Clemente, Rome

What follows is an excerpt from ‘The Rome Guide’ by Mauro Lucentini, art columnist for La Voce di NewYork. More precisely, is an excerpt from those parts of the book entitled ‘Before Going’, that is which are meant to be read before the actual visit ,while the parts referring to the on-the-spot visit are labeled ‘On the Spot.’ This division is found throughout the book and is unique among guidebooks, being particularly suited to Rome, where it is extremely useful for absorbing the immense amount of information necessary to get an idea of the Eternal City and its 2700 years of history. All the excerpts to be published successively here will also come from the ‘Before Going’ sections. The complete book, including the essential ‘On the Spot’ portions, can be purchased on Amazon.  You can read the previous excerpts by clicking here.

Historical intricacy and structural complexity are intertwined in many Roman monuments, yet none exemplifies this better than the church of S. Clemente, a unique superimposition of four construction levels spanning 22 centuries.

The church of St. Clement in its most recent incarnation. 18th sec. print by G. Vasi.

St. Clement: a multiple personality. The intricacies start with the name. Who was St. Clement? The history of this church, based on tradition only, speaks of ‘a martyr and pope of the 1st century’. Two Christians with that name living in that century have left their historical mark. One was the consul Titus Flavius Clemens, a cousin of the emperor Domitian, who was killed for his faith – a martyr indeed, but no pope. The other was Pope Clement, third successor to St. Peter, known mainly for an energetic letter with which he ended an episode of ecclesiastic insubordination. He was certainly a pope, but no martyr.

The St. Clement to whom the church is dedicated seems to be a hybrid of the two, perhaps facilitated by a possible relationship between them. Based on the custom that freed slaves usually assumed their master’s name, researchers have hypothesized that Clement, the pope, was a former slave of Clement, the consul; that he was a Christian, since most of the consul’s household had converted along with him; and (based on certain characteristics of his writings) that he was perhaps a converted Jew.

The two lower levels. Running parallel to the complicated story of St. Clement the man is the equally convoluted tale of St. Clement the church. Of its four layers of construction, the third from the top (the fourth, or lowest, is still unexcavated and belongs to buildings destroyed in the so-called ‘Nero’s fire’ of 64 AD) was partly occupied by a large house known as a Christian refuge in the 1st century and later; an example of ecclesia domestica or titulus. Its existence under the name Titulus Clementis is documented. Since such private religious centres were normally named after the wealthy host, not after a saint or martyr, this original home church may have belonged to a benefactor called Clemens, possibly none other than the consul, or a descendant of his.

In the 4th century, after Emperor Constantine had allowed Christians to practise openly, a real church, or rather a basilica (second level from the top), was built over the ecclesia domestica. It was called St. Clement. The name then ceased to be interpreted as that of the old benefactor and began to be considered that of the old pope, who had had a major role, as third successor to St. Peter, in establishing Christianity in Rome. But Pope Clement, as titular of a major new church, had one drawback compared to his namesake the consul: he was not a martyr.

Imagination apparently filled the gap. The 4th century gave birth to an elaborate legend conferring the crown of martyrdom on Pope Clement. The real martyr, Consul Clemens, was virtually forgotten. The legend is worth telling not so much for its own sake, as because it led to momentous events in the history of the basilica and because it is the subject of fascinating frescoes there.

Some frescoes in St. Clement church. The lowest contains the oldest recorded words in the Italian language.

The legend recounts that Pope Clement was persecuted in the reign of Trajan. A Roman police chief, Sisinnius, was sent to arrest him, but was miraculously blinded along with his men, so they dragged a column off to prison instead of Clement. Clement was eventually captured, however, and sentenced to work in the dreaded Crimean mines. There he began converting guards and fellow prisoners. That broke the camel’s back. He was tied to an anchor and thrown into the Black Sea.

Some time later the waters parted, revealing a splendid tomb: Clement’s, built by angels. From then on, the waters parted every year, allowing the faithful to pray over the tomb of the martyr. Once a child was drowned by the waters when they flowed back, but his mother found him miraculously alive on the same spot when she returned the following year! This episode is the object of an extraordinary fresco in the second level.

One block, two Gods. Before proceeding, we must return to the original titulus in the private home (third level). For about a century, the Christian meeting place was next door to that of another eastern religion, Mithraism. Mithraic priests, called patres, like the Christian fathers, must have rubbed shoulders with their Christian colleagues. Mithras worship long predated Christianity; it was already widespread under Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC. The two religions bore some resemblance. Like Christianity, Mithraism urged stern moral precepts, though not so much love and chastity as loyalty and courage (it was especially popular with soldiers). It, too, envisioned the arrival of a Redeemer, the god Mithras, source of all life and goodness. Spread by soldiers returning from the East, the cult took root in Rome about the same time as Christianity.

Ample remains of a Mithraic temple, called a Mithraeum, are at the third level of S. Clemente, bordering on those of the original Christian titulus. When the second level – the basilica – was built over the filled-in ruins of the titulus, the Mithræum continued to function next to it for a few decades, though at its original, i. e. lower, level. Mithraism was the last pagan cult to fall; in 395 AD, shortly after the prohibition of other pagan religions, it too was forbidden and soon vanished. The basilica above was then extended by adding an apse, built atop the Mithræum as a gesture of triumph.

The eastern connection: Sts. Cyril and Methodius. Because of Pope Clement’s legendary disappearance into the Black Sea, the church was particularly venerated in the Middle Ages by Christians with Byzantine connections. This in turn spurred a momentous development several centuries after its foundation. In the 9th century the Byzantine emperor asked two distinguished Christian priests, the brothers Cyril and Methodius, to civilize the barbarian hordes north of the Black Sea. The missionaries were exceedingly successful; Cyril, a brilliant linguist, even invented an alphabet for the illiterate tribes, now known as Cyrillic and still in use in Slavic countries.

The conversion and civilization of present-day Russia and other lands by Sts. Cyril and Methodius, as they are known today, was a truly epoch-making event. When later in life the brothers decided to visit Rome, this should have sufficed to grant them an enthusiastic welcome, but they apparently thought they needed more. Before heading for the centre of Christianity, they announced another feat: finding the body of St. Clement on an island in the Black Sea, complete with the attached anchor (according to the legend born, as you will remember, in the 4th century AD, i.e. three centuries after the lifetime of Clement, whoever he was!) There’s perhaps no need to remind you that the miraculous retrieval of such relics in the East, often with political or social undertones, such as the True Cross of St. Helena, the column of Christ’s scourging, the chains of St. Peter or the lance of St. Longinus, not to speak of the countless relics of martyrs of the earliest Christianity, was a constant theme of religion in the Middle Ages.

The two future saints arrived in Rome in 867 with the supposed body of the supposed martyr (no further mention of the anchor is made), to a triumphal welcome. The relics were taken in a great procession to the church of S. Clemente, as illustrated in the frescoes we’ll see shortly, and they still are there. St. Cyril died in Rome soon afterwards and was solemnly buried in the same church. His brother returned to the East. The bones of St. Cyril underwent many vicissitudes, though less spectacular than those of the body of St. Clement. Dispersed in 1798, when Rome was briefly under an insurgent republican, anti-clerical regime inspired by the French Revolution, they were considered lost, until a box containing part of them was found in 1963 in another city. They were then reburied in the church of S. Clemente.

The first level. You would think that these stories were enough for the saga of S. Clemente, but they are just the beginning. The church discussed so far, the second level of construction, is not the one in use today. Of course, the one being used is the topmost one, though it too is far from recent, having stood for nine hundred years.

Here is what happened. In the 12th century the second-level Constantinian basilica was crumbling, possibly because of the depredations of the Norman king, Robert Guiscard, also accused of having destroyed the church of the Quattro Coronati nearby. So it was filled with rubble, as the original titulus had been 700 years before, and served as the foundations for a new basilica, which was like the previous one, only slightly smaller.

In 1677 the church, until then run by Augustinian friars, was given to Irish Dominican friars who had fled the Protestant persecutions in their country. (They still run the church.) By then, the existence of the lower buildings had been forgotten. As late as the mid-19th century, everyone thought that the extant church was the one of which St. Jerome had spoken in the 4th century, a mistake abetted by the fact that many features of the lower church, such as the precious marble choir, had been moved to the upper one.

Back to the past. In 1857 an erudite, astute Irish Dominican prior, Father Joseph Mullooly, had inklings of the remote past of the basilica. He broke through a wall and began a chain of discoveries that continues to this day; it is one of the greatest archæological adventures in the history of the Church. The excavation of the second level (the original basilica) is complete. That of the third level (the Roman house and titulus, and the Mithraic temple) is partly so. There have been glimpses of the fourth level, the Roman houses preceding Nero’s fire. The enterprise of the Irish friars has been enormous. Over 130,000 cartloads of rubble have been removed, and an underground canal reaching as far as the Colosseum has been built to drain water from the lower levels.

The ghost of the popess. S. Clemente rises at the foot of the Cœlian Hill along the ancient Vicus Papissae, near where Popess Joan (we spoke of her in a previous chapter) was supposedly stoned to death in the 8th century. A 1518 guide book to Rome states ‘that English woman was buried here without any ceremony, but her death was commemorated by the shrine we still see.’ A badly deteriorated street altar, dating from before 1000 and now dedicated to the Virgin Mary, may be the one mentioned in that guide.

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