San Clemente, today’s station church, is one of the greatest places to experience Rome’s many layers. Here, a twelfth century basilica sits on top of a fourth century basilica which was built over a, possibly, first century house with a temple next door.
In ancient times, it was often easier to build over previous structures, rather than remove them. If a new building was going up, the workers would knock off the top of the existing structure and fill it up with dirt and debris. This made for a solid foundation to the new project.
Let’s start at the bottom and work our way up. The first century temple was home to the Persian cult of Mithras. The worshippers of Mithras were all men and mostly soldiers. The pagan religion offered no concept of salvation and as the Roman Empire began to fall, more and more people turned to Christianity. Around the year 395, the cult was banished.
The house next door was owned by Roman consul, and martyr, Titus Flavius Clemens. He was one of the first in the senatorial class to convert to Christianity. His house is one of the original twenty-five titular churches, and probably one of the first parish churches in Rome.
After the legalization of Christianity, a proper basilica was built over the house of Clemens. Once the pagan cult was outlawed, the church took over that property as well. The basilica was dedicated to Pope Saint Clement, not to be confused with the homeowner who shares a similar name.
In the narthex of this fourth century basilica is a painting depicting a legend involving the saint. Clement was martyred by being thrown into the sea with an anchor tied around his neck. Each year the tide would recede far enough to allow pilgrims to visit the site of his death. A small chapel was built there. One year a child was left behind. He was mourned by his parents as dead. The next year during the pilgrimage, the boy was found alive and well inside the chapel.
Another interesting painting can be found inside the nave of the church. It depicts a scene from Clement’s life during which he is celebrating Mass. Christianity is still illegal at this time. A prominent Roman woman named Theodora is here worshiping when her husband, Sisinnius, comes in. He attempts to drag her out and punish her for being with the Christians when Clement strikes him blind. He then cures him. But, Sisinnius is still unconvinced. He orders two of his servants to drag out Clement and take him to the authorities. Through divine intervention, the servants mistake a marble column for Clement and drag it out instead. True, the story is worthy of mention. But, what really makes this painting interesting is the writing it contains. For it is here that we see possibly the earliest example of written Italian, rather than Latin. It’s the words spoken by Sisinnius as he orders his men to grab Clement. And what does the oldest surviving Italian sentence say? Well, it contains an expletive probably not suitable for Catholic Exchange. Was it suitable for church artwork?
Moving upstairs we have the current church, built in the twelfth century. Inside the current basilica is a beautiful schola cantorum, brought up from the church below. It dates back to the sixth century and was a gift from Pope John II.
The mosaic in the apse is from the twelfth century and contains Christ crucified, sharing the cross with the twelve apostles, represented by doves. The cross is surrounded by the Tree of Life. The foliage represents the Church which has it’s roots in the Garden of Paradise.
Here in the church are relics from Saint Clement, Saint Falvius Clement, Saint Ignatius of Antioch and Saint Cyril.