The San Clemente is typical for Rome. It is a church from the Middle Ages, built atop a Roman 1st century building, which in turn is atop a 1st century BC Mithras temple (see drawing). But before we descend to the older parts, we’ll first examine the 12th century building. This one, by the way, is built on top of a 4th century Christian basilisk.
The enclosed space where the Mass was held, the schola cantorum, dates from the 4th century. The panels from this enclosure still contain the typical depictions from early-Christian times that we’ve also encountered in the small tomb underneath the Sant’Agnese fuori le Mura. Images of the pigeon, the fish and the grapevine can be found here as well.
The canopy above the main altar stems from the first church, the one underneath this one from the 74h century. The mosaic from the semi-dome in the apse dates back to the 12th century, showing the triumph of the cross. This church also has a floor that is a prime example of cosmati craftsmanship, similar to what we will encounter in the S. Quattro Coronati later on. Cosmati: mosaic artists belonging to the Roman Cosmati family. They used a lot of marble, glass and gold on floors, walls and columns.
“The apse of San Clemente’s upper church dates to the 1120s and was probably executed by artisans from Byzantium. It was deliberately done in an ‘antique’ style, using symbols and designs inspired by the earliest Christian art in the catacombs.The Cross is the Tree of Life, for all manner of life dwells in its spreading vines, which represent the Church, including the four Fathers of the Latin Church.” Source: Lawrence OP
If we walk towards the courtyard (map P), we see the Cappella di Saint Catherine in the right side-aisle. This is where the 15th century painter Masolino from Florence painted a fresco cycle (five images of Masolino’s fresco cycle and the crucifixion on the wall behind the altar can be found at Web Gallery of Art).
The Cappella di Saint Catherine
Carlo Labruzzi ‘Chapel Cardinal Branda Castiglione’ 1809
Floor maps: 1. front 2. chapel
Front Annunciation Saint Christopher
Left wall (north)
Altar wall (west) In situ
Right wall (south)
The most recent restoration is over with, so we can admire the fresco’s in all their glory. The restoration uncovered a few signatures, that are now visible on both sides of the door. Once we are there, I will explain why signatures were made.
The story painted by Masolino is about the holy Catherine of Alexandria. It starts at the left wall, showing her dispute with the academics, followed by her missionary work and then the conversion of the wife of Maxentius. The so-called ‘Catherine wheel‘ torture is also visible, where an angel intervened and broke the torture device. The story ends with the decapitation of the saint and the angels who carry her body to the mountain in Sinaï.
In Wikipedia you can read the following about Catherine:
“From a young age she devoted herself to study. A vision of the Madonna and Child persuaded her to become a Christian. When the persecutions began under Maxentius, she went to the emperor and rebuked him for his cruelty. The emperor summoned 50 of the best pagan philosophers and orators to dispute with her, hoping that they would refute her pro-Christian arguments, but Catherine won the debate. Several of her adversaries, conquered by her eloquence, declared themselves Christians and were at once put to death.Catherine was then scourged and imprisoned. She was scourged so cruelly and for so long that her whole body was covered with wounds, from which the blood flowed in streams. The spectators wept with pity, but Catherine stood with her eyes raised to heaven, without giving a sign of suffering or fear. Maxentius ordered her to be imprisoned without food, so she would starve to death. During the confinement, angels tended her wounds with salve. Catherine was fed daily by a dove from Heaven and Christ also visited her, encouraging her to fight bravely, and promised her the crown of everlasting glory.
During her imprisonment, over 200 people came to see her, including Maxentius’ wife, Valeria Maximilla; all converted to Christianity and were subsequently martyred. Twelve days later, when the dungeon was opened, a bright light and fragrant perfume filled it, and Catherine came forth even more radiant and beautiful.
Upon the failure of Maxentius to make Catherine yield by way of torture, he tried to win the beautiful and wise princess over by proposing marriage. The saint refused, declaring that her spouse was Jesus Christ, to whom she had consecrated her virginity.
The furious emperor condemned Catherine to death on a spiked breaking wheel, but, at her touch, it shattered. Maxentius ordered her to be beheaded. Catherine herself ordered the execution to commence. A milk-like substance rather than blood flowed from her neck.
Angels transported her body to the highest mountain (now called Mt. Saint Catherine) next to Mount Sinai. […] In the 6th century, the Eastern Emperor Justinian had established what is now Saint Catherine’s Monastery in Egypt (which is in fact dedicated to the Transfiguration of Christ). Her relics include her left hand, said to be often warm to the touch, and her head. Her incorrupt body is not publicly displayed. Countless people make the pilgrimage to the Monastery to receive miracle healing from Saint Catherine.”
Before we move down to the 4th century building, we have another look in the beautiful courtyard with four old classic Ionian columns.
Through the sacristy, right side-aisle, we descend to the old and first church. We then first arrive in the narthex, to then enter a long, small corridor with a recess at the end of it that lists another 4th century fresco with Mary and child.
“The painting depicts a scene from legends concerning the life of St. Clement, which survive in a Greek hagiography of unknown date.2 In the first panel, a favorite (“φίλος”) of the emperor Trajan named Sisinnius has been consumed by jealousy and has followed his wife Theodora, who had recently converted to Christianity, to church. […]
The panel shows Pope Clement, exactly as the passage tells it, beginning the prayer (“εὐχή”). His arms are outstretched and held slightly up, a common position adopted for prayer in early Christian worship. Meanwhile Sisinnius, on the right, is being led out of the church by his servants after being struck blind and deaf. […]
The hagiography goes on to tell us that at Theodora’s request, Clement went to her home to cure her husband through prayer. When he gained his sight and hearing, however, Sisinnius took Clement for a magician and an adulterer and ordered his servants to seize him, […]
However, again a miracle intervened and his servants tried to grab a stone column, thinking it was Clement, […] This scene is depicted on the bottom panel of the fresco. We see Sisinnius’s servants tugging at a column while Sisinnius himself, in full imperial outfit on the far right, urges them on. This panel is especially remarkable because the speech bubbles are some of the earliest known writing in Italian. On the left, the slave is shouting, “FALITE DERETO COLO PALO” (‘get behind with a pole’). On the far right, Sisinnius yells, “FILI DELE PUTE TRAITE” (‘Pull, you sons of whores’). Above the column, we see Clement’s response, written in Latin to underscore his more refined education and character: “DURITIAM CORDIS SAXA TRAERE MERUISTIS” (‘[because of] the hardness of your heart, you have deserved to pull stones’).” Source: Paideai Blog
Pope Clement, the person whom this church is named after, was convicted by the Romans for his Christian mission zeal.The body of Saint Clement was transferred to the San Clemente in the 9th century. He was first banished to Crimea, but there too he managed to convert many into Christianity, and so tougher measures were called for. With a heavy anchor attached to his body, Clement was tossed into the ocean. Yet remarkably, at low water a burial chamber would be visible, built for Clement by the angels.
Every year, when tides would be law, Christian pilgrims would journey towards the location of the tomb. One time, a baby got left behind in all the chaos, dragged along by the sweeping tides to disappear under the water’s surface. One year later, much to their amazement, the pilgrims saw the same child near the tomb again, playing happily. The boy was named after the holy Clement. In the first medieval church, below the church we now stand, the story of the holy Clement was captured by 11th century fresco painters.
Afterwards, when descending further at the apse, we arrive in a Roman building. Descending further still, we arrive in a 1st century BC Mithras temple.
Mithras was a fierce rival of Christian religion for quite some time, but lost out towards the end of the fourth century. We leave the San Clemente, cross the street and take a left in the Via dei Santi Quattro Coronati, where we will visit the church of the same name. More about the San Clemente pdf download Juhana Heikonen dissertation 2017.