Our course on the New Testament in the Eternal City includes not only classroom lectures, but also on site visits to particular places in Rome that are significant for Christian history, theology, and spirituality. Our first site visit this semester was to the Church of San Clemente. By tradition, St. Clement (92-101 AD) was a bishop in Rome who gave his life as a martyr for Christ. Fourth-century accounts speak of his forced labour in the mines during exile to the Crimea in the reign of the emperor Trajan (98-117 AD) and his missionary work there which prompted the Romans to bind him to an anchor and throw him into the Black Sea. His relics were recovered and are under the main altar of the church.
According to the oldest list of Roman bishops, he was the third successor to St Peter in Rome (after Linus and Cletus). The First Eucharistic Prayer of the Mass, known as the “Roman Canon”, mentions St. Clement in the list of bishops and saints of Rome through whose merits and prayers the faithful seek help and protection. The church in Rome dedicated to him is said to be built over a first century house which belonged to his family.
The church of San Clemente is like a “layered cake” of archeological wonder. The present basilica is from the 12th century, but underneath is a 5th century basilica and below that is a first century house, warehouse, and Mithraic temple. These sites were excavated beginning in the 19th century under the guidance of an Irish Dominican priest, Fr. Mullooly, who was prior of San Clemente. Indeed, the Irish Dominicans have been the custodians of San Clemente since the 17th century. In this way, Providence College has a kind of “connection” with San Clemente since they are both Dominican institutions. Our guide for the site visit was an American Dominican priest, Fr. Pius Pietrzyk, who is studying Canon Law here in Rome and is in residence at San Clemente. Fr. Pius is an enthusiastic, polished, and entertaining tour guide of the treasures of San Clemente. His remarks were full of fascinating information and inspiring reflections on the faith of the early Christians who made pilgrimage and worshipped at the basilica. The students seemed to appreciate most his erudite knowledge of Christian iconography as he explained frescoes, mosaics, and paintings as well as the architecture of San Clemente.
Here are some quotes from the papers they wrote after our site visit:
“The three layers of the church of San Clemente represent distinct historical features of Christianity as it evolved from the early third century to today in Rome. These genuine artifacts demonstrate how religious belief in Rome has grown and changed, and contextualize the emergence and stories of Christianity with well-preserved art and architecture. Each layer represents what the central features of religion were at the time they were constructed.” Leanne Falzone
“In the readings and the site visit to the Basilica of San Clemente we saw examples of God revealing himself on earth. These examples are mainly in the Word of God and interpretations through pieces of art. Through these stories we become more acclimated with God’s identity, character and call… Through our reading, notes, and visit we get a strong understanding of the cultural and societal ways dating back to around the time of Jesus.” Sam Scherer
“The Basilica of San Clemente and the New Testament tell us a story, both about the different time periods from which they come from and about the workings of Jesus and his disciples. The Basilica is composed of many different pieces from different time periods, while the New Testament has many authors who share the various events and teachings from Christ. Through the art of frescos and through writing both of these religious pieces demonstrate to us the stories of Jesus, and allow us to gain a better understanding of our faith and of the history that is behind it.” Brianna Fontaine
“The oldest known tabernacle-style altar is located in Saint Clement Basilica. Interestingly, it is decorated by an anchor. Taken in context, it references the tool used to drown St. Clement the martyr. This demonstrates the fact that ecclesial decorations are never meaningless. Statues, altars, and frescos tell important stories. Although they are wordless, depicted scenes are surely a way of portraying God’s words and deeds.” Maria McLaughlin
“St. Clements story is further depicted in the fresco… which… further explains his martyrdom… Analyzing these frescos helps Christians understand that St. Clement gave his life for the faith to show how strongly he believed in Jesus Christ… This further leads people to the faith because it proves that he was real and was not just a person from a story. His actual relics are located under the altar of the basilica so it further shows the realness of the stories depicted in the frescos and New Testament.” Erin Mullane
“Early Christians honored Saint Clement, our fourth pope, by dedicating the entire church to him. He died by having an anchor tied to his leg and was thrown into the Black Sea. There is an anchor on the baldacchino in San Clemente Church, signifying his martyrdom. The anchor is still used today to signify Christianity and is popular among young Christians as a trendy tattoo.” Sunness Jones
“In the Basilica of San Clemente the development of the paganism to Christianity is evident as one walks from the pagan temple to the 4th century Basilica, to the 12th century Basilica. When examining the frescoes of the two basilicas, it is obvious that the New Testament teachings have had centuries to develop and come to fruition in the Western world. The frescoes are rich with stories of martyrs, saints, popes, and, of course, the passion of Jesus Christ. At this point in the 4th and later centuries, the Christians have established a more substantial footing in Rome and Christian theology has adopted its own approaches to good and evil, wisdom theology, and the end of time.” Brittany Ricci
“Some of these frescos I believe, were drawn to lead others to faith. They serve almost as propaganda, to persuade others to believe in God and all that he can do. One fresco in particular showed the importance of faith and the dedication that Saint Alexis had towards God. This saint devoted his life to God, and his story is depicted in a fresco that is in the San Clemente church.” Gianna Fournier
“Some churches still exist from the Roman Empire and reflect the Christian’s victory over the pagan religions. One primary example is the Basilica of San Clemente, which was built on top of an ancient mithraeum, or an ancient temple of worship… This underground mithraeum had no windows to allow in light and had an altar with a depiction of Mithras’ conquest. The fall of Mithraism led to the creation of a brand-new building for Christian worship… Eventually, the power of the word of the Christian God outlasted the Roman’s pagan religions. Through the history of San Clemente, Christians can be reminded of the early Christian community’s progression. The lower church of San Clemente provides evidence of the church’s success over pagan religions during the period of the Roman Empire. It also represents the expansion of Christianity as the Roman Empire declined.” Sarah Wacik
“ The fact that the lower church was built on top of the pagan temple is symbolic of the mission and values of Jesus Christ… the pagan temple and the church built directly on top are testaments to the changing theological mindset at the time. This transition was cemented in the creation of a new religious movement, embodied in Christ.” Lizeth Gonzalez
“What seemed most powerful about this third layer, the upper church, was again symbolism and the representation of both the past, present, and future of faith. We saw this when examining the apse mosaic. In the center, Jesus is on the cross, surrounded by twelve doves representing the apostles. Father Pius explained the meaning of many other symbols in the mosaic; the cross, often called the tree, is omnipresent and reaching everywhere with the roots growing from the bottom; the peacocks stand for resurrection; the men and women doing everyday work remind followers of the importance of Jesus’ presence today, or in the present.” Sophia Bolt
“The Tree of Life goes throughout the apse because it shows how intertwined all life is and how it all relates back to God through his deed of creation. Directly above Jesus is the Dome of Heaven and the Hand of God. This iconography represents God’s revelation to Jesus, and therefore Revelation to mankind. It is only through the Hand of God that divine human nature and divine nature could be manifested. It is only through Jesus that mankind could become fully aware of the Creator and understand that creating a closer relationship to God was the most important part of life because the more love and faith that one showed in the Creator, the more he would reveal himself.” Mike Humphreys
“After exploring through the three levels of the basilica, I found that the central mosaic apse of the upper level was the most memorable aspect of the church for me. Not only was I captivated by its regal beauty and colorful mosaic art, but after hearing and reading about its significance to the basilica, I learned to appreciate this center piece of San Clemente even more. By having Jesus on the cross as the center of this twelfth century masterpiece surrounded by various symbols in a background of gold, one can conclude that Christians highly valued certain symbols to signify important aspects of their faith at the time.” Catherine McLean
“San Clemente’s mosaic is a prominent and iconic image connecting the images of the Church in the modern world to illustrated Paradise…the apostles are twelve sheep that face toward the Lamb of God. The tree of life is above the lambs and below the cross. The cross represents the wood of the tree and the tree represents Christ in the garden of eternity. The branches of the tree extend to the entire universe, and the fruit of the tree is the Eucharist. The vine springs from the foot of the cross with acanthus leaves, while the rivers of Paradise flow down from the cross. The deer yearn for running water, exemplifying the call of the human race. God wants us humans to have faith and create relationships with him. The deer yearning for running water can be translated as the souls of the faithful thirsting for the lord. The outside of this shows the present which represents the tree of life, connecting the eschatological past to the present and future with Christ in the center of it all.” Veronika Abkarian