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Bernini's Ecstasy of St. Teresa

Monday, July 11, 2011

Churches of Rome: Basilica of San Clemente

According to Wikipedia, there are almost 900 hundred churches in Rome. When you walk the streets, in any neighbourhood, no matter how small, you will, without fail, come across a church or two or three. I have entered quite a number of these churches, large and small, so many actually that they have began to merge together. But one small church located close to the Colosseum, along St. John Latern Road is a stand-out! The Basilica of St. Clement is a small, understated, but decidedly elegant church. It was named after Pope St. Clement, who died about 100 AD, and was the third successor of St. Peter in the See of Rome. Not only is the church beautiful, in my opinion, but also, no other church can rival its history. The walls of San Clemente enclose three separate places of worship built one on top of the other, spanning a period of over two thousand years!

Courtyard of San Clemente

Walking into this church is very different from entering a lot of others. Entering through the main entrance, you first step into a small, peaceful, courtyard with an unpretentious fountain in the middle. 

Interior of San Clemente
The church at the ground level is a medieval basilica, with beautiful cosmatesque floors, reputedly done by the Cosmati brothers themselves, the Cosmati family being the leading marble craftsmen creating this geometric decorative inlaid type of stonework. In front of the altar, the choir is separated from the rest of the congregation by a white marble enclosure bearing the earliest papal insignia, that of John II.

Tree of Life mosaic

Then you see the beautiful Tree of life mosaic from the 1180s on the apse. This depicts the Triumph of the cross, expressed with perfection through colored stone and glass! Truly magnificent!

On the right side, the newly restored chapel of St. Catharine feature frescoes in soft pastel colors of scenes in the life of St. Catharine.

Fresco Madonna and Child

Entering the bookshop, after paying the entrance fee, you proceed down to the excavations. The lower level features the 4th century church. You can walk through the church, encountering frescoes illustrating the life of St. Clemens, a mosaic of St. Cyril in the nave of the church and on the North aisle a Byzantine Madonna and child on a niche, slightly to the left of a hole, reputedly through which in 1857, Fr. Joseph Mulooly, then prior of St. Clement, broke through to the 4th century church after excavations began.

Temple of Mithras

Going down to the next level, lit by florescent tubes, which casts everything in a rather spooky glow, you come upon a 2nd century temple to Mithras, a pre-Zoroastrian Persian god. Mithraism was a very secretive religion. Their temples were usually in caves or made to resemble caves. Little is known of this cult because of its secret nature. It is said that it emphasized loyalty, contacts and friendship between men, especially officers of the army and rulers. There were no known women followers. They were also known to share communal meals as seen from the remains of their temples.

Rooms of Roman House

As you go through this level, you hear the constant flow of water coming from the ancient sewer, the Cloaca Maxima which is still in use. Alongside the temple you can explore several rooms of a Roman house built after the fire of 64 A.D. I continued walking across a narrow alley which brought me to the ground floor rooms of this first century house. I stepped into the first room but the sound of rushing water, coupled with the eerie lighting, the dankness of the surrounding walls and the fact that the three people whom I thought were behind me had turned back, spooked me! I hurried after them!

Before leaving the church, I sat in one of the benches placed along the wall of the courtyard, where a cool breeze wafted through. Beside me, sat an American couple, after a period of silence the wife tells her husband, "this church I like". I agreed with her!

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