The Basilica of San Clemente, Rome

by Dr. Diane Reilly.

A shrunken Rome

By the twelfth century, the city of Rome was a shadow of its former, imperial Roman self. Pilgrims still flowed into the city from all over Europe in recognition of Rome’s status as the home of the pope and the burial place of apostles and the Early Christian martyrs, but the city itself had shrunk dramatically inside the old Roman walls. Rome was regularly sacked by invaders, including the Holy Roman Emperor, a northern noble supposedly appointed to protect Europe’s Christians. It was also damaged by battles between the city’s most powerful families. For parts of the twelfth century, two popes, each chosen by a rival faction, concurrently claimed to lead the Western Church. (The Western Church refers to the Latin-speaking Catholic church based in Rome, to differentiate it from the Greek-speaking Eastern church then based in Constantinople.) Nonetheless, the city was gripped by a spirit of religious renewal that led patrons to rebuild several of its important churches. Romans were so proud of their city’s Christian past and current status as the capital of Western Christianity that these new buildings often closely copied the early churches they replaced.

Building on Roman foundations

The Basilica of San Clemente, located in the heart of medieval Rome, is an example of this faithful copying. It was rebuilt in the early twelfth century on the site of an Early Christian house church, using the existing basilica church already on the site as its foundations. (Here the word "basilica" refers to a long rectangular building with an apse or niche at one end, an architectural form borrowed from ancient Rome and then widely used for Christian churches in the West.) The builders mimicked the earlier church in almost every way, copying its nave, aisles, arcades (arches) with columns made from Roman spolia (elements from earlier structures or artworks that are reused), clerestory windows (windows located high on the walls of a church, often above the side aisles and just below the ceiling of the central space), a simple apse (a recess at the end or side of a building, often semicircular and topped with a half dome), and an open wooden roof (now hidden by an ornately decorated ceiling). They departed from the earlier model only by making the new structure slightly narrower and inserting piers (large supports that help bear the weight of a building) halfway down the nave. To a medieval viewer, the ancient Roman heritage of the building would have been obvious, though today it has mostly been obscured by an exuberant eighteenth-century renovation.
An old fashioned schola cantorum—the choir enclosure where the men or boys who sang the words of the services would sit—is located in the middle of the church. At one time every Roman church would also have had a similar set of raised ambos (lecterns), a towering pedestal for the paschal candle (the candle lit at the first service of Easter and burned throughout the Easter season and on major holidays), and rows of seats facing each other so that the choir could sing in alternation between each prayer and reading.

Blending Christian and classical

The decoration of the church also looked back to earlier precedents. The artists of the apse mosaic adapted the pagan and Christian motifs found in Late Antique and Early Christian mosaics and sculptures still visible in Rome. On a field of gold, a luxuriant, leafy, flowering scroll springs from a base of acanthus leaves. Naked, winged cherubs ride dolphins or play instruments among the branches, baskets of fruit spring from their ends, and shepherds herd sheep and milk goats in the landscape below. Below the cherubs Early Christian church fathers teach and serve.
Grafted onto this bucolic scene are explicitly Christian themes. Between the shepherds, peacocks, geese, ducks and deer lap up the healing waters from the four rivers of Paradise. At the center, Jesus hangs on a cross studded with twelve doves, symbolizing the apostles. At the base, twelve sheep walk from miniature depictions of the walled cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem towards an apocalyptic lamb with a crossed nimbus (a halo with a cross inserted, signifying that the person represented is a member of the Trinity—God the Father, Jesus, or the Holy Ghost, see image below). An inscription at the bottom explains, “We liken the Church of Christ to this vine that the law causes to wither and the Cross causes to bloom.”
On the spandrels of the arch, the prophets Saint Clement and Saint Lawrence and the apostles associated with Rome, Peter and Paul, wear the anachronistic uniform found in medieval depictions of holy figures: the chiton (a rectangular tunic, usually made of wool, worn in ancient Greece), himation (a long piece of fabric wrapped over the left shoulder and under the right arm, worn as outerwear in the ancient Greek and Roman world) and sandals worn by ancient aristocrats.
With the flanking figures, the mosaic argues that the Western Christian church, based in Rome, is more powerful than the secular forces that had recently sought to control it. And like the church of San Clemente itself, it demonstrates that, despite the precarious political situation in Rome during this time, its inhabitants looked to publicly display the city’s status as the center of Western Christianity.

Additional resources:
Richard Krautheimer, Rome: Profile of a City, 312-1308 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980).
Michael G. Sundell, Mosaics in the Eternal City (Tempe: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2007).