Rome: San Clemente

The San Clemente.

Up until fairly recently I had a love-hate relationship with the church of San Clemente. It is easily one of the most fascinating churches in Rome, a twelfth century basilica built on top of a fourth century basilica that was itself constructed over Ancient Roman buildings dating back to the first century. On the other hand, it used to have by far the strictest “no photo” policy of all the Roman churches. There were signs everywhere indicating that taking pictures was prohibited. A guard was zealously patrolling the building to make sure that no one dared take out his camera. This policy was evidently aimed at making people buy postcards and posters in the shop, which art students and history enthusiasts would probably have done anyway (I certainly did), because the merchandise is of excellent quality. Photography was only allowed outside in the atrium. From there, I managed to take a good picture of the interior through the front door.

For years, that picture was all that I could show my readers. Therefore this post about the San Clemente used to be quite brief. But things have changed apparently. When I visited the church in January of 2022, the “no photo” signs had been shoved to the corners of the building. The surly guard – still the same guy – was now positioned at the entrance to the atrium, checking COVID-19 Green Passes. Taking pictures inside the church was suddenly not a problem anymore and everybody was happily shooting away with their cameras and smartphones. I took dozens of pictures of the stunning apse mosaic, Masolino’s frescoes about the life of Saint Catherine of Alexandria and the schola cantorum from the sixth century. After returning home, I decided to rewrite the post that I had done in 2017 and add lots of new pictures to it.

Abridged history

Interior of the church.

The lowest levels of the church comprise parts of two Roman buildings from the first century. Archaeologists found an altar of Mithras here, the light god who was very popular among soldiers. It is still on display, although visitors cannot get close to it. The buildings may have been part of the Imperial mint (an earlier mint was located on the Capitoline Hill, where we now find the church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli), but no archaeological evidence demonstrating that coins were minted here has been found so far. No signs of Christian worship have been found down here either. The first church was founded in ca. 395 when Pope Siricius (384-399) was on the Throne of Saint Peter. It was dedicated to Saint Clemens, who according to tradition was the fourth pope in history (ca. 88-99). His relics were enshrined here in 867.

It used to be thought that the church was damaged beyond repair or even destroyed during the Sack of Rome by the Normans in 1084. However, this is up for debate and even the church itself now writes that “it was found that the building was unsafe and should be abandoned, possibly (my italics) because of destruction caused in the neighbourhood (ditto) by the Normans under Robert Guiscard when coming to the rescue of Pope Gregory VII in 1084″. The Normans were certainly responsible for damage in this part of the city, not just to the San Clemente but also to the nearby complex of Santi Quattro Coronati. However, Pope Paschalis II’s (1099-1118) decision to build a new church may have been influenced by the fact that the church floor was below ground level, and the building therefore prone to flooding. On a side note, the Romans seem to have forgiven the Normans, as the street behind the church is called the Via dei Normanni.

Schola cantorum.

Atrium of the San Clemente.

To construct a new church, the old church was partially demolished. The roof was torn off and the walls were only left standing below a level of five metres from the floor. What remained of the old San Clemente was filled with earth. The new church was subsequently built over the old one. It was consecrated in 1108. The San Clemente has been administered by Irish Dominicans since the late seventeenth century, who moved here from the church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo in 1697. The San Clemente was given its present appearance in the early 1700s. Pope Clemens XI (1700-1721) hired the architect Carlo Stefano Fontana – often confused with his uncle Carlo Fontana (1634/38-1714) – to give the church a Baroque makeover. In 1857, excavations beneath the church were started and they continue until the present day.

Exploring the San Clemente

The church is quite unique for still having an atrium, a feature of medieval churches which has mostly disappeared elsewhere in Rome. Inside, we can admire a nice original Cosmatesque floor and a schola cantorum (choir enclosure). The latter dates back to the sixth century and was already present in the first church. It features the monogram of Pope John II (533-535). Before being elected pope, his name had been Mercurius, an oddly pagan name for a Christian. He had served as priest of the church of San Clemente and had spent a fortune embellishing it. Pope John II’s pontificate was fairly short, but he became famous for sacking a French bishop who turned out to be a serial adulterer.

Monogram of Pope John II.

The Chapel of Saint Catherine of Alexandria is also one of the highlights of the church. It has beautiful frescoes attributed to Masolino da Panicale (ca. 1383-after 1440). He is best known for his collaboration with his younger colleague Masaccio (1401-1428) in the Brancacci Chapel in Florence. It was probably there that cardinal Branda Castiglioni (1350-1443) became acquainted with Masolino’s work, and the cardinal was possibly included in the scene of The Raising of the Son of Theophilus and Saint Peter Enthroned, which was begun by Masaccio and completed by Filippino Lippi. Castiglioni commissioned Masolino to work in the Chapel of Saint Catherine of Alexandria in Rome, which is also sometimes called the Cappella Castiglioni after him.

Crucifixion – Masolino.

Masolino worked in the chapel between 1428 and 1431. On the back wall he painted a large Crucifixion scene. The crosses are so tall and Christ has been crucified up so high that Mary Magdalene cannot even touch the Saviour’s feet. She can be seen desperately clutching the base of the cross. In the foreground the Virgin Mary has fainted. The frescoes on the left wall show scenes from the life of Saint Catherine. She is ultimately decapitated by order of the emperor Maxentius, but not before convincing the emperor’s wife to convert to Christianity (for which the wife pays with her life), defeating a dozen pagan philosophers in a great debate and surviving an execution on the breaking wheel. The wheel of course became Saint Catherine’s attribute. The frescoes on the right wall are about the life of Saint Ambrosius. They are much less interesting, if only because their state of conservation is far less satisfactory.

Scenes from the life of Saint Catherine – Masolino.

The best part of the church is the apse. The twelfth century mosaics in the conch and on the triumphal arch are truly splendid. The central scene of the conch is a Crucifixion. Christ is flanked by the Virgin Mary and Saint John the Evangelist. On the cross are twelve white pigeons, no doubt symbolising the twelve apostles. Christ also features as the Lamb of God at the bottom of the mosaic, where he is flanked by twelve other lambs. Above the Lamb of God is an acanthus plant from which fifty scrolls spring. Between the scrolls we see all sorts of objects, birds, little angels and saints. Some of the saints have captions, identifying them as Saints Augustinus, Hieronymus, Gregorius the Great and Ambrosius, i.e. the four Doctors of the Church. The quality of the mosaic is exceptional.

Apse mosaic.


Details of the apse mosaic.

And then we have the triumphal arch mosaic, which is equally impressive. Here we see Jesus Christ at the top, flanked by the symbols of the four evangelists. On the left are three figures: Saints Paul and Lawrence and the prophet Isaiah. Lawrence is easily identified by the gridiron at his feet, the instrument on which he was supposedly roasted alive (the story is certainly a myth). On the right are Saints Peter and Clemens, to pope to whom the church is dedicated, and the prophet Jeremiah. Saint Clemens is holding an anchor. According to tradition he was thrown into the sea with an anchor tied to his body. Note the peculiar mix of Greek and Latin in the names of Saints Paul and Peter: they are labelled AGIOS PAVLVS and AGIOS PETRVS.

Saints Paul and Lawrence.

Saints Peter and Clemens.

14th century frescoes.

The apse wall below the conch has fourteenth-century frescoes. They feature Christ, the Virgin Mary and eleven apostles. Judas had probably been sacked already. The painter of the frescoes is unknown, but the quality of his work is very good.

Tourists can visit the lower levels, i.e. the fourth-century church and the Roman buildings, but there is an admission charge. Visitors may walk around unattended, which is good, but the “no photo” policy is probably still in force here (I have not been able to check yet). Among the highlights down here is a fresco of the Madonna and Child which may be dated to the ninth century. A rather convincing argument has been made that this was originally an image of the Roman empress Theodora, wife of the famous Justinianus (527-565). The Madonna indeed closely resembles the image of the empress in the San Vitale in Ravenna. Another interesting fresco can be found in the central nave. It is about the Legend of Sisinnius, a pagan man with a Christian wife who quarrelled with Saint Clemens. The fresco has a text which is considered the oldest written Italian in existence. What is even more interesting is that the text has the words “fili dele pute” (“sons of bitches”) in it, words that Sisinnius yells at his servants, but which one would not expect in a church.

Updated 10 March 2022.


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