Friday, 14 October 2011

Ghosts of Italy: Saint Clement and his House Church

Italy is full of ghosts..........

San Clemente 

One of Rome's most significant churches is San Clemente.  It is one of the most user-friendly churches to those who don’t speak Italian.  This is because it has been run by Irish clergy, ever since 1667 when the English, with a remarkable display of Christian Charity, expelled the entire clergy of the Roman Catholic Church from Ireland.

The present church of San Clemente dates from the late 11th century and has retained its delightful atrium (courtyard) with an odd assortment of salvaged Roman columns all around it, which is the perfect place for wedding and Christening photos.   The church has been redecorated over the centuries and has an elaborate ceiling of carved and gilded wood, but still retains its ancient marble fittings including a canopy over the altar. 

The greatest artistic treasure is an ancient mosaic in the apse, showing the Crucifixion at the centre, with a vine sprouting from beneath it and spreading curling green tendrils across the golden background.  

(Click pictures to enlarge)
The Tree of Life
There are also some wonderful frescos by Masolino, who together with Masaccio painted the Brancacci Chapel at the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence in the early 1400s. 

The present church was built directly over a church dating from the 4th century.  This church had been burnt out by the Normans in 1084. It was partially restored while the new church was under construction.  The interior of the 4th century church has remained almost intact, but buried. You might wonder how a city like Rome could have its ground level change so dramatically.  The reason is that at certain times of year, the winds dump Sahara Desert onto Rome.  I saw it happen.  Just within one heavy rainstorm, everything became coated with a layer of fine dust several millimetres thick.  

The Annunciation by Masolino, early 1400s
The 4th century church is kinda gloomy and has dark corners because there are big piers supporting the upper church. The whole place seems to have ghosts lurking everywhere despite the life that goes on in the church above, which is always full of people. 

In the mid 19th century, a certain Father Joseph Mullooly who had an interest in archaeology, realized that there was more to the lower church than met the eye.  He began to excavate. 

The atrium, with recycled columns
What he discovered was that the nave of the lower church was actually the upper level of the central courtyard of a large Ancient Roman mansion, while the two side aisles were the remains of rooms on the first floor.  Father Mullooly's excavating discovered that the courtyard and rooms at the basement level had remained intact, but had been filled with rubble as a foundation for the 4th century church.  

At this lower level Mullooly found that an insula or apartment building abutted the mansion.  And while the lower rooms of the mansion proved to be simply rooms, the basement of the apartment contained a Mithraic Temple, part of which was located directly below the sanctuary of the later church. 

The Mithraeum 

A staircase goes down to a lower level, and there one is confronted by the Mithraic Temple.  It is built like a cave, as they always were, and at the centre is this thing like a sarcophagus, with a relief sculpture of Mithras at one end.  

The cult of Mithras was very popular in the first century AD, as is evidenced by the numerous remains of such temples.  But the cult was so secret in nature that almost nothing was written about it.  The central figure is the hero Mithras who is depicted in three types of scenes. He is sometimes shown naked, apparently being born out of a rock.  But on the other hand, it is just possible that it represents him being dumped in the River Tiber in a pair of cement boots.  The Romans have always been good at making cement, and also good at finding practical uses for it.  The second type of iconography shows him sharing a banquet with Sol, who is identified as the sun by the rays around his head.  

The third, most common and most interesting depiction shows Mithras slaying a bull.  He is always depicted in the same manner, clothed, with a short cloak and a distinctive cap called a Phrygian cap.  He suppresses the bull by grabbing it by the nose and putting his knee in the centre of its back, while stabbing it in the neck.  Mithras is generally accompanied in this scene by two torch-bearers, one who holds the torch up, and the other who points it downwards.  And there are always in the scene a dog, a crow, a scorpion and a snake. 

There has been a lot of argument over the years as to what it depicts.   It seems certain that it is associated with the sky, the night sky in particular, as Mithraeums are always located in a domed cavern-like space, a bit like a modern planetarium.  It seems fairly straight forward that it represents a group of constellations, although not necessarily with the stars overlaid with the same set of imaginary connections that have brought about the identifying names that are currently in use.

If one puts aside the way in which the constellation of Orion is usually interpreted as a figure, and turns it on its side, then one has an entirely different figure, one with a triangular cloak blowing behind it, a bright star forming the top of its cap and a curved knee placed on the back of the constellation of Taurus, the bull. 

The House Church

St Clement as Bishop of Rome.  An 11th century
fresco from the lower church
Leading off from the stairs is a passage which is actually a narrow Roman street, now completely buried.  Apparently it runs through to the Colosseum.  There are doorways leading into rooms, some of which are excavated, but still all underground.  I walked in through a doorway, and found myself greeted by a ghost, who I could not see, but whose presence I could feel so strongly that I knew I was not alone.  It was a man who greeted me.  I can't say that I heard the words aloud, but I heard them clearly nonetheless.  The man said, "Welcome Christian! Come and join us at the table and worship with us!"  I realised immediately that I had walked into an Early Christian house church.  

It wasn't until about twenty years later, when I acquired a book on the history of the papacy that I realised that the ghost that had greeted me was, in all probability, Clement himself.  He was of a wealthy family, and the mansion of which the upper floor had become the lower church had belonged to him.  He became Bishop of Rome towards the end of the first century AD and so is regarded by the Catholic Church as being the second Pope, but accounts differ, and he may have been the third or fourth Bishop of the church of Rome.  A letter that he wrote to the Corinthian church is still read by them once a year.   

The body of St Clement is returned to his titular church
with much rejoicing.  St Cyril and his brother Methodius
 are on the left.
As with so many saints, the facts of his ministry to the congregation who gathered at his house towards the end of the first century have been almost smothered in the legend that came to surround him.  The acts of St Clement date from around the same time as the building of the first church in the 4th century.  It was said that the Emperor Trajan had exiled him, sending him to work at stone quarries in the Crimea.  One day when the prisoners at the quarry were suffering from heat and thirst, Clement had a vision of a lamb.  Going to where the lamb had stood, he struck the ground with his pickaxe and a spring of water gushed forth.  Many people were converted as a result of this miracle.  As punishment, Clement was martyred by being tied to an anchor and thrown into the Black Sea by the Emperor Trajan.  The anchor and some bones were miraculously recovered in the 9th century by Saint Cyril and brought back to Rome where they were enshrined at San Clemente. 

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