Basilica of Saint Clement

Eastern-Roman influences in a Western-Roman church

  • Stefan van Tongeren - Faculty of Law
  • Johnno Kuipers - Faculty of Spatial Sciences
  • Henry de Vries - Faculty of Mathematics & Natural Sciences

Basilica of Saint Clement
Location: Regione I Monti
Built in: 1st, 4th and 12th century AD
Basilica, Mitraic temple, Roman house

The Basilica of Saint Clement (Italian: Basilica di San Clemente) is a basilica dedicated to Pope Clement I, the 4th Bishop of Rome and is located in Rome. With foundations that go back to the first century AD, S. Clemente has a long history. The building contains three different archaeological layers:

  • The remains of a 2nd century insula (including a Mithraeum) and an horreum, both built on the foundations of a 1st century Christian house-church, presumably belonging to a Roman nobleman.
  • The 4th century 'lower basilica', partially constructed from the remains of the insula and dedicated to Saint Clement.
  • The 12th century and present-day S. Clemente.

S. Clemente historically has very close ties to the Eastern Roman Empire, which is reflected in the presence of Byzantine artworks and architectural features. There are three main explanations for these. First, there is the legend of St. Clement, to whom the S. Clemente is dedicated. He was tied to an anchor and thrown into the Black Sea after converting many pagans to Christianity in Chersonesus, modern Crimea. His actions in the East laid a first foundation for the East-West relationships reflected in the basilica.
A second explanation is the migration of Byzantines to Rome between the 6th and 8th century. An increasingly powerful Greek clergy found its way into the papacy and put their mark on religious life. Following various religious disputes like the iconoclasm, Rome saw a surge of Byzantine art in various churches.
A third relation can be found in the story of the missionaries Cyril and Methodius. In the 9th century, they were sent to Great Moravia to convert the Slavic people to Christianity. On their journey, they found the supposed remains of St. Clement and returned them to Rome. When Cyril died, he was buried in S. Clemente.

1. Historical context of the site
1.1 1st century AD: Christian house-church and pagan temple
1.2 4th century AD: the 'first basilica'?
1.3 12th century AD: the present-day Basilica of Saint Clement
2. East-West relations underlying the lower Basilica
2.1 Foundation: banishment of St. Clement
2.2 Rome of the Greek Popes and Iconoclasm
2.3 9th-century East-West schisms
3. Byzantine art in the lower basilica
3.1 Characteristics of Byzantine art
3.2 Madonna and Child
3.3 Late 9th century frescoes
3.4 11th century frescoes
4. Byzantine art and architecture elsewhere in Italy
5. Conclusion

Historical context of the site

Architectural layering [20]

Although Christianity was a small religion in the first century AD, the Roman emperors saw its expansion as a threat. [1] Persecutions followed, for example when Emperor Nero accused the Christian community of the Great Fire of 64 AD. The intolerance towards Christianity ended when Constantine the Great (306-337) issued the Edict of Milan in 313. This edict legalised Christian worship and allowed Christianity to spread freely across the Roman Empire. [2][3]
This history of early Christianity is reflected in the architecture of S. Clemente. The site of the basilica has a history that goes back to the Republican era of Ancient Rome. The building underwent multiple transformations, the latest of which took place in the early 12th century. After excavations were done by Irish Dominicans, these changes can be seen through the layers of construction underneath the present-day building. Each layer stems from a different time period and shows how Christianity had a growing influence on Roman life and culture.

1st century AD: pagan temple and Christian house-church

The lowest level of S. Clemente shows the foundation of what would have been the home of a first-century Roman nobleman. It is thought that this nobleman was Titius Flavius Clemens, one of the first Roman senators who converted to Christianity and is often identified with Pope Clement I, although there seems no evidence to support this. [4] Flavius Clemens would have turned his house into a house-church, which was used by Christians as a gathering place for worship. After the destruction of this house, which probably happened during the Great Fire of 64 AD, two different buildings were built on its foundations: a public warehouse (horreum) and a Roman apartment building (insula), of which the remains can still be seen. Both were separated by a narrow street. Around the beginning of the 3rd century AD the central room of the insula was transformed to a Mithraeum, a sanctuary for the cult of Mithras. Both buildings were later destroyed and in the 4th century the 'lower basilica' was built.

4th century AD: the 'first basilica'

During the 4th century, construction took place of a basilica on the site where once stood the house-church of Flavius Clemens. The horreum and the lower floor of the insula were filled and a new floor was created at the height of the second floor of the insula. The remaining parts of the insula were used for the construction of the 'lower basilica', which was completed around 392. This church was dedicated to Pope Clement I, who was known for his conversions in Chersonessus (modern-day Crimea) during the 1st century AD. Clement I was identified by the Church as Flavius Clemens, owner of the 1st century house-church. [5]
During the following centuries, the basilica became decorated with mosaics and frescoes, mainly in Eastern-Roman (or Byzantine) style. Many of these decorations have been reasonably well preserved and can still be seen in the second level of the Basilica.

Overview of the 4th-century basilica.[21]

12th century AD: the present-day Basilica of Saint Clement

Although it was long assumed that the lower basilica was destroyed during the Sack of Rome in 1084, this theory is no longer viewed as correct due to the lack of evidence. Now the need for rebuilding is believed to have been the result of the struggle for political power between Pope Gregory VII and antipope Clement III. After the death of the latter, Pope Paschal II ordered the filling up of the lower basilica to prevent the church from becoming a place of pilgrimage for the followers of Clement III. [6]
At the same time the construction of a new basilica above the old one was commissioned. This second basilica became what we now refer to as S. Clemente. It was built between 1099 and 1120. Noticeable are again the Byzantine-styled mosaics and frescoes.

East-West relations underlying the lower Basilica

Foundation: banishment of St. Clement

The first connection was created when the lower, 4th-century basilica was built in honor of St. Clement. Clement was banished to Chersonesus (modern Crimea) from Rome by Emperor Trajan (98-117). According to 5th-century legend,[10] Clement performed various miracles. The miracles caused large-scale conversions and, ultimately, his death, as he was tied to an anchor and thrown into the Black sea. The imposed Eastern activities of St. Clement would prove to be a basis for a later East-West relationship in the lower basilica. [10]

Rome of the Greek Popes and Iconoclasm

-See also: Byzantine Papacy

Between 678 and 752, Rome witnessed a succession of 11 Greek Popes, a unique feat in Papal history. This situation followed a rule, which stated that the Pope's position had to be confirmed by the emperor before he could start his pontificate. This rule originated from the capture of Rome under Emperor Justinian I's reign in 537, after which the emperor forced Pope Vigilius to resign.[8]
The rule of the Byzantine approval of the Papacy had a great influence on the composition of the clergy in Rome. As the Papacy experienced growing Byzantine influence, it issued a synod in 610, declaring that Greek monks were allowed the same rights as Latin bishops. As the Slavs were conquering the Balkan coast at the time, a large number of Greeks, including monks, now fled to Rome. Using the power that was given through the synod, the Greek monks soon found their way up into the higher ranks of the Roman clergy. During the 7th century, the influence of the Greek clergy had become so large that they outnumbered the Latin clergy, resulting in the 'Greek Papacy'.
Gradually, Rome would see increasing Byzantine influences as it would become a shelter for Byzantines fleeing imperial regulation. These regulations would often be of religious origin, of which the iconoclasm is an example.[8] The increasing power of the Greek clergy also meant that churches within Rome saw an increasing number of Greek caretakers. Combined with the increasing amount of Byzantine artists and craftsmen, the Greek clergy instilled a surge of Byzantine art in Rome. Besides the S. Clemente various other churches, including the Sant'Agnese Fuori le Mura and San Lorenzo Fuori le Mura show typical Byzantine art. [9]

9th-century East-West schisms

-Main article: Photian Schism

Around the year 800 the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne created a dispute between the Western Catholic church and the Eastern Orthodox church in an attempt to become the sole Christian Emperor. Although Charlemagne failed, Pope Nicholas I managed to seize spiritual control over the whole Western Roman Empire. Various dubious political actions, consisting of conflicting counsels in Rome and Constantinople led to the first open dispute between the Eastern- and Western Church. This conflict, dubbed the Photian schism, consisted of political disagreement on Christianizing Bulgaria. After the death of both Nicholas I and Emperor Michael III, the initial Patriarch Photius of Constantinople was restored in power.[10]
Two missionaries, Methodius and Constantine (later named Cyril) were sent to Great Moravia by Patriarch Photius in order to introduce the Slavic people to Christianity. They encountered resistance by Latin missionaries already present, causing them to visit Rome to justify their work.[11] The arrival in Rome of both missionaries introduced the relation between S. Clemente and Eastern Orthodoxy. Constantine(Cyril) had found what were the -supposed- remains of St. Clement upon his activities in Bulgaria. Pope Hadrian II was very pleased by the gift of the missionaries and authorized their work, which marks an important point in church history. Constantine stayed in Rome under his monk's name Cyrillus, died within a year, and was buried in S. Clemente.[11]

Byzantine art in the lower basilica

Characteristics of Byzantine art

- See also: Icon

S. Clemente contains many artistic features, such as mosaics and frescoes, most of which are in Byzantine style. Byzantine art originates from the Eastern Roman Empire and is inspired by Ancient Greek and Egyptian art. An important characteristic of Byzantine art is iconography. Icons were not just used as a way of portraying religious figures, but were thought to possess spiritual power. Byzantine frescoes were painted using vivid colours and persons depicted in it generally all exhibit the same facial expression. Characteristic is the use of golden backgrounds to symbolise a heavenly world. Byzantine art lacks depth, in contrast to Latin art. Another common aspect is the presence of haloes, sometimes containing crosses and generally coloured gold. [7]

Madonna and Child

Madonna and Child

The frescoes in S. Clemente illustrate the East-West relations underlying the lower basilica and can be dated from three different time periods. There are the 9th century frescoes, the 11th century frescoes and the Madonna and Child, of which the date is not entirely clear. This last fresco was discovered in a niche in the aisle of the 4th century basilica in 1857 during excavations by the Irish Dominican caretakers of S. Clemente. All three sides of the niche were decorated with frescoes. The onde at the back of the niche was in a precarious state and fell off just days after its discovery, only to reveal a better preserved fresco of the Madonna and Child. It presumably is the oldest piece of art in S. Clemente and little is known about it.
The fresco is an example of Byzantine style and shows the Madonna with her child in the centre, flanked by St. Euphemia and St. Catherine. Both the Madonna and Christ are depicted as icons in vivid colours. The Madonna is wearing a diadem of pearls, which is seen as the headdress of a Byzantine empress.
The exact date of the fresco remains up for debate, which makes it hard to explain why it has been painted in the lower basilica. Leonard Boyle thought the fresco had been painted in the 6th century, but this theory is no longer plausible. [ 13] The Madonna and Child shows many similarities with frescoes from the 8th century. Together with the fact that is has not been painted by the same artist as the other 9th century frescoes, the Madonna and Child is dated to the 8th century. [14] Osborne also argues the fresco relates to the banning of the cult of St. Euphemia, who is depicted in the fresco. Her cult, along with all references to it, was banned during the iconoclastic period. After Empress Irene restored the relics of Euphemia in the 8th century, a revival of the use of St. Euphemia in icons was seen. Following Osborne's dating of the fresco, the presence of the Madonna and Child fresco can be explained by Byzantine presence in Rome, as described under Greek clergy in Rome.
Another example of a late 8th century fresco in S. Clemente is the Libertinus Cycle, also dated by John Osborne[15]

Late 9th century frescoes

One controversial fresco that depicts the Byzantine history of S. Clemente, is the Particular Judgement. The fresco depicts Christ blessing two persons in a Greek way, according to his gestures. Jesus is flanked by two archangels, which were identified as Michael and Gabriel. At the far left, one sees St. Andrew, with St. Clement completing the group on the right. The two kneeling persons in front of Christ are important for finding the painting's meaning. It is suggested that the fresco is a funerary painting for saints Cyril and Methodius, as Cyril was buried in S. Clemente.[16] The theme of the painting would then be a judgement of the two men, giving the painting its name. It is debated whether the painting is from the 9th or the 11th century, which might confirm or reject it being a funerary painting for St. Cyril, as he died in 869.

Particular Judgement[22]

11th century frescoes

The 11th century frescoes can be found at the entrance of the lower basilica and are dated to the last two decades of the 11th century. [17] They too reflect the influence of the Byzantine style. The frescoes are painted in vivid colours, with persons sharing the same facial expression. Very clear is the use of icons, including haloes and the use of gold, which characterises Byzantine art.

11th-century frescoes [22]

The 11th century frescoes were commissioned and financed by Beno de Rapiza and his wife Maria Macellaria, who are named and portrayed in St. Clement Mass fresco. Both were long thought to have been partisans of the 'Gregorian popes', which includes Paschal II. It was therefore assumed that the 11th century paintings were meant as propaganda, used to depict the legitimacy of the Gregorian popes. However, Lila Yawn suggests antipope Clement III actually had the favour of Beno and Maria. [6] She argues that although the frescoes show fundamental Gregorian principles (the Pope's absolute authority over the Church and the supremacy of spiritual power over secular power), it portrays Clement III as a pope throughout the scenes. According to Yawn, the frescoes can therefore be seen as depicting Clement's legitimacy as a pope, instead of propagating the Gregorian papacy. For instance, St. Clement Mass portrays Clement III as a pope, standing next to the pontifical throne and the vestments. He wears slippers and the papal mantle, all clear signs of a genuine claim to the papal office.
The question remains why these frescoes were painted in Byzantine style. This might be explained by the fact that even during the 11th and 12th century, Greek clergymen and monks still possessed many churches and monasteries in Rome, which caused the Byzantine style of art to be of continued influence in Roman churches. [18]

4. Byzantine art and architecture elsewhere in Italy

Although S. Clemente contains a great number of Byzantine works of art, it is not the only building in Italy that so clearly shows Eastern influences. Great Byzantine artworks can, for instance, be found in Ravenna, once the capital of the Western Roman Empire and in Venice, an influential trading centre where many Eastern Roman families settled. [18] However, there are also many places in Rome where these Byzantine influences can be seen. The Basilica of Saint Mary in Cosmedin (or the Schola Graeca) is an example. It displays a mosaic dating from the 8th century, measuring 9 meters long by 6 meters high. A prestigious monastery in the 8th and 9th century, the Church of San Saba contains many Byzantine frescoes, dating from the 8th to the 13th century. Other examples are the Basilica of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere with 9th century Byzantine mosaics in the apse and the Basilica of Santa Prassede, with its glittering mosaics also dating from the 9th century.

Byzantine Mosaic in the Basilica of Saint Mary in Cosmedin[23]

The fact that so much Byzantine art can be found in Rome and Italy as a whole, shows the great influence Byzantine culture not only had on S. Clemente, but on the whole Latin civilization, lasting from the 6th to the early 13th century.

5. Conclusions

The Basilica of Saint Clement is one of the most reflective places of the relation between The West- and the the East-Roman Empire. Starting from a Republican-era house church, the early Christian place of worship was transformed in a proper Basilica at the end of the 4th century. Witnessing a Greek spiritual takeover of Rome, the lower Basilica of Saint Clement was decorated with typical Byzantine art, such as the Madonna and Child fresco. In the 9th century, the return of Cyril and Methodius with St. Clement's relics led to Cyril being buried in the Basilica of Saint Clement. This very important point in church history led to the presence of various Byzantine frescoes in the lower Basilica. Also, the tomb of Cyril provides a modern relation to the East. The presence of the tomb attracts Orthodox Christians from all over the world, including Pope John Paul II, in order to pay tribute to the founder of the Orthodox Christian religion.[22]


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