The Basilica of San Clemente in Laterano in Rome was built in the 4th century, on top of an already existing church. This church in turn had been constructed on top of the ruins of an ancient temple dedicated to the heathen God Mithras. The church itself is particularly worth a visit for its magnificent mosaics and the chapel in honour of Saint Catherine of Alexandria with its frescoes by Masolino.
San Clemente Basilica Rome
Address, Opening Hours and Admission
The address of the Basilica di San Clemente in Laterano is Via Labicana 95 – Rome. Tel. +39 067740021. Public transport: Metro A: Manzoni; Metro B: Colosseo. Tram: 3, 8. Bus: 51, 85, 87, 117, 186, 810, N11. Admission: Free for the basilica, 10 Euros for the mythraeum.
History and description
The present Basilica is dedicated to Pope Clemens I. It is located in the Monti district in a valley between the Celio and Esquiline hills. Titus Flavius Clemens was a Roman consul and one of the first Romans of any importance who converted to Christianity.
The Basilica di San Clemente is really a church built on top of an older (4th century) church, which in turn is built on top of a temple. In this 1st century temple the pagan God of the Sun Mithras was worshipped, but the space had been largely abandoned when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. When the first basilica was built here the temple was filled with rubble and earth so that it could serve as a foundation for the new structure.
In the early 12th century the basilica underwent the same treatment the mythraeum had experienced. Norman invasions had left the building about to collapse, so more rubble and earth were added and the old basilica started a new life as a foundation for the new one.
The church was built by Pope Pasquale II. The ground plan of the first version of the basilica was followed and materials of the former church were incorporated in the new basilica.
At the beginning of the 18th century, the church was restored by Carlo Fontana by order of Pope Clement XI. For the portico of the austere façade, Fontana used the ancient columns.
The bell tower to the left of the façade, built between the end of the 17th and the beginning of the 18th century, used to be on the other side.
In the 5th century, the original church was used for a number of councils.
Since 1667, when the Irish catholic church was banned in England and the entire Irish clergy was told to leave, the Basilica di San Clemente is run by Irish Dominicans.
Highlights in the church
The baroque interior, which was also rebuilt by Fontana, still shows elements of the old Roman basilica. The three naves are separated by marble and granite columns with Ionic capitals.
Chapel of Santa Catarina of Alessandria: In the left nave, with frescoes depicting scenes from the life of Saint Catarina. These are considered to be among the first Renaissance paintings in Rome and were done by Masolino.
The beautiful mosaic in the central apse shows Christ on the cross between Mary and John the Evangelist. The twelve doves on the cross represent the apostles. Under the mosaic a 14th century fresco depicting the apostles can be seen.
The marble inlay used to decorate the floor is called cosmatesque.
Highlights underneath the church
The bottom basilica, which was discovered by Joseph Mullooly in 1860, contains extremely beautiful frescoes depicting the life of San Clemente himself. They form one of the earliest examples of medieval wall-paintings ever discovered.
The archaeological complex below the Basilica of San Clemente is located in the valley that separates the Celio from the Esquiline Hill.
Two buildings are currently visible. The first is a large house of at least two floors built between the end of the first and the beginning of the second century AD. Subsequently, between the end of the second and the beginning of the third century, the central environment of this house was transformed into a mithraeum.
In the central hall of the sanctuary, on the side walls there are two long counters where the faithful sat. In the back of a niche is the altar of worship where Mithra is depicted killing the bull and at the sides his assistants carrying torches, Cautes and Cautopates. The mithraeum was abandoned at the end of the fourth century and the whole complex was buried.
The second building lies at a lower level, to the east of the mithraeum. It probably served as a warehouse or, according to some inscriptions found in the area, as a Mint for the manufacture of imperial coins. Towards the middle of the third century the first floor of this building was demolished. The new construction replacing it was most likely the Titulus of Clement, home of the first Christian community in the area. During the fourth century this building was partly demolished to build the early Christian church still visible below the current one.
“Legend of Sisinno” Fresco
The fresco known as the “Legend of Sisinno” dates from the end of the 11th century. The scene shows the patrician Sisinno, who wants to punish Clemente for converting his wife Theodora to Christianity, and orders three servants to handcuff the saint. The men are struck by a momentary blindness and attempt to drag a heavy column away while Clemente escapes.
The inscriptions are particularly striking. The words attributed to Sisinno are in the vernacular, while the closing words of Clemente are in Latin.