Rome, S Clemente

Era 12AD
Location Via Labicana, 95, 00184 Roma RM, Italy

S Clemente is just down the road from the Colosseum and en route to the Lateran, so literally between Classical and Christian Rome It's a popular stop. Take binoculars to get a view of the details of the mosaic, but enjoy it anyway.

The mosaic is a complex design of about 117 metres2. A relatively small crucified Christ, flanked by the Virgin and St John, is enclosed at the centre of a vine scroll which grows from an acanthus in which the foot of the Cross is rooted (look hard and you’ll see all of this!). The blue cross contains twelve doves within its outline. They may represent the Apostles therefore.

The scroll is ordered and rhythmic, with rows, five across and five down. These are filled with plant forms, with classicising vases, birds of different sorts, and scenes about the life of the church. There are birds on the top two rows between the plant scrolls (it looks like magpies either side of the cross arms). Below in the next row are, of all things, little putti figures. These are naked winged little male figures straight out of classical art, or the sort of thing you find all the time in renaissance art. It’s a bit of a shock to find them here but it underlines that medieval mosaics were not as backward as people suppose. The one to the furthest left is blowing a trumpet and next to him, the putto rides a dolphin. On this level, closest to the cross are two scenes of birds feeding their young in the nest.

Below these are seated figures of four of the great Western theologians, or Fathers of the Church, Ambrose, Gregory, Augustine and Jerome (they have their names by their heads), dressed as monks and writing away. They are flanked by secular aristocratic figures, sometimes identified as the lord of the manor and his household. Right at the bottom is a series of tableaux from ‘everyday life’, featuring a range of serfs or peasants doing their jobs and located literally below their lords and masters. Moving left to right: a woman feeding chickens, a bird in a cage, a goatherd, going to the other side past peacocks, birds and deer, a shepherd (spot the figure milking) shepherd, a hunter.

At the base of the cross, buried in the acanthus, a very small deer nuzzles a jewelled band. The deer and the jewelled band was perhaps the corruption of a scene showing a deer attacking a snake, a detail used in other images and taken from the well-known Early Christian Physiologus, a hugely popular text about the meanings and significances of different animals.

Below, two deer drink from the four rivers of paradise. To either side of them are waterbirds (spot the ducks) and peacocks. It’s perfectly possible to give all of these symbolic significances (peacock = eternal life since its flesh was thought never to decay’ deer drinking is a reference to Psalm 42, 1, ‘As the deer pants for water, so my soul pants for God’) but I’m not going to here as it will go on for pages. But take from this that it is possible to break everything down, BUT could anyone see to do that and would anyone have cared enough?

Above the cross in the crown of the apse is an elaborate canopy of heaven from which the hand of God extends, bearing a victory wreath. Lambs stand on the capitals in the canopy and blue and red clouds fill the sky. Remember that canopies were used in eg the Colosseum to screen the heads of the audience from the sun.

In the curve of the apse, an elaborate floral scroll snakes up to a blue monogram, not containing any donor’s name but with the Early Christian Chi-Rho symbol with the Greek letters A and W, Alpha and Omega, dangling from it, signifying Christ himself (Christ called himself the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end). At the base of the apse, twelve masculine sheep approach a Lamb in the centre, emerging from Bethlehem (spot the little statue above the gates of the city and the little statue falling down the stairs below) and Jerusalem (a cross above the gates and a cockerel below – the Christ’s betrayal by Peter is suggested) either side of the Triumphal Arch. I love the Lamb – the construction of his cross-halo (which tells us he is Christ) makes it look as if steam is coming out of his ears

On the crown of the arch itself, is a blessing Christ in a roundel, bust sized, in the centre, flanked by the four evangelist symbols Man = Matthew; Lion = Mark; Ox = Luke; Lion = John). Below, to the viewer’s left, stand Paul (going bald, pointy dark beard) and Laurence (martyred by being grilled – look what his feet rest on – yes that is a barbeque) and to the right, Peter (white hair and white beard) and Clement (with his anchor – he was martyred by being dropped into the sea with an anchor round his neck – note the ship below his feet), so the two saints of the city of Rome next to the titular saint of the church, Clement and St Laurence. In the next register down, the Old Testament Prophet Isaiah stands beneath Paul, and Jeremiah beneath Peter.

The inscription along the bottom says: ‘We have likened the church to this vine; the Law made it wither but the Cross causes it to bloom. A piece of the True Cross, a tooth of James and of Ignatius rest in the body of Christ above this inscription.’ The Law is the Old Testament and the idea being expressed here is that Christ is the True Vine and his blood waters the world and causes everything to flourish. This is sort of what the whole thing is about. And remember that below it, the Eucharist would be celebrated, reinforcing the point.

Look for: the detail on the canopy of heaven, for example, with the careful detail of shading to create the sense of the canvas material held taut in the sunlight; the vignettes of daily life along the base of the apse, the birds scattered throughout, the luxuriant acanthus scroll, all create a sense of imagery bursting with life across the whole apse. There is a striking contrast between the small, suffering Christ on the Cross, flanked by his Mother and St John and the luxuriant vine-scroll, a tree of life, that fills the apse space. In its branches are contained the activities of the church; below it, mundane, daily life.

There are clear resonances of other Roman mosaics, from early examples such as the Lateran baptistery (the vine scrolling across the conch of the apse; the canopy of heaven) and SS Cosmas and Damien (the sheep, the clouds, the evangelist symbols), both churches five minutes down the road, to later mosaics such as S Prassede (more sheep, more evangelists).

The meanings of the mosaic must have worked on several levels, depending on how much attention and effort its viewers put in. The Early Christian, perhaps evoked the mosaic’s place in the Christian and apostolic heritage of Rome (Clement himself, the patron saint, the fourth pope, had been consecrated by St Peter and martyred for his faith); the image of the dead or sleeping Christ however was much more of a twelfth-century representation, understood as a representation of Christ as Second Adam. The detail in the imagery, however, allows for multiple in-depth readings, based on theological disputes and political circumstances. It may be that there were strong and recognisable – at least to the clergy – messages contained about the burning issue of the early twelfth century, which was the reform of the Church, especially in the inscriptions, and in the emphasis on monasticism and St Ambrose, for example. It is possible that the image made reference to the papal schism of 1130-38, when two popes, Innocent II and Anacletus II, the ultimate loser who consequently ended up labelled as the anti-pope, were elected, though if the mosaic does indeed date to the 1120s, this is unlikely. But the inscription running around the apse claims that the Church is the True Vine; the Law makes it wither and the Cross causes it to flourish, a sentiment accessible to any Christian who would recognize Christ on the Cross as Saviour. Whatever the patron may have intended, it is unlikely that viewers extracted only one unchanging message from the image; rather its complexity seems to invite its audience to look and create meanings.


Annoyingly there are signs everywhere saying 'no photos'. Why? Who knows - it can't be because photos will harm the mosaic because they won't. It might be a cunning plan to get you to buy more postcards from the gift shop.

The current building on the site, and its mosaic, are twelfth century, but they overlie a first-century Mithraeum (tickets to visit available in the gift shop, and well-worth doing. The murder in Ngaio Marsh’s ‘When in Rome’ takes place in a thinly-disguised S Clemente mithraeum) an Early Christian basilica which was restored in both the ninth and eleventh centuries (after the Normans led by Robert Guiscard sacked Rome in 1084, which may have severely damaged the earlier church). In 1099, this lower church served as the site for the election of S Clemente’s titular cardinal to pope, as Paschal II. The present church was built on top of a church which had only been built at the very end of the eleventh century and redecorated with large-scale murals paid for by Beno da Rapiza and his wife Maria ‘the butcher’. Why Cardinal Anastasius (about whom we know little but the name) decided another wholescale rebuilding was in order we don’t know, but he did. His church, the one you visit, is slightly smaller than Beno and Maria’s. Cardinal Anastasius was titular cardinal of S Clemente from c1099 until c1125/6. This means it was ‘his’ church in Rome – the place that was his base in the city sand where he could celebrate Mass. Two inscriptions record that Anastasius completed the work of rebuilding S Clemente, though a further inscription suggests that one Petrus was entrusted with the conclusion of the work. The new church may have been consecrated at some point in 1118 to 1119, although this does not mean that the apse mosaic was finished by this date; it is widely accepted that it was completed by 1125.

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