Monday, October 19, 2009

Basilica of San Clemente

I've only got about seven more weeks left in Rome, and there are still hundreds of amazing things I want to do. This city is so dense with history that talking about what I've already seen seems a little nuts: I've been to the Colosseum, the Forum and the Palatine, the Circus Maximus, the Appian Way, St.Peters, the Sistine Chapel and the Pantheon. I've seen Berninis at the Piazza Navona and the Villa Borghese and I've visited the amazing Villa Dora Pamphilj. Each one of these places has blown my mind. The urban legend about doing acid seven times flutters around in my brain: if each of these sights was the most head-explodingly wonderful thing I've ever seen, am I legally insane?

I've eaten countless gelatos and discovered exactly why everyone who goes to Italy comes back to the US as a coffee snob. I've also developed a passionate devotion to bread sticks, a tertiary food obsession that is going to be really hard to explain an ocean away from my favorite brand. I've met lots of strangers and had actual conversations in actual Italian. My work has taken a really insane turn that I'm almost ready to let out of the closet. Seven more weeks is not long enough- I'm totally in love with Rome- but I will be very happy to see my family and friends again. I'm ready to return.

Almost. First I have to see seven weeks worth of churches. I'm on the church-a-day plan. Here's the deal. Churches in Rome are free museums. The only price of admission is a cynical pretense of modesty: if you're a woman, you have to cover up your sinful bare arms and neck to enter. (This irritated me much more before I saw a nun chewing out a shirtless college boy. I like my idiocy gender-neutral.)

I carry around a one euro scarf for just this purpose, and every day I make a point of going in to see a new church. I am rarely disappointed or bored. I've happened upon some incredible scenes: Rome is a place where you can find accidental Caravaggios, or Poussin's coffin, or columns so twisty they seem not to make sense, much less stand upright, just by walking in to an inconspicuous door on a side street. (It's surprising how inconspicuous the doors often are, but the history of Christianity in Rome is such that for a good long time it was practical to have the outsides of the churches deflect, rather than attract attention.)

I'm not going to try to catch up by documenting the amazing places I've already been, but I'm going to do my best to document the church-a-day mission from here on out.

Today I visited the Basilica of San Clemente, which is near my house, down the street from the Coloseum. (See? Rome=crazy town.)

San Clemente's Mithraeum

I had originally planned to organize my visits to churches around the idea of hunting for Mithras. Mithraems are little cave-like spaces in which an astrologically based mystery cult of Mithras was practiced: it's very interesting. Mithras is almost always pictured with a bull, a dog, a scorpion and a snake, which are thought to be references to constellations, and Mithras is always shown letting the blood of the bull. And he has a nice hat.

San Clemente's Mithraem is three stories down, below the 12th century church and the 4th century church below that. It's an amazing place to visit because all three levels of church are relatively intact: I'm used to being told that such-and-such a church was on top of something else, but in San Clemente's case you go downstairs, and there's the older church: you can see where you would have sat. And below that, the temple of Mithras. You can read about Mithras by following either of the links on his name, but not much is known about Mithraism: it was a mystery cult- only the initiates knew what it was about. Kinda like the Masons...(insert conspiracy theory here.)

There are lots of Mithraems in Rome, but Mithras hangs out in dark basements, and the Basillica of San Clemente convinced me that what I love is mostly above ground. Like this:

These mosaics were so beautiful! The sheep were gorgeous, touching, knowing little creatures.

Those are acanthus leaves. If you tell me what the deal is with acanthus I will buy you a gelato.

And if those mosaics weren't enough, there was the Chapel of St. Catherine of Alexandra by Masolino.

There are no good pictures of this anywhere on the internet. The church is full of signs saying that photography is forbidden, but it's such a shame- this little chapel was one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen, and the reproductions that were sold at the little church store stink. They show single scenes from a complex multi-perspectival tapestry of geometry that fills the chapel. This blurry one is the best I can find that gives a sense of the color and the way the place is put together. It's wonderful, and it's rotten that one can't photograph it, at least without a flash. Although to their credit, the Irish monks who run San Clemente have put the chapel up on the web in a nice VR format. Check it out!

This little scene is Saint Catherine being rescued from torture by an angel- the wheels were supposed to be tearing her apart, but they failed to do so. One thing I'm learning in my church-a-day mission is that saints were often the victim of severely inefficient murder attempts. One of my books says that St. Cecilia was sentenced to death by suffocation in the steam of her own bathroom. When that failed, someone tried to chop her head off three times. And failed. Saint Catherine of Alexandra is shown here escaping these wheels through divine intercession, but another source says that the wheel broke when she touched it.

Here she is converting the philosophers of Alexandria.

This annunciation is above the door to the chapel. It's gorgeous. You can see better pictures on the Basilica San Clemente Web Site.


Anonymous said...

Great photos! I was researching pics for a class this fall, and came across this blog. Don't forget the "georgeous, touching, knowing little creatures" represent the Lamb of God who brings about the wrath of the Apocalypse in the Book of Revelation. ;)

"And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and in them, the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb"

Now you've got me interested in researching the role of acanthus in this image. It may be that the medievals believed the Acanthus plant is what the Romans made for a crown of thorns for Jesus. Anyway, great site!

Sam Simpson said...

Thanks! (Sorry it took me so long to reply- there's something up with comments on the blog...)