The station churches of Rome form part of a traditional 4th century custom that honoured the Christian martyrs of Rome and helped to strengthen the early Christian community of the city. This Lent, a small insight into the history of some of the station churches will mark our progress towards the celebration of Easter.
The Basilica of San Clemente al Laterano, is one of the jewels in Rome’s archaeological crown. The current building, built around about 1100, at the height of the Middle Ages, stands on top of the remains of the 4th century basilica which itself grew out of a private home that had been used for Christian worship at a time when the religion was outlawed in the city.
The lowest level of the building, is thought to date from the Roman republican era, and is described as a Mithraeum, a sanctuary of the religious Mithras cult. These temples, always built underground, survive in large numbers throughout the city. The one on the site of San Clemente can be viewed today following excavations in the last century.
St. Clement, to whom the church is dedicated, is identified as one of the earliest Popes. He is said to have been consecrated by St. Peter, but is believed to have started life as a pagan who converted after being freed from slavery. Little is known about his life, but some of his writings have survived down through the ages. More certainty surrounds the nature of his death. Following his banishment from Rome by the Emperor Trajan he worked in a stone quarry where water was short. Clement prayed and upon sight of a lamb he struck the spot where the animal had stood, releasing a stream of water. Whilst this led to the workers converting, for this act Clement was martyred by being tied to an anchor and thrown into the Black Sea. His remains were recovered from the sea and interred nearby. His relics were eventually moved to Rome by St. Cyril along with the anchor.
In place of the small scale buildings that had survived the period of Christian persecution in the city, a formal basilica is written about by St. Jerome as existing on the site in 392. This early building saw several church councils in the 5th century with the last major event taking place in 1099 when Paschal II was elected Pope.
The building that replaced this 4th century basilica (what is now referred to as the ‘lower’ basilica) was completed in 1120 and has beautiful internal decoration. The most striking of these is the mosaic in the apse, The Triumph of the Cross. This is generally accepted as an outstanding example of 12th century Roman mosaic design. Below the mosaic is a schola cantorum which incorporates marble from the original basilica. Within the sanctuary is the ciborium, the canopy raised on columns that covers the altar which itself stands above the crypt that contains Saint Clement’s relics.
Care of the basilica has been in the hands of the Irish Dominicans since the 17th century and it was them who led the excavations of the 1950’s.