The Third Bishop of Rome

Happy feast-day of Saint Clement! Pope Clement I (reigned 88-99 A.D.) was the third Pope after Peter and Linus, and like them he was martyred for the faith. Clement’s subsequent history, however, is arguably even more interesting than his life and death–and Rome is at the center of it all.

Clement Ghezzi Vat MuseumsEmperor Trajan was one of the so-called “Good Emperors,” but he was a dyed-in-the-wool pagan who had clearly had enough of these pesky Christians. Even though he never conducted a full-scale Christian persecution, he was apparently fed up with the active evangelization of the then-Bishop of Rome, whom he banished to Chersonesus (modern-day Kherson), a city far away on the Black Sea. There, the saintly Clement I worked miracles which converted many pagans but angered others, who tied him to an anchor and threw him into the sea. This lovely painting (1726) by Pier Leone Ghezzi depicts Pope Clement’s martyrdom, and hangs today in the Vatican Museums.

A firm and yet confusing tradition was maintained ever after, that Pope Saint Clement I’s Clement frescobody was interred somewhere along the coast; and in the 9th century, the Catholic missionary brothers Saints Cyril and Methodius located it and brought it back to Rome. The fresco you see here is roughly 1000 years old: it shows the procession of clergy and faithful reverently carrying Saint Clement’s body (seen in the center), and is inside the Basilica of San Clemente.

San Clemente probably has the most amazing archaeological history of any church in Rome, which is saying a lot! Built no later than the 4th century, it was destroyed by the troops of the Norman Roger Guiscard in the late 1000’s, but was soon rebuilt. What you can Clement tombsee today is the “new” church, which is only about nine centuries old. Saint Clement is interred under the main altar.

For hundreds and hundreds of years, it was assumed that the old Basilica of San Clemente was completely destroyed, and the new one had been built on exactly the same level, as its replacement. But in the 1800’s, the Irish Dominican Fathers who staff the church discovered by accident that the original church was actually still there, underneath the new basilica! The remains of the damaged church had in reality been filled with earth and tamped down, and the current church had simply been constructed on top of it all. After painstaking excavations–which involved shoring up the foundations of the basilica up top, so it didn’t totally collapse down into the older one beneath it–the 4th-century basilica was opened to the public. Today it is one of the most fabulous underground itineraries in all of Rome, and a must-see.

At the same time, the ground-level basilica is an exceptionally well preserved medieval church in its own right. Taken together, it’s easy to spend an entire half-day at San Clemente, provided that you are accompanied by a knowledgeable guide! We often take our clients to this historically rich site, and we’ll be happy to take you too, and tell you the full history and point out the fabulous artistic treasures of this wonderful church–a church that is a fitting resting-place for a holy martyr-Pope.

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