Skip to main content

Visiting the Basilica of San Clemente: Rome's Famous Time Machine Church

Lisa is a travel enthusiast who loves visiting other countries. She has been to Rome and visited the famous Basilica of San Clemente.

Exterior view of the Basilica of San Clemente

Exterior view of the Basilica of San Clemente

A Fascinating Site in the Center of Medieval Rome

Many people immediately think of the Colosseum or Roman Forum when considering a trip to Rome, Italy. Indeed, this city boasts some amazing sites that date back to the Roman Empire. However, Rome contains countless gems from the Middle Ages as well, and some of them are as rich in history as the Roman ruins.

One of these Medieval gems is the Basilica of San Clemente, a Latin Catholic temple dedicated to Pope Clement I. It began as a small, modest site of Christian worship during the 1st century A.D. and was transformed into a grand public basilica by the 6th century A.D. (this is a clear indicator of the emerging Catholic Church's growing legitimacy and power over the years). The basilica is a must-see for those who have never witnessed history from multiple eras combined into one site location.

The Basilica of San Clemente is often known as the "time machine church" due to the fact that it consists of three churches built above one another. The most recent church stands above ground and was constructed between 1099 and 1119 A.D. A church dating back to the 4th century A.D. is located directly beneath this basilica and was converted from a 1st-century Roman mansion belonging to Titus Flavius Clemens, one of Rome's first senators to convert to Christianity. His home was the site of clandestine Christian worship during the 1st century. A 2nd to 3rd-century Mithraic temple and 1st-century Roman buildings lie beneath the older basilica.

This article dives into the fascinating and lengthy history of the Basilica of San Clemente while discussing its three distinct levels in thorough detail.

An artist's reconstruction of the Basilica of San Clemente. Top: 12th-century basilica, Middle: 4th-century basilica, Bottom: Mithraeum and 1st-century buildings

An artist's reconstruction of the Basilica of San Clemente. Top: 12th-century basilica, Middle: 4th-century basilica, Bottom: Mithraeum and 1st-century buildings

The 12th-Century Basilica

A tour of the Basilica of San Clemente begins with the beautiful 12th-century building that stands above ground. The church was built in one campaign by Cardinal Anastasius and underwent renovations in the 18th century. It is currently one of Rome's most richly adorned churches.

Irish Dominicans have owned the Basilica of San Clemente and the surrounding building complex since 1667 when Pope Urban VIII provided them refuge. They still remain at this basilica and run a residence for priests who are studying and teaching in Rome. The Dominicans have even collaborated with Italian archaeology students and conducted excavations of the church during the 1950s.

The basilica's interior adornments are impressive and command a great amount of respect from those who appreciate art. Its ceiling features a stunning 18th-century fresco of the Glory of Saint Clement, as well as the Coat of Arms of Pope Clement XI. The stucco decor and wall frescoes were also added in the early 18th century.

The floor consists of colorful geometric tiles, and rows of Ionic columns grace the church's central nave. Its 12th-century schola cantorum (an enclosed area where the clergy and choir stood during service) contains decorative marble elements from the 4th-century basilica.

Interior view of the Basilica of San Clemente

Interior view of the Basilica of San Clemente

The Glory of Saint Clement, painted by Giuseppe Chiari

The Glory of Saint Clement, painted by Giuseppe Chiari

The apse within the Basilica of San Clemente is one of its most beautiful features. It boasts a vibrant 12th-century mosaic displaying the Triumph of the Cross theme. The mosaic contains both pagan and Christian motifs that were common in Late Antique and Early Christian mosaics. Some pagan images displayed in the apse mosaic are baskets of fruit, winged cherubs riding dolphins and playing instruments, and shepherds herding sheep and milking goats.

Early Christian church fathers teach and serve below the cherubs. Peacocks, geese, ducks, and deer are situated between the shepherds, and they are shown drinking from the four healing rivers of Paradise. Jesus hangs on a cross in the center. The cross is decorated with twelve doves which symbolize the apostles. Twelve sheep located beneath Jesus are shown walking from miniature depictions of Jerusalem and Bethlehem towards the Lamb of God. An inscription above the sheep states “We liken the Church of Christ to this vine that the law causes to wither and the Cross causes to bloom.” Saint Lawerence and Saint Paul stand at the left side of the dome, and Isaiah can be seen below them. Saint Clement (Pope Clement I) and Saint Peter stand at the right side of the dome, with Jeremiah shown below.

The apse mosaic is significant in that it argues the Western Christian Church is more powerful than the secular forces that attempted to control it. The Basilica of San Clemente and its mosaic both demonstrate that Rome's Christian population sought to publicly display the city's status as the center of Western Christianity. Although the political situation in Rome was quite precarious at the time, it did not prevent devoted Christians from risking their safety and achieving their goal.

Scroll to Continue

Read More from WanderWisdom

Apse mosaic, completed in the 1130s

Apse mosaic, completed in the 1130s

The basilica's captivating artwork is not its only point of interest. It also houses the shrine and crypt of Pope Clement I, which are located directly in front of the apse.

Pope Clement I was a 1st-century Christian who is believed to have been a disciple of Saints Peter and Paul. He acquired the status of pope around 88 A.D. and is considered to be the first Apostolic Father of the Church. However, Emperor Trajan banished him from Rome in 99 A.D., and the Liber Pontificalis states that he died in the Greek colony of Chersonesus while he was in exile.

According to tradition, Pope Clement I led a ministry among fellow prisoners in Chersonesus before he was executed around 100 A.D. The execution was purportedly carried out by tying him to an anchor and throwing him into the Black Sea. The Inkerman Cave Monastery in Crimea marks the supposed location of his burial.

In 868 A.D., Saint Cyril brought to Rome what seemed to be the bones of Pope Clement I, which he found buried with an anchor on dry land. The ciborium (canopy) over his shrine within the Basilica of San Clemente even possesses a small anchor symbol to mark his tomb and remind visitors of the manner in which he left this world.

The 12th-century basilica contains the shrine and tomb of Saint Cyril as well. His remains are located in a chapel on the right side of the nave, and a Madonna by Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato hangs near his crypt. Pope John Paul II sometimes prayed in the chapel for Poland and the other Slavic countries.

Saint Cyril is best known for collaborating with his brother, Saint Methodius, to create the Glagolitic alphabet, translate the Bible into the Slavic language, and bring Christianity to the Slavs. He and Saint Methodius are known as the "Apostles to the Slavs" due to these accomplishments.

Saint Cyril also helped spread the art and culture of the Byzantine Empire to central Europe through his various missions. In 869 A.D., he became a Basilian monk and died around two months later during a mission to obtain the support of Pope Hadrian II for his work in central Europe. Saint Cyril was initially buried in the 4th-century basilica, but his remains were relocated to the 12th-century basilica once its construction was complete.

The 4th-Century Basilica

Once you finish exploring the 12th-century basilica, you will descend a large stairway to the fascinating 4th-century basilica, which was discovered by Friar Joseph Mullooly in the 19th century.

Stairway to the 4th-century basilica

Stairway to the 4th-century basilica

This early basilica was the site of a few major events, including a council led by Pope Zosimus in 417 A.D., another council conducted by Pope Symmachus in 499 A.D., and the election of Cardinal Rainerius as Pope Paschal II in 1099 A.D.

Some researchers initially believed that the 4th-century church experienced a major fire during the Norman sack of Rome in 1084 A.D., but no evidence of fire damage has been found to support the hypothesis. It is possible that this basilica was filled in and replaced by the 12th-century basilica due to the original church's close association with the imperial opposition, Pope ("Antipope") Clement III/Wibert of Ravenna, between 1084 A.D. and 1100 A.D.

Left aisle

Left aisle

The old church has more to offer than just an interesting past. Its rooms and tunnel-like vaulted isles contain a treasure trove of artifacts and architectural relics worth seeing in person. Among these is a 2nd to 3rd-century pagan sarcophagus furnished with reliefs that depict the mythological story of Phaedra and Hippolytus. You will also see an altar in the central nave that marks the burial site of Friar Mullooly.

The area containing Saint Cyril's original tomb and altar is accessible to the public as well, and it is decorated with many commemorative plaques. Ancient frescoes and embedded fragments of reliefs still adorn the walls of this basilica, serving as additional research tools for historians.

Altar and tomb of Friar Joseph Mullooly

Altar and tomb of Friar Joseph Mullooly

Original altar and tomb of Saint Cyril

Original altar and tomb of Saint Cyril

The 4th-century basilica even contains the second largest collection of early Medieval wall paintings in Rome (rivaled only by Santa Maria Antiqua). Four of the basilica's largest frescoes were sponsored by a lay couple, Beno de Rapiza and Maria Macellaria, during the 11th century. These frescoes focus on the life, miracles, and translation of Saint Clement, as well as the life of Saint Alexius.

One of the compositions shows Beno and Maria standing on the church's façade with their two children, Altilia and Clemens, offering gifts to Saint Clement. Another composition shows Beno and Maria on a pillar near the left side of the nave, witnessing a miracle performed by Saint Clement.

Below that scene is a fresco depicting the pagan Sisinnius and his servants. It is one of the earliest known examples of the passage from Latin to vernacular Italian. According to the Bible, Sisinnius was the prefect of Rome and had married a woman named Teodora. Teodora, who was one of Saint Clement's disciples, chose to remain a virgin due to his advisement.

Sisinnius became quite angry with his wife's decision and followed her to a catacomb one day, where he and his servants found her attending a mass held by Saint Clement. Sisinnius then ordered the servants to tie up Saint Clement and take him away. However, a miracle occurred which caused Sisinnius and his servants to mistake a marble column for Saint Clement, and they foolishly attempted to arrest it instead of Saint Clement. The fresco shows Sisinnius' servants struggling to drag the column as Sisinnius shouts at them.

Fresco from the 4th-century basilica which depicts the life and miracles of Saint Clement

Fresco from the 4th-century basilica which depicts the life and miracles of Saint Clement

Many art historians believe that the old church's frescoes date back to the 1080s or 1090s and served as reform party propaganda (Beno de Rapiza and Maria Macellaria have long been regarded as partisans of Popes Gregory VII, Urban II, and Paschal II). However, if these paintings actually were created in the 1080s or 1090s, it could mean that Beno and Maria favored the Antipope Clement III instead. It is possible that the couple sought to honor him through frescoes regarding the early Christian pope of the same name.

The original basilica contains a number of other important frescoes, including a 6th to 10th-century Madonna and Christ child that had been painted over an earlier portrait. Much of the fresco's top layer quickly decayed from exposure to air after archeologists cleared the rubble within the church. This revealed a second layer depicting another Madonna. The other Madonna looks fairly different and is wearing a strange hat.

After close examination, art historians were able to conclude that it initially was a portrait of the Byzantine Empress Theodora and someone had re-painted her as a Madonna. Around 100 to 200 years later, someone else painted over that Madonna with another Madonna (the one which decayed from air exposure). The second Madonna presumably wore a more reasonable hat and was also more appropriate for the church.

6th to 10th-century fresco of Empress Theodora which was re-painted as a Madonna

6th to 10th-century fresco of Empress Theodora which was re-painted as a Madonna

The Mithraeum and 1st-Century Buildings

After your exploration of the 4th-century basilica, you will descend a stone stairway to the Mithraeum and 1st-century buildings, which were also discovered by Friar Mullooly. You will see remnants of a possibly republican era (509 B.C. to 27 B.C.) building that may have been destroyed in the Great Fire of 64 A.D. An industrial building was constructed or remodeled on the same site, likely during the late 1st century A.D. An insula (apartment block) was built nearby shortly afterward and was separated from the industrial building by a narrow alleyway.

Around 200 A.D., the Mithraeum was built in the insula's courtyard. It served as a sanctuary for the cult of Mithras. The main cult room (often referred to as the "speleum" or "cave") was discovered in 1867 but could not be studied until 1914 due to drainage issues.

The level beneath the 4th-century basilica is characterized by high vaulted structures that are frescoed with simple, colorful designs (which was a popular style in 1st-century Roman villas and public buildings). A maze of rooms and passageways extends from a large, complex building. The rooms' ancient brick floors are decorated with herringbone patterns, and the walls consist of thin bricks and tufa stone blocks with diamond patterns.

Another interesting feature of the third level is an exposed pipe section in one of the rooms that still have water flowing from it. The pipe is part of the Cloaca Maxima, which was the main sewer system of ancient Rome. It is one of the world's oldest sewer systems and is believed to date back to 600 B.C.

A room inside one of the 1st-century buildings

A room inside one of the 1st-century buildings

Perhaps the most important and fascinating site on the third level is the Mithraeum, where a cult of men worshipped Mithras (known as Mithra in Persia), the Persian god of the sun, justice, contract, and war. Mithraism had its central hub in Rome, and there were many Mithraeums spread throughout the city. One of these subterranean temples also exits beneath the Baths of Caracalla, and there are surely many more to be discovered. However, the Mithraeum beneath the Basilica of San Clemente is currently one of the best-preserved in the world.

The Mithraeum was the scene of a savage and grisly spectacle. Bulls chosen for sacrifice would be killed directly above an initiate as they stood on a platform. The bull's throat was sliced open and its blood would spill down onto the initiate through the grating above. Such a sacrifice was meant to symbolize life through death, and a feast would be held after the slaughter to celebrate the initiate's acceptance into the cult. Those who worshipped Mithras were exclusively male and mostly soldiers. They embraced a rigid code of obedience, practicing their religion in secrecy from the general public. By the 4th century A.D., Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire and soon crushed the cult.

The Mithraeum beneath the basilica boasts a wealth of Mithraic imagery, including various depictions of Mithras being born from a rock, sacrificing a bull, and enjoying a feast. Its main room contains stone benches and a marble altar in the shape of a sarcophagus. The altar's front face displays the main cult relief of the tauroctony (imagery that depicts Mithras slaying a bull), while its left and right faces show the torchbearers Cautes and Cautopates. A dedicatory inscription identifies this monument's donor as Cnaeus Arrius Claudianus.

Other monuments that have been discovered in the ancient temple include a bust of Sol (Roman god of the sun), which is located in a niche near the Mithraeum's entrance, and a figure of Mithras petra genetrix ("Mithras born of the rock"). Statue fragments of Cautes and Cautopates have also been found. One chamber adjoining the temple's main room contains two brick enclosures, and one of these enclosures served as a ritual refuse pit for remnants of the cult meal. The only artifact on display in the Mithraeum that is not associated with the cult is a statue of Saint Peter. The statue likely does not date back to the 2nd or 3rd century A.D., but it is an intriguing monument nonetheless.

Main room and altar inside the Mithraeum

Main room and altar inside the Mithraeum

Tips and Rules for Touring the Basilica of San Clemente

  • Be sure to dress modestly. Tank tops, low-cut blouses, and shorts or skirts above the knee should not be worn inside the church.
  • Wear comfortable shoes. Although you will be walking on an even surface in most areas, it is best not to wear high heels or open-toe shoes due to the flights of stairs you will be using, as well as the rough stone and brick floors you will encounter in some places on the lower levels.
  • Food and drinks must be disposed of before you enter the church.
  • Smoking is prohibited.
  • Large, bulky objects are not permitted inside the church (luggage, heavy backpacks, etc.)
  • Cell phones must be turned off.
  • Photography and filming are not permitted inside the basilica or its lower levels.
  • The two subterranean levels are not wheelchair accessible.
  • The Basilica of San Clemente is only an 8-minute walk from the Colosseo metro station and a 10-minute walk from the Manzoni metro station. If you are planning to visit the Colosseum and/or Roman Forum the same day, it is best to just walk to the church from those sites rather than pay for a taxi (please see the map below; the church is a short walk from the Colosseum and Forum).

Sources

  • Ex Urbe
    History, Philosophy, Books, Food, and Fandom
  • Basilica di San Clemente - Basilica in Rome
    Basilica of Saint Clement is an early Christian church, which has been reconstructed in various periods, dedicated to Pope Clement I.
  • Khan Academy | Free Online Courses, Lessons & Practice
    Learn for free about math, art, computer programming, economics, physics, chemistry, biology, medicine, finance, history, and more. Khan Academy is a nonprofit with the mission of providing a free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Lisa Pizzoferrato

Related Articles