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The Ancient Basilica of St Clement

Gregory DiPippo

Ten days ago, when the Lenten station was at the basilica of Ss John and Paul on the Caelian hill, we saw some of the rooms of the Roman houses which were discovered underneath the church in 1887. I imagine that the church’s rector who made that discovery must have been inspired by the events that took place thirty years earlier less than half a mile away at the basilica of St Clement, where the station is today.

St Clement was the third Pope after St Peter, and the author of one of the very first Christian writings after the New Testament. A church was dedicated to him on the site of the current basilica already in the 4th century, but was badly damaged by a fire at the end of the 11th century, and magnificently rebuilt in the early decades of the 12th. In the 1620s, Pope Urban VIII turned the basilica over to the Irish province of the Dominican Order, which still runs it to this day.

In the 1840s, the Dominican prior, Fr Joseph Mullooly, was doing research on the basilica and its history, and became convinced that the medieval structure which he knew could not be the same one referenced in several ancient documents. Knowing that many buildings in Rome have older version of themselves beneath them, he began to dig underneath St Clement in search of the ruins of an earlier church. Not only did he find that there were indeed extensive remains of the 4th century-church under the medieval one; he also found two buildings underneath that, of uncertain date and function. Within one of these, he discovered a shrine of the god Mithras, a Persian divinity about whom not very much is known, but who was particularly popular with Roman soldiers in the 1st – 4th centuries.

Shortly before the lower basilica was destroyed, a couple named Benno and Maria had commissioned extensive new frescoes for the church. Since these were relatively new at the time of the fire, they are in an unusually good state of preservation for their era. As an example, this image shows Saints Cyril and Methodius bringing to Rome the relics of St. Clement which they had to discovered during their missionary activities in modern Ukraine.

In a recent Vocabula Mira post, we discussed terms the collecta and statio, in reference to the liturgical customs of the city of Rome. When a procession was held before a Lenten station, it departed from another nearby church which was called the collecta, but this custom fell into disuse a long time ago, and has been only very partially in modern times. The collecta for today’s station at St Clement was originally at the basilica of Ss Cosmas and Damian, on the modern via dei Fori Imperiali; to hold such a process today would require holding up traffic on one of the most crowded streets in the city, and that at rush hour. Nowadays, therefore, the rediscovered lower basilica serves as the collecta, and a procession is held in it which then ascends to the upper basilica for the Mass. Here are some pictures of the ceremony taken in 2016 and 2019, courtesy of the photographer, Agnese Bazzuchi, and the website New Liturgical Movement.

On the left of this image can be seen some of the fresco work which survives in the 4th-century basilica.

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