Walking in to the eighteenth century restored basilica di San Clemente, we find a typical medieval church, central nave and two side aisles divided by marble and granite columns, a cosmetesque pavement, and a white marble choir enclosure. This is the new basilica built by Pope Paschal II in 1108, replicating the fourth-century structure (destroyed by fire) below. However all this seems to melt away when you catch a glimpse of the overwhelming basilica’s apsidal mosaic.First you are struck by the brilliant gold background and jewel-like colors, and then your eye moves to the center of the mosaic to the graceful tree-of-life crucifixion scene set in bright blue and green tones. Following the curling acanthus leaves of the tree we travel to the bottom of the mosaic where deer, peacock, and geese cavort below, while curling vines, flowers, and charming scenes from everyday medieval life unfurl against the sparkling background.
Possibly most amazingly the central tree-of-life branches wind themselves through the whole mid-section of the mural symmetrically and curl around significant and important relics of the church. Centrally located is the “triumph of the cross” depicting Jesus’ crucifixion and he is joined on the cross with twelve doves, and on either side of the cross are Mary and John. At the top of the arch we have the hand of god reaching down from the heavens to place a crown on Jesus’ head.At the base we have the twelve lambs moving toward the lamb of Christ from bethleem (Bethlehem) and hiervasalem (Jerusalem), and above that gold lettering against a stark blue background dedicating the mosaic for the redemption of the popes soul. Surrounding the whole arch we see the heavens represented above with animals representing Mark, Luke and John in addition to the angel representing Matthew; as well as saints below and along the sides of the arch including St. Clemente himself.
Finally at the very top we have Jesus with a rainbow crown looking down over the whole mosaic and church.As stated above San Clemente was an eighteenth century restored basilica. It is actually a four story church with each new layer built on top of the previous buildings over the centuries. It was built by Pope Paschal II in 1108, replicating the fourth-century structure.
The mural was restored along with the church in the eighteenth century. The important historical verity of the mural was that it showed, quite typically for the time period, simple representations of the stories of Christianity.San Clemente’s mosaic beautifully represents the crucifixion of Jesus and tells the story of the basis of that religion. Since mosaics tell stories through pictures, this allowed the illiterate masses to understand the fundamental ideas that the religion was presenting. This was a pivotal moment in art history when art started to become not only aesthetic and for aristocrats, but became very useful to the masses as a tool for education and information about the world in which they lived.
The importance of San Clemente I believe is the sheer brilliance of the craftsmanship.When in Rome you see so many amazing ancient masterpieces it becomes difficult to be truly impressed with them all and few have the ability to actually take your breath away. San Clemente is one such masterpiece of ancient Rome. The magnitude and excellent preservation make you feel like your stepping back in time and since it depicts the crucifixion in such a simple and pure way you can’t help but admire the religion that it shines so brightly for. The use of simple pictures and gestures by the central figures also allows you to understand the fundamental ideas of that religion.
Thus that the main reason they built mosaic in ancient times was to allow the followers of a religion to actually see the stories they based their faith on in first person. And by doing so in such simple terms (pictorial representation) the laymen was able to understand the past sacrifices made by people of the same faith. I find it very interesting that this process still works as well in today’s day and age, almost nine hundred years later. The basilica is important because it reminds people that a while a masterpiece can inspire some it can also fill others with faith and hope.