The present-day Basilica of San Clemente al Laterano in Rome is a twelfth-century space that stands directly above a fourth-century, titular church, which itself stands above an ancient Roman Mithraic temple.

by Rachel Hiser Remmes

The present-day Basilica of San Clemente al Laterano in Rome is a twelfth-century space that stands directly above a fourth-century, titular church, which itself stands above an ancient Roman Mithraic temple. Of the artworks that fill the contemporary building, the twelfth-century apse mosaic is unique among extant medieval, Roman apse mosaics. Centered around an image of Christ on the Cross, framed by Mary and St. John, a paradisiacal environment fills the apse. Verdant acanthus leaves order the space populated by animals, farmers, monks, and rulers, who are arranged without any attention to status or hierarchy, and at the base of the cross two deer drink from the rivers of Paradise.

The vivacious apse program deviates, however, from the fourth-century space below it. This early Christian church underwent several renovations between the fourth and eleventh centuries. In addition to structural supports, frescoes from separate eras and renovation programs were added, working together to unify the space. The last renovation, which occurred at the end of the eleventh century, added four large fresco murals to the church. Three of the four describe the life of St. Clement. The fourth details a scene from the life of St. Alexis, which is found in the nave alongside The Mass of St. Clement, which begins the narration of St. Clement’s Vita. The cycle, then, continues in the atrium with The Miracle of St. Clement and The Translation of St. Clement, with each mural flanking the entrance to the nave.


Crucifixion, Detail, San Clemente Apse, Mosaic, 1100-1128.

Apse, San Clemente, Mosaic, 1100-1128.

Deer drinking from the rivers of Paradise, Detail, San Clemente Apse, Mosaic, 1100-1128.

Peacock, Detail, San Clemente Apse, Mosaic, 1100-1128.

Scribe, Detail, San Clemente Apse, Mosaic, 1100-1128.

The Mass of St. Clement, Lower Church, fresco 1084-1115.

Scene from the Life of St. Alexis, Lower Church, fresco 1084-1115.

The Translation of St. Clement, Lower Church, fresco 1084-1115.

The Miracle of St. Clement, Lower Church, fresco 1084-1115.

Mithraeum, early 3rd cent. C.E.

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