Layers of history beneath the tree of life

Yesterday I visited the San Clemente church in Laterano, Rome. In church visiting terms there is old – and then there’s very old. As you  arrive you walk through the cloisters to the twelfth century church which had something of an eighteenth century makeover with a new facade and nave ceiling, as well as a renaissance chapel with fifteenth century frescoes. For me, the glory of the church is the twelfth century mosaic of the triumph of the cross. Filling the apse, it provides a majestic back cloth for the altar and medieval choir stalls.

San Clemente, Rome

But this multilayered history is nothing compared to what lies below. Beneath the medieval church is another church – a fourth century basilica first built soon after Christians ceased to be a persecuted  and so were able to construct public buildings and worship in them openly. It is dark because, there are of course, no windows now, for the ground level has risen in the intervening centuries. The basilica was adapted to become the foundation and crypt of the ‘new’ church, but there is a real sense of what kind of building these early Christians worshipped in. So still we build (or stand) on the shoulders of those who go before us who hand on the faith  a great cloud of witnesses.

But there’s more, because beneath the fourth century church there is a second century temple devoted to the worship of Mithras. Here, amidst fancy brickwork constructed not long after the later books of the New Testament were written, the visitor can imagine the festal meals of that Persian cult.

Here the relationship to a previous age is more ambivalent. Was the basilica built here because it was seen as a sacred site and so a place of worship, however pagan? Is this an example of inculturation, with all the questions that such apparent syncretism can bring? Or is this an example of triumphant and confident church planting – building on a pagan site because no name is as strong as the name of Jesus? Either way, there are questions which can have an edge to them.

The cross: the tree of life

Yet, when I climbed the steps back into the medieval church I was again silenced by the eloquent  beauty of the mosaics. The cross is presented as the tree of life – a place of death which brings life ton the world – not just a religious kind of life – but life for all creation – for growing plants and fertile earth,, for thirsty deer and singing birds, for broken humanity – life for all the world. For Christ plays in ten thousand places…

Madonna and Child

Thursday 19th May

Arrived in Rome. I have settled into the Venerable English College where the hospitality has been warm and gracious. From my window I can see the clock tower –  and hear it every quarter of an hour – but not, thankfully, at night.

Friday 20th May

Today I crossed the Tiber into Trastevere and visited the church of Santa Maria. It was fairly early and the church was quiet. The mosaics were stunning but I was more affected by the play of light and shadow outside in the portico. I recrossed the Tiber – was distracted by some ancient columns behind the Theatre of  Marcellus (which I drew) and visited the Gesu Jesuit church – but the Baroque triumphalism left me cold. Strangely, I was also unmoved by the Pantheon, apart from technical wizardry of that concrete dome. The real find was the basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minerva which contains the tombs of the great mystic, Catherine of Sienna, and the great artist Fra Angelica.

There was a great stillness in the side chapel which contained an image of the Madonna and child – once thought to be by Fra Angelica but now attributed to his pupil Benozza Gozzoli. Tempera painted on silk and then mounted on board, the painting is exquisite but, far more, it invites reflection and prayer. I photographed it (hand held in poor light) and then simply sat and looked.

Mary, in blue, has a star on her shoulder, the traditional prompt that she is the queen of heaven. Yet there is a reversal here: while Mary is portrayed as the queen of heaven, Jesus who has come from heaven is holding a globe – the reason for his descent from glory. He is presented as a miniature adult as a sign that his coming is for the saving of this world. On the globe are marked Asia, Europe and Africa – all the known world when this was painted over forty years before Columbus sailed across the Atlantic. Salvation is world embracing – speaking of which – Mary is not actually holding Jesus who is standing of a balcony. Yet it is as though she is cradling him with reverence, cradling yet not holding him, protecting him yet not touching him. And over them both the Holy Spirit hovers – because incarnation (then and now) is through the work of the Spirit. God with us – God in us – God through us – the Spirit of creation, the Spirit of new birth, the Spirit of Christ. And here is the invitation for us to cradle with reverence Emmanuel, Christ in you the hope of glory. No wonder its called Madonna and Child giving Blessings…