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…

Angelic Curiosity

On Saturday I visited the Sistine Chapel – a long-awaited visit to see art I had studied in books. Michelangelo’s ceiling somehow left we strangely unmoved – perhaps it’s just too far away. I need to be up on the scaffolding with my nose a few feet from the plaster – I always thought you had a better view on the TV than you did at the cricket match – perhaps the ceiling is the same….

Yet, as I cricked my neck to follow the story of creation, fall and redemption I noticed a detail which had passed me by before. My eyes had always been drawn by the iconic touching of finger tips, as God gives life to Adam. But what struck me as I looked again was the group of cheeky cherubs trying to strain around God in order to see what he was up to now.

Here are the angels wanting to know more, straining to see, trying to understand, what the human project was about. Perhaps the child-like cherub is meant to suggest a naive innocence amongst the angelic host. Perhaps, but it took my mind to Psalm 8:

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,

the moon and the stars that you have established;

what are human beings that you are mindful of them,

mortals that you care for them?

Yet you have made a little lower than the angels

and crowned them with glory and honour…

O Lord, our Sovereign,

how majestic is your name in all the earth!