The church of San Clemente in Rome, near the Colosseum, impresses with an ornate chancel and valuable marble decorations in the floor of the upper church. In the hidden lower church, more ancient frescoes can be discovered.
Many buildings of ancient Rome were destroyed by wars or buried by earthquakes in the course of two millennia, and today they slumber invisibly under the foundations of the buildings of the new Rome. One such underground church is located in Rome about a 10-minute walk east of the Colosseum.
The church of San Clemente is a remarkable sight because of its horizontal division into a lower church and an upper church. It is on the list of our top 10 sights of Rome and is one of our 10 most beautiful churches in Europe.
The church of San Clemente used to be a residential building, under which there was a sanctuary of the cult of Mithras in the 2nd century AD. In 385, the church of St. Clement, the third bishop of Rome after Peter, was built above it, which can still be visited today as the so-called upper church.
Imposing interior of the San Clemente
Especially impressive is the altar room, which is decorated with ornate mosaics and wall paintings. In the center, the twelve apostles are depicted as sheep grouped around the Lamb of God. The imposing vault above the altar represents the heavens and the universe. The tree of life stretches its entwined tendrils to below the dome, among which are also pagan figures, such as a dolphin.
The ceiling of the upper church of San Clemente is supported by ancient columns, in the marble floor, in the choir screens and in the paschal chandelier are embedded precious cosmata works. The Italian painter Masolino left to posterity some splendid Renaissance frescoes from 1431 at the beginning of the left aisle.
Descent into the lower church of San Clemente
While the entrance to the upper church is free of charge, a fee of a few euros is required to enter the ancient lower church from the 4th century. Descending the 30 or so steps into the lower church, one is greeted by damp, musty air.
In addition to winding dark corridors, there are wonderful centuries-old frescoes on the weathered stone walls. Partly faded but still recognizable, they depict religious scenes such as the wedding of Canaan, the resurrection of Christ or the mother Mary.
An impressive relief also remains from the cult of Mithras. In the image, the god-like Mithras cuts the throat of the primordial bull, while dog and snake lick up its blood and a scorpion releases from the testicles of the bull the seed for the creation of the world.
The same scene is also depicted by a statue in the Vatican Museum. However, with sparse lighting at the underground place of origin of its creation almost 2,000 years ago, the depiction is much more impressive to look at.