Yesterday, my class made its first site visit of the semester. We went to the Basilica of San Clemente, which some readers might remember from my posting last semester.
We also had an added advantage this time around, as Fr. Terence Crotty, O.P., a member of the Irish Dominican community at San Clemente, volunteered to show us around the place. San Clemente is a near-perfect start to my class, because it allows me to introduce my students to many of the key ideas that we will be considering all semester.
First, it really shows off the archeological layers of Rome. The upper church (the "current" basilica) dates to the 12th century, but it was built on top of a (now excavated and accessible) 4th century church. That layer, in turn, was built above 1st century buildings. So, students can see what archeologists know: the deeper you dig, the further back in time you go.
Second, San Clemente carries the stories (and the remains and/or artwork) of many saints and martyrs, and so displays the living tradition over time. San Clemente lays claim to housing the remains not only of its namesake, St. Clement, but also those of St. Ignatius of Antioch (click that link just to check out the great icon of the saint!) and St. Cyril. Also, a lesser known saint, Servulus (d. 590), a paralytic beggar who was often in the courtyard of San Clemente, was buried here and celebrated in some of the art here. (Unfortunately, his fresco was covered up by scaffolding in place for some restoration.) Also, there is a lovely chapel dedicated to St. Catherine of Alexandria, though (if legend can be believed) her remains are near Mt. Sinai, not in Rome.
Third, can anyone say enough about San Clemente's wonderful Tree of Life mosaic? Unfortunately, they request that no photos be taken inside, so take a look here for some photos (and reflections). This incredible mosaic features Christ at the center on the Cross, but two things are happening at the foot of the cross. First, the four rivers of paradise flow from it. Second, a tree grows from its base. The tree's branches grow in scroll-like vines that fill the whole apse. The whole scene teems with life. The suffering and death of Christ on the Cross brings life to all the world. A very appropriate image to begin our study of the New Testament in the Eternal City.
Fourth, (and this was brand new to me--thanks, Fr. Crotty!) we got to see the 6th century baptistry that is in an area that is usually sealed off. These ancient baptistries are more than big enough for an adult to wade in and be dunked in a full immersion baptism. Those of us who are used to baptisms being about a little sprinkle-sprinkle-sprinkle on a cute baby are challenged to picture something entirely different. Baptism is about dying to one's old self, one's old allegiances, the claims that worldly powers had, and rising to a new life in Christ. Study of the New Testament and these early days of the Church really demand that the seriousness of such a commitment be considered. Baptism was not for the feint of heart; baptism was not something you did because everyone was doing it; it was something you did if and only if the truth of the Gospel compelled you. That is something I intend to help my students consider again and again as the semester progresses.
So, we're off to a great start!