Friday, December 16, 2011
by Gregory DiPippo
Can you explain the function of the three ambos or pulpits in the choir of this church? As with our previous quizzes, please give your answer in the comments, and whatever detail you can about the context. (To make this more interesting, please make your answer in the combox before reading the other comments.) Regular readers of NLM will of course recognize it as one of Rome's most beautiful and interesting churches, San Clemente. If you can't see them clearly, use the right-click to open the picture with a larger view.
The ambo on the left, with the Paschal candlestick next to it, is for the singing of the Gospel, facing north, symbolically preaching the Gospel towards the unconverted; it was also used for the Exsultet at the Easter Vigil. The higher of the two ambos on the right is for the Epistle of the Mass, sung facing the altar to show that all of Scripture is oriented to Christ. The lower one, facing away from the altar, is for the leader of the choir. Congratulations to all those who gave the correct answer. The award for Most Creative Wildly Incorrect Answer goes to Don Fraser, who guessed that the arrangement had something to do with the preaching of the Dominican friars; San Clemente was built over a century before the venerable Order of Preachers was founded. Best Humorous Answer goes to Paul's invention of the Sub-sub-deacon; (not a lot of competition in this category.)
San Clemente is of course famous not only as one of the most beautiful churches in Rome, but also for the extensive archeological remains on two levels underneath it, discovered by the Dominican Fr. Joseph Mullooly in the 1857. The lower level consists of two Roman buildings, one of the later first century A.D., and another of the mid-second; these were turned into the foundations of the original church of Saint Clement in the early years of the Peace of Constantine. In 1084, the church was sacked and burnt by the troops of the Duke of Apulia, Robert Guiscard; the damage was so severe that the decision was made to abandon the seven-century old structure, and convert it into the foundations of a new church. Before this was done, however, the entire area of the sanctuary and choir was dismantled and removed from the ruins, so that it could be re-used in the new building. The large marble balustrade which defines the choir, and the three ambos, therefore, are all pieces of the ancient church, recycled for use in the new basilica in about 1100. Inside the choir, one can see the monogram of Pope John II (533-35) on several sections of the balustrade; these originally faced outwards, but with the rebuilding of the church, they were turned around. The whole area was then detailed with the very typically Roman geometric mosaics in the style known as Cosmatesque; the same style of decoration was used throughout the floor as well. The altar of the older church was also re-used in the new one, but as we see it today, it is the result of a major 19th century restoration. (My thanks to Dr. Esther Scoditti, a specialist in medieval church architecture and furnishings, for confirming these details.)