Arches and pendentives, the triangular forms between the great arches, transfer the weight of the dome to the piers that support it. The art in these transitional sections expresses the many ways that the wisdom of God is revealed to us. As we stand on the floor and look up, the hierarchies unfold: saints, evangelists, apostles, prophets, angels, Mary, Clement, and Christ.
Christ Enthroned in Glory
The arrangement of the images of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Saint Clement, patron of this church, standing near the enthroned Christ on the main arch is called “prayer of intercession” in Byzantine art. The lower sections on either side depict palm trees and cities, echoing the mosaics in the main arch of San Clemente in Rome.
Christ the King
At the center of the main arch, Christ is depicted as a Byzantine Emporer. Seated upon a throne and garbed in royal robes, Christ holds the scepter and terrestrial sphere in his hands. His halo bears a cross with the Byzantine abbreviation in Greek letters for “he who is,” the name revealed by God to Moses (Exodus 3:14).
Beneath is a verse adapted from Psalm 29: “Bless all people O God with peace.” This text from the liturgy of the Baptism of the Lord adorns the arch above the baptistery.
Mary, Mother of God
Mary stands in a posture of prayer, with her hands raised. Above her is the title Beatissima Virgo Maria Mater Dei: Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God. Mary is clothed in the traditional blue robe. The stars on her head and shoulders are symbols of her virginity.
Saint Clement of Rome
Clement stands offering to Christ a model of this church and his prayers for this community. Clement is an important witness to life in the early church; some believe that he is the Clement mentioned by Paul in his Letter to the Philippians (4:3).
Clement is pictured holding a book inscribed “Ad Corinthios” (To the Corinthians). As bishop of Rome, Clement wrote a pastoral letter between 95 and 98 to the Christian community in Corinth, Greece, in which he reproves some members for rebellious conduct and urges order and submission to authority. This letter was highly regarded by ancient Christian writers and some considered it worthy of inclusion in the New Testament.
An anachronism in the painting is the triple papal crown, or tiara, lying at Christ's feet. Such a crown was not worn by popes until 1315 and was eliminated after the Second Vatican Council.
Cities and Palm Trees
On the lower sections of the arch, cityscapes may represent Bethlehem and Jerusalem.
Bethlehem is the city of Christ’s birth and symbol of the Jewish heritage of Jesus and all Christians. Jerusalem is the city of the death and resurrection of Christ and the place of the descent of the Holy Spirit and the beginnings of the church. The earthly Jerusalem became identified with the heavenly Jerusalem that comes down from heaven (Revelation 21:2). Followers of Christ are already citizens of the heavenly city.
Two Miracles of Saint Clement
The east and west arches illustrate two miracles described in the “Acts of Saint Clement.” The artist has created unique depictions of these events modeled after previous artistic renditions.
Miracle in the Quarries
In the east arch, we find a story from the "Acts." The emperor Trajan had banished Clement to the quarries, where he found over two thousand Christians condemned to hard labor and tormented by thirst, since the nearest drinking water was miles away. Clement prayed that he might be shown a spring nearby. When he saw a lamb on a hill he recognized it as an answer to his prayer. Clement struck the rock and water flowed, refreshing the suffering people.
Miracle under the Sea
In the west arch, we find a different story. In about the year 101, a Roman governor condemned Clement to death. He was taken aboard the governor’s ship and thrown overboard with an anchor tied around his neck. In answer to the prayers of Clement's followers, the sea rolled back to reveal a small shrine and Clement's tomb.
Every year, according to The Golden Legend, on the anniversary of Clement's death, Christians processed to the seaside and the water would recede to allow the faithful to pray at the shrine. One year, a boy was inadvertently left behind in the shrine. No one realized he was missing until everyone else had reached the shore and the water had covered up the shrine; he was given up for lost. But when the water receded again the next year, the boy was found safe in the shrine, sleeping at the foot of the altar. He was returned to his mother and the rejoicing townspeople.
In the center of the arch the artist created a papal crest for Clement with symbols referring to his life and death: the tiara and crossed keys for his office as pope, and the anchor. An anchor was the instrument of Clement’s martyrdom, but it is also a symbol of Christian hope.
The Throne of the Trinity
On the south arch, we find a representation of the Trinity in glory surrounded by twelve saints. The empty throne is a Byzantine symbol for the presence of the Divine, first depicted in Saint Mary Major in Rome in the fifth century. In Revelation 4 the empty throne is a symbol of the last judgment and is often found on an arch or over the door of Byzantine churches.
Adoring angels on either side of the heavenly throne hold smoking thuribles. “The smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel” (Revelation 8:4).
Upon the throne of the Trinity are symbols representing each Person: a dove for the Holy Spirit; a book for Christ, the Word of God; and a crown covered with a veil for the Father.
Twelve saints kneel in the traditional posture of those attending God in the heavenly court. Through their writings and evangelization, through the formation of religious orders and their personal prayer, these missionary saints brought the revelation of the mystery of the Trinity to the peoples of the world.
- Patrick: Bishop, evangelizer of Ireland
- Alphonsus Ligouri: Bishop, founder of the Redemptorists and doctor of the church.
- Anselm: Bishop of Canterbury, doctor of the church
- Gregory VII: Pope and reformer
- Bonaventure: Regarded as second founder of the Order of Friars Minor (Franciscans)
- Thomas Aquinas: Dominican priest, doctor of the church
- Francis of Assisi: Founder of the Order of Friars Minor (Franciscans)
- Dominic Guzman: Founder of the Order of Preachers (Dominicans)
- Ignatius of Loyola: Founder of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits)
- Benedict of Nursia: Abbot, founder of western monastic life
- Bernard of Clairvaux: Abbot, doctor of the church, founder of Cistercian Order
- Boniface of Mainz: Archbishop, evangelizer of Germany
Barrel Vault: Beneath the Mantle of Mary
Under the barrel vault of the nave, the community is overshadowed by the ancient prayer to the Blessed Virgin known as the Litany of Loreto. The design in the barrel vault comprises thirty-five large squares, twenty of which are decorated with an interlocking scroll and floral ornament and the other fifteen with symbols and titles of the Blessed Virgin Mary taken from the Litany of Loreto. The Latin titles of Mary encircling the symbols are followed by the phrase ora pro nobis, pray for us.