Understanding the Liturgical Ordering of San Clemente and Santa Maria in Cosmedin

Remnants of the catacomb church of Ss. Nereus and Achilleus in the Catacombs of Domitilla

Sometimes when people see certain basilicas in Rome, basilicas such as San Clemente, Santa Maria in Cosmedin, or the ancient catacomb basilica of Ss. Nereus and Achilleus (see above), they are rather mystified by the liturgical orderings they see before them. To many a Catholic they might seem strange and foreign, rather like what one might feel when walking into a Byzantine church for the first time. This experience is due, in great part, to the fact that the liturgical ordering of Latin rite churches changed rather notably after the time of Trent and the counter-reformation.  After Trent, and in response to the Protestant reformation, there was a desire to give greater visibility to the ceremonies, altar and tabernacle and, as a result, many a chancel screen would be removed, tabernacles would placed prominently and centrally upon the altars (rather than being located in aumbries and the like), ultimately bringing us to the arrangement that many would today consider "traditional" (though in reality it is merely one particular manifestation of the tradition and a late-bloomer at that). 

When we look at the remains of the catacomb church of Ss. Nereus and Achilleus, or more contemporaneously, at the basilicas of San Clemente and Santa Maria in Cosmedin, one can fairly ask: "what am I seeing here and why?"  Let's deal first with the 'what' before we get to the 'why.' 

What we see in churches such as these are a freestanding altar covered by a ciborium, behind it, a ring of seating known as a synthronon where clerics would sit; a balustrade/railing separates the presbyterium from the nave and attached to and protruding out from it is yet another low balustrade that encloses a chancel/schola cantorum (one that juts out into the nave -- which feels odd to modern Catholic sensibilities). Incorporated within that are the monumental, elevated ambo and lectern from which the liturgical readings would be sung.

You can see echoes of these various elements in the remains of the catacomb basilica of Ss.Nereus and Achilleus, but to better see them, let's take a look at San Clemente and Santa Maria in Cosmedin.


The basilica of San Clemente seen from above, giving a good overall view from the synthronon in the apse all the way to the end of the chancel within the nave.

A good perspective of the walled chancel with its attached ambo and lectern. Behind, you can see the balustrade that separates off the altar and its ciborium. 

Altar and synthronon

The small, single tiered synthronon (semi-circular apsidal seating) located directly behind the altar


The chancel

Altar and ciborium with synthronon visible behind


If those then are the 'what' of these arrangements, we now turn to the 'why.' 

To understand this arrangement one has to understand how these basilicas were ceremonially used historically speaking and I can think of no better place to turn than Richard Krautheimer, author and noted expert of Christian archeology of both the Latin West and Byzantine East.  Specifically I would turn to his work, Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture, where he comments accordingly:
The nave [in the Byzantine East], then, was the focus of the entire [church] design, and this was in keeping with the demands of the liturgy of Constantinople which assigned nave and chancel to the clergy, aisles and galleries to the congregation. 
This liturgical division differs from that demanded by the ritual of the Latin West. There (except for North Africa), the clergy, by the time of Constantine, had withdrawn to the apse and the space around the altar; the aisles and in large part the nave as well - certainly since the middle of the fifth century - were given over to the congregation. In the Greek East, on the other hand, by the fifth century the nave belonged exclusively to the clergy. The liturgical furniture ... linked to the increasingly hieratic celebration of the Mass, is easily visualized from churches contemporary to it in northern Greece: a semicircular stepped clergy bench (synthronon) rising along the curved wall of the apse; a short chancel (bema) projecting into the nave to shelter the altar, curtained off and enclosed by parapets; high stylobates, parapets, and curtains between the columns to segregate the nave; and finally, far forward in the nave, the pulpit (ambo), linked to the chancel by a raised pathway (solea). The nave thus became a westward elongation of the sanctuary: not quite as sacred as the chancel proper, where on the altar Christ revealed himself in the flesh, yet sacred enough as the place where Christ revealed himself in the word read and preached from the pulpit.... 
With these historical insights then, one can gain a better sense of the liturgical roots of the types of architectural arrangements we see in places like San Clemente and Santa Maria in Cosmedin. Why does the chancel protrude out into the nave like this? Well, as Krautheimer notes, originally the nave, not just the sanctuary, was the domain of the clergy. As time progressed, this started to change and greater portions of the nave began to become the domain of the laity, but a remnant of the earlier liturgical ordering that saw the nave as the domain of the clergy could still to be found in these protruding, walled chancels that now separated the clerics portion of the nave from the laity's.

To envisage how these might have been appeared when in liturgical use, I've dug up a few photos from San Clemente that show the throne and synthronon in use, as well as the chancel and ambo:

Photo: Copyright 2015, Basilica di San Clemente, Rome

Of course, it was liturgical arrangements such as these that at least some of the twentieth century liturgical movement sought to revive, as for example in this ad hoc, temporary arrangement that we can see used here during the mid twentieth century: 

While that ideal was noble and certainly had potential, in practice such revivals were frequently pursued in a rather haphazard, piecemeal, "one size fits all" fashion that left many a sanctuary bereft of either the dignity of this historical arrangement or the post-Tridentine one. What's more, there was also a seeming lack of sensitivity to the depth of attachment and piety that had developed and grown around the counter-reformation liturgical arrangements, specifically its prominent, central tabernacles. 

In the end we seemed to get the best of neither world, but a more historically and pastorally sensitive approach might have taken a "best of both worlds approach" seeking to preserve the primary, core elements of this earlier liturgical ordering -- the monumental ambo, freestanding altar and ciborium -- without sacrificing the prominent and central tabernacle that had come out of  the counter-reformation age and which had formed Catholic piety for nearly half a millennium by point.   Such potentials still exist today provided that we learn from the mistakes of the recent past and find dignified ways to counter-balance them. 

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