MAKING A SAINT OUT OF ALMOST NOTHING

Here is a 17th century Russian icon.  It depicts:

СВЯТЫЙ СВЯЩЕННОМУЧЕНИК КЛИМЕНТ ПАПА РИМСКИЙ
SVYATUIY SVYASHCHENNOMUCHENIK KLIMENT, PAPA RIMSKIY
“Holy Priest-martyr Clement, Pope of Rome”

(Perm State Art Gallery)

A priest-martyr is also often termed a “hieromartyr” — which means basically the same thing.

The posture used in this icon — a saint bending to one side, with the face near but not entirely in profile — was popular in the 17th century.  The icon depicts Clement in a landscape with miniature background scenes from his traditional life, instead of placing them in separate border cells as is common in many other icons.

Though it is rather difficult to see in the photo, Clement holds the fingers of his right hand in the position favored by the Old Believers, who split from the State Orthodox Church in the middle of the 1600s (or perhaps it is more accurate to say the State Church split from the Old Believers).   Clement looks up at an angle toward the image of the New Testament Trinity on the left.

Now you may wonder what a Roman Pope is doing in a Russian Orthodox icon, given the historical antipathy of Russian Orthodoxy toward Roman Catholicism.  Well, the answer is that at the time when Clement is said to have lived — the first century c.e. — the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches had not yet separated.  That is why Eastern Orthodoxy may recognize some Catholic saints prior to the Great Schism of 1054, but not after.

Given that almost no reliable evidence concerning Kliment/Clement is known, there was wide space left for hagiographic embroidery of his life and deeds.

Clement was supposedly born into a noble and wealthy family.  He lost touch with his mother and two brothers — Faustinus and Faustinian — who were driven off-course by a storm during a sea voyage.  His father disappeared too, on going to look for them.

Later, when Clement went to Alexandria in Egypt seeking his family, he met the apostle Barnabas, and not only found his two brothers there — who had become followers of St. Peter — but when he went to Palestine, he also met St. Peter, who was able to turn up Clement’s old mother and father as well.

The tradition relates that Clement was consecrated as bishop of Rome by St. Peter, following the bishoprics of Linus (67-79) and Anacletus (79-91).  Clement supposedly was bishop from 92-101, though dates in the sources vary, and he is sometimes said to have died about 98 c.e.

Many stories are told of Clement:  he supposedly baptized 424 people on an Easter, then earned the wrath of Emperor Trajan by scorning the gods.  First Trajan sent an officer named Sissinius to arrest Clement, but he and his men were miraculously blinded, and mistakenly dragged a column to the prison instead of Clement.  Then Trajan had Clement exiled to a quarry in Crimea, near the city of Cherson.  Supposedly many of his disciples followed him into exile there.

In the quarry there was a severe lack of water.  Tradition says that Clement prayed, and Jesus appeared to him in the form of a lamb on a hill.  The lamb struck at the ground with one hoof, and when Clement hit the spot with his pickaxe, a spring gushed forth that turned into a veritable river, resulting in another mass conversion.  A church was even built for him in the quarries.

All this supposedly only irritated Trajan more, so the Emperor ordered Clement to be drowned in the sea, an anchor tied to his neck.  And so Clement died.  But thanks to the prayers of Bishop Cornelius, St. Fibius and others, the sea miraculously pulled back some three miles to reveal Clement’s remains, which were found in a church-shaped “angelic” undersea cave.   After that, the waters would miraculously withdraw every year on the anniversary of his martyrdom, and remain back for a week, in order to make his relics available for Christian veneration.  Once a child was caught in the sea when it came flooding back over the site, but he was found alive on the spot the next year, when the waters again withdrew.

It is said that in reign of the Byzantine Emperor Nicephorus (802-811), God did not allow the sea to withdraw for 50 years, and so the Christians could not get to the submerged church-cave.

Later in the 9th century, the missionaries to the Slavs Cyril and Methodius and a number of others supposedly prayed at midnight for Clement’s relics to appear, and the relics miraculously did so.  This time they were taken to the Church of the Apostles in Constantinople.  Later some of the remains were taken to Rome, and the head of Clement was taken to Kyiv by St. Vladimir — the fellow who converted Kievan Rus’ to Eastern Orthodoxy by edict.  There they — along with the relics of St. Fibius of Rome/Фива Римский/Fiva Rimskiy — were placed in the Church of the Tithes (Десятинна церква/Desyatinna tserkva) — the first stone church in Kyiv/Kiev.  At present the head of Clement is said to be kept in the caves of the Pecherskaya Lavra at Kyiv.

Now obviously there is a lot of nonsense and uncertainty in all this. An anonymous letter (1 Clement) is generally attributed to Clement.  But so were a number of other writings that are now considered to be misattributed to him.  And though Clement is called “Pope of Rome,” the title is anachronistic; it did not exist at that time.  Some vague early references to a “Clement” were applied to Clement of Rome, including that of Paul in Philippians 4:3:

And I intreat you also, true yoke-fellow, help those women who labored with me in the Gospel, with Clement also, and with other my fellow laborers, whose names are in the book of life.”

and that found in The Shepherd of Hermas, 4[8]:3:

“You shall therefore write two little books, and shall send one to Clement, and one to Grapte. So Clement shall send to the foreign cities, for this is his duty; while Grapte shall instruct the widows and the orphans.”

The earliest references to Clement in Eusebius and Jerome do not mention that he was martyred.  The tale that he was drowned with an anchor tied to his neck is found no earlier than the 4th century, and many modern scholars believe that Clement’s martyrdom is the result of confusing him with another Roman saint of a similar name who was a martyr, Titus Flavius Clemens.  Nonetheless, the anchor became the symbol of “Pope Clement I”  in Catholic Christianity.

As for his relics, there is an account that in 868 St. Cyril, while in the Crimea, found some bones and an anchor buried in a mound, which he identified as the bones of Clement of Rome.  They were brought to Rome, and placed as Clement’s relics in the Basilica of St. Clement/San Clemente.  But as we know from history, tales of saints’ relics are highly unreliable in any case, as there was a very large market in fake relics to meet the vast demand.

Here is another icon of “Clement, Pope of Rome,” depicting him in the more conventional frontal pose, with scenes from his hagiographic life in the borders: