ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
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And I'm Melissa Block. Rome offers visitors a sweeping view of architectural history - from the Coliseum's stunning example of antiquity to the Italian baroque Spanish Steps and the renaissance glory of the Sistine Chapel. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli sent us this postcard from Rome about a building that encapsulates centuries of the city's history.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI: This is the San Clemente Church just a few hundred yards from the Coliseum.
Ms. JANET TOLEK(ph) (Scholar of Early Christian Art): The level that we're at right now is approximately 60 feet above the first-century buildings that were built underneath it.
POGGIOLI: Janet Tolek is a scholar of early Christian art. She's lecturing a group of American Catholic pilgrims seeking signs of women's leadership role in the first centuries of Christianity.
San Clemente, dedicated to the third pope after Saint Peter, offers a one-stop lesson in much of the history of Western art and religion. An outdoor baroque façade leads into the 12th-century basilica, decorated with medieval mosaics and renaissance frescoes.
A descent to the level below reveals a fourth-century church with sweeping arches. Yet another descent leads to the third level and a labyrinth of rooms of a Roman house. Here, side by side, are an early Christian house of worship and a temple of the pagan religion known as Mythraism.
Unidentified Woman: (Italian spoken)
POGGIOLI: An Italian schoolteacher is explaining to her students that just like in Christian churches, the temple's focal point is the altar. The god Mythras was considered even more powerful than Jupiter or Saturn. Mythraism originated on the eastern edge of the Roman Empire and was brought to Rome by Roman soldiers. It was a time when Christianity and Mythraism were rivals, fighting for the hearts and souls of Romans.
Little is known about Mythraism because its traces were erased as Christianity became the official religion of the empire. But, Tolek said, like with other pagan religions, not everything was wiped out.
Ms. TOLEK: What happens is that the early Christians, in fact, embrace a lot of the symbols of the other deities and many other of the so-called pagan traditions. They somehow manage to marry the God of the New Testament with the least of the Roman pagans.
POGGIOLI: Close to the temple, one can hear the underground spring whose waters feed into the Tiber River.
(Soundbite of flowing water)
POGGIOLI: Sister Christine Shenk(ph), who organized this pilgrimage to Rome, says springs have always been linked to religious sites, including many dedicated to the worship of Mary, mother of Jesus.
Sister CHRISTINE SHENK (Organizer of Catholic Pilgrimage to Rome): When you look at many of the temples of Artemis and the early female gods, they're on the site of water, so that spring is often associated with the feminine divine.
POGGIOLI: The role of women underwent a radical change in the early centuries of Christianity. There are frescoes in Roman catacombs that show women in priestly vestments celebrating the Eucharist. But Sister Shenk says by the time the fourth century Church of San Clemente was built on the second level of this building, women were being pushed out of the public arena and losing their role as office-holders.
Sister SHENK: This is a very crucial time, really, for women's leadership because what had started out as this egalitarian, co-equal leadership was now becoming a hierarchical leadership with only men as leaders.
POGGIOLI: One of the pilgrims, Catherine Paul(ph) from Michigan, says she'd always been taught that the Catholic Church of today was exactly as it was in Christ's time.
Ms. CATHERINE PAUL (Catholic Pilgrim, Rome): So it was a marvelous opportunity to see some of the - how it evolved, and where some of the roots came from and where some of the problems came from.
POGGIOLI: Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.