Eternity’s Eye: A Chronology of Rome’s Earliest Surviving Christian Mosaics (400–850)
I spent 2021’s Indian Summer (Sept–Oct) in Rome documenting the city’s Byzantine churches. My appetite had been whetted by days 5–7 of the Italian trip a couple of years before. Instead of reducing Juvenal’s saeva urbs (savage city) to a brief pit-stop, I felt obliged to give its coruscative mosaics (400–850) the fulsome treatment they deserved.
I’ve not furnished the piece with potted church histories. Henry Brandenburg’s Churches of Rome (2007) and others provide excellent material on that front (though I might scribble an introduction to my favourites in the future). I prefer, first, to focus on mosaics and, second, give the city’s ecclesiastical profile a chronological treatment that’s often missing despite the usefulness of identifying evolving forms and themes.
This obvious model is probably absent for good reason. Pinning foundations, natural disasters, alterations, renovations and styles to dates, artists and patrons is extremely hazardous. Historians enter minefields of strange, wonderful and often contradictory sources at their peril. And when this is paired with conflicting archaeological or artistic opinions all but most lucid are dragged into the mire.
My naivety is a boon, however. I’m happy to play the dolt in the proverbial “Fools walk where angels fear to tread” because I’d rather give a generally accurate account than none at all. Mainly because I believe Rome’s mosaics demonstrate – better than any other medium – the stunning unity of the Oikoumene before the evil of schism. In my view, [Christian] Romanitas is a profound cultural blessing that goes deeper than religion; its centripetal nature is demonstrated by the fact that three centuries after the chapel of SS. Cyprian and Justina was finished at the Lateran baptistery in Rome, the same lavish acanthus scrolls crawled up the Bab al-Barid entrance to the Great Mosque of Damascus.
N. B. A word of warning. Due to delightfully stubborn prejudices, churches that’ve suffered horrific baroque face-lifts are given short shrift no matter how esteemed their original antiquity. ––––––––––––– AD 410 is famously the year Rome was sacked. Though the Romans probably saw it as the seventeenth regnal year of Honorius, or the first year of the consul Varanes. It’s also interesting because the decade marks the the start of a century that saw pope Leo I (r. 440–461) hatch a legalistic reinterpretation of Rome’s honorary primacy. In other words, when the seeds of ecclesiastical and geopolitical division were sown. Some tituli from this period still exist, the titulus Pammachi for example is now SS. Giovanni e Paolo al Celio [pic 1] but its interior was ruined by a blind man armed with a baroque blunderbuss.
There’s confusion over whether S. Pudenziana was built just before the sack or after it. In my view it was slightly afterwards, hence the oddly specific inscription on Christ’s book: “I am the Lord, preserver of the church of Pudentiana.” [pic 2] S. Sabina and S. Maria Maggiore followed in the 420s and 430s. S. Stefano Rotundo in the mid-fifth century.
Even the Goths contributed to the construction frenzy with Ricimer founding S. Agata dei Goti (which boasted a huge mosaic depicting Christ on a globe, flanked by the apostles) and Valila establishing Sant’Andrea Catabarbara (barbarously demolished in 1930 for the Pontifical Oriental Institute) where the rivers of paradise flowed from a mountain beneath Christ’s feet. S. Sabina is the most impressive of the bunch [pic 3]. Founded by the Illyrian presbyter Peter in the reign of pope Celestine I (422–32), its twenty-four perfectly matched columns, capitals and bases of proconnesian marble showed that wealthy laymen could compete with imperial splendour. Mosaics once decorated every wall. Now only the western ones survive. Two ladies labelled the Church of the Jews and the Church of the Gentiles attempt to display Rome’s displacement of Jerusalem as home to the world’s chosen people. Given the sixteenth-century apse painting probably reflects the original mosaic, the latter must have depicted Christ in paradise surrounded by saints, with four rivers of paradise below, followed by the Agnus Dei and the apostles as lambs.
Pope Sixtus III (432–40) clearly felt the competition because shortly after S. Sabina’s completion he constructed S. Maria Maggiore on the Esquiline as a papal basilica for the whole city dedicated to the Theotokos (Genetrix Dei in Latin). Thirteenth-century renovations moved Maggiore’s apse back by five metres. What was originally depicted is anybody’s guess but given the dedication it probably celebrated the Virgin and Child in an image similar to the ancient icon of Mary in S. Maria in Trastevere.
Maggiore’s baroque accretions are more restrained than Giovanni e Paolo’s. It’s still visibly a three-aisled basilica with the original columns unmarred by pillars. Now every second window is blocked, so the older church would have been filled with more light. The original mosaics survive in the nave and on the triumphal arch [pic 4]. The former portrays Old Testament scenes, which evoke sacred history in the language of Roman historical art (as seen on the columns of Trajan and Aurelius). Most focus on scenes such as Melchizedek offering bread and wine, or Abraham surrounded by three angels. Images which prefigured the New Testament’s revelations (Eucharist and Trinity).
The Hetoimasia, flanked by Peter and Paul, crowns the triumphal arch accompanied by the four creatures of the Apocalpyse (man, ox, lion and eagle) who double up as the four manifestations of the evangelists. At the bottom, six sheep on either side stare up at the bejewelled cities of Bethlehem and Jerusalem. An emphasis is placed on Mary’s role as Christ’s mother (and therefore the Incarnation). Below the empty throne the inscription ran: Xystus episcopus plebs dei “Sixtus, bishop to the people of God.” The people of God being Romans, not Jews – a sentiment in harmony with S. Sabina’s message. Sixtus’ other work, the chapel of SS. Cyprian and Justina in the Lateran Baptistery has acanthus scrolls clambering up a deep blue background while Christ the lamb is depicted within an oculus (but under what resembles a shell) and flanked by two doves. The lost mosaic of the opposite side depicted Arcadia. Rome was sacked thoroughly in 455 but St Peter’s continued to flourish. Shortly afterwards the praetorian prefect Flavius Avitus Marinianus paid for a mosaic on its façade with Christ as lamb, the four beasts, the twenty-four Elders, St Peter, and finally Constantine and St Sylvester. Few of pope Hilarius’ (461–8) works have survived. He added the Oratorium of S. Croce to the Baptistery and mosaics to Sant’Anastasia al Palatino. Thankfully, the pollen-gold hue of the chapel of St John the Evangelist at the Baptistery can still be seen [Pic 5]. It preserves its Lamb – haloed in blue – inside a wreath surrounded by garlands and birds flanking kantharoi (wine cups used to present offerings).
Almost nothing survives of the old St Peter’s, hence the rather cursory treatment here. St Paul’s, however, didn’t burn until 1823 and parts (no matter how negligible) were saved. The latter had also originally been a Constantinian foundation but Theodosius, Valentinian II and Arcadius rebuilt it on the scale of St Peter’s c. 423, though much of it had to be restored by pope Leo I and Galla Placidia after a fire in 441. Its triumphal arch [Pic 6] best serves as a warning as to the shortcomings of (nineteenth-century) restoration work but thematically it’s retained Christ surrounded by the four symbols of the evangelists, the twenty-four elders, with Peter and Paul below. Highlights include the tondi of the popes.
The apse displays Christ with St Luke, St Paul, St Peter and St Andrew. Below, the disciples look towards two archangels who guard an empty throne occupied notionally by the Cross. This mosaic was not the original, however, but a scene commissioned by pope Honorius III (a miniature [wormy] version of whom touches Christ’s feet) from Venetian artists. I’ve been unable to find out what preceded it. If any know please get in contact.
Pope Symmachus was unusually dynamic, rebuilding over a dozen churches according to the Liber Pontificalis and installing mosaics at St Peters’ fountain. S. Stefano Rotundo, consecrated in 468, benefitted from the attention of Pope John I (523–6) when he decorated it with mosaics. Sadly, only scraps survive. The golden chapel dedicated to SS. Primus and Felician [Pic 7] is a later seventh-century expression, decorated after pope Theodore translated their remains in 648. In its centre stands a giant crux gemmata (try to ignore the bust of Christ which is horrifically restored above it) which may have been inspired by Santa Pudenziana, or perhaps Constantine’s jewelled cross as a gift to the Holy Sepulchre, or Theodosios II’s placement of a large jewelled cross on the spot Christ died. The symbol may have became popular after Heraklios’ magnificent coup in retaking the True Cross from the Iranians in 628. Either way, it’s flanked by Primus and Felicianus, who stand in paradise wearing formal robes with tablia. An obscure manus Dei seems to emerge from the star-dotted oculus, it’s hard to see.
The first big survivor of sixth-century Rome is the church of SS. Cosmas and Damian [Pic 8], occupying a large audience hall – possibly the prefect’s – which had once stored plunder from the Jewish War (70–1). The hall, converted by pope Felix IV (526–30) had also hosted medical lectures, so the dedication toys with many themes from the real riches (spiritual) of the Jews to the real (soul) medicine of the saints. Sadly, the church was heavily remodelled in the seventeenth century and certain changes (such as random hands offering the wreaths of martyrdom, the floor level being raised by seven metres, or the baldacchino interrupting large parts of the mosaic) can hardly be said to be for the better.
Nevertheless, Christ in gold against one of the most imposing blues in history is a winning combination. Red and blue clouds – clouds that also fill S. Pudenziana and Santa Costanza’s traditio legis, a theme probably first depicted in the apse of St Peters – dissolve into water. St Paul presents a patron saint, Cosmas, while Felix (holding a model of the church) lurks in the background. Sadly, Felix is a restoration job after Gregory XIII had himself inserted, a vanity repeated by the Barberini family who inserted their three bees over the flowers. St Peter presents the other patron saint, Damian, while St Theodore hovers in the background. A phoenix, symbol of the resurrection, perches in a palm. Lining the bottom are twelve sheep adoring the Lamb who stands upon a rock from which the four rivers of paradise emerge. On the triumphal arch the enthroned Lamb is surrounded by seven candles, four angels and four symbols of the evangelists. Below the elders, prophets and elects were originally shown celebrating the Lamb but only parts survive. Most of these elements evoke the Second Coming, on the one hand looking back (Candlesticks and the elect were present at S. Maria Maggiore and S. Paolo le mura, the Lamb at S. Sabina). On the other looking forward as many themes (from the phoenix to the clouds, the sheep and the candles) are repeated in future mosaics at S. Prassede, S. Cecilia and S. Marco. Another sixth-century survivor is the triumphal arch of S. Lorenzo fuori le mura [Pic 9]. It was originally a Constantinian basilica but pope Pelagius II (579–90) remodelled it and in the twelfth century its apse mosaic was destroyed. The triumphal arch still stands with a purple-clad Christ enthroned on a globe (S. Vitale style). Peter and Paul flank him. St Laurence brings forward pope Pelagius. On the other side stand St Stephen and St Hippolytus. Below in spandrels are Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Other highlights include marble capitals brought from Constantinople, as well as high-quality spoilia and entablature.
Four seventh-century mosaics are still in situ: S. Teodoro (c.600), S. Agnese fuori le mura (c. 625), S. Stefano Rotondo (642-9) and the Venantius chapel in the Lateran Baptistery (c. 649). Furthermore, at Pietro in Vincoli the altar of Saint Sebastian has a seventh-century mosaic icon. The eighth century is less kind. Apart from a few scraps from St Peter’s Oratory of John VII and S. Martino ai Monti, only works at SS. Nereo ed Achilleo and the Lateran Triclinia are documented. Sadly, pope Leo III’s work at S. Susanna where Charlemagne featured in the apse (which upped the traditional seven-figures to nine) vanished in an earthquake, and pope Severinus’ mosaic in the apse of St Peter’s has also been destroyed. It would be easy to dismiss (the now Orthodox, after being gifted by pope Benedict XVI) S. Teodoro – one of the seven original deaconries in Rome – as another S. Paolo job i.e. a poor nineteenth-century restoration [pic 10]. This one, however, belongs to pope Nicholas V (1447–55). In my view, fifteenth-century pogonophiles appear to have attempted to “beard” a beardless Christ sitting on an orb flanked by Peter and Paul, who present Theodore and Cleonicus.
More impressive is the work of Honorius I (625–38) at S. Agnese [pic 11], which he restored with exquisite taste. Against a kaleidoscope of golden shades, Agnes commands attention in imperial regalia at the centre of the apse. Tongues of fire and sword indicate her martyrdom. Flanked by Pope Honorius (offering a model of the church) and another unidentified saint, the manus Dei extends to offer her the martyr’s wreath. As at S. Demetrios in Thessaloniki, Christ is strikingly absent from the scene. The overall impression is powerfully imperial as the apse gives way to proconnesian marble and porphyry (in a pattern that’s almost identical to the apse at San Sabina), then marble columns and spoilia.
One of my favourite Christs dwells in the chapel of S. Venantius at the Baptistery [pic 12]. The unkind might say the image looks spaced out on drugs. For me, forms are colours caught when they are most at ease, signalling their willingness to melt when caught in the sight of God.
Visitors have to shuffle to the side of the baldacchino to get a good shot, but Christ is accompanied by two angels then, below, a small army: Peter, Paul, John the Baptist, John the Evangelist, Venantius, Domnius and popes John and Theodore. The biggest victim of the baldacchino is the orant Theotokos, a tragedy that is partially compensated by the arch, which depicts the Dalmatian martyrs, Jerusalem and Bethlehem, and the four emblems of the evangelists.
The seventh-century mosaic icon of St Sebastian (now at Pietro in Vincoli) has its own beauty [pic 13]. Its provenance is unknown but it probably either came from S. Sebastiano and travelled with his relics to St Peter’s in 826, or it was specifically commissioned during or after the plague of 680, which was stopped only when the saint’s remains were paraded around the city. Although he looks excessively severe or grumpy in his military robes, this doesn’t detract from the harmony of the colours, which shade from green to blue, from gold to red with the ephemerality of a rainbow.
As previously mentioned, few important mosaics survive from the eighth century. Pope Leo III (795–816) for example commissioned a triclinium (banqueting hall) – in a direct imitation of Constantinople’s XIX accubita – and an aula (hall) lined with mosaics. A single apostle’s head can be found in the Vatican, while the Triclinio Leoniano [pic 14] to the east of the Scala Sancta amounts to a surviving fragment of apsed wall from the original reconstructed with a triangular pediment by pope Benedict XIV in 1743 and decorated with mosaics.
This is a great shame as the major theme of the triclinium’s mosaics was the missions of the apostles spread over ten side chapels. The main apse was more conventional with the orant Virgin, Peter, Paul and patrons. A conservative artistic statement when compared to the eccentric Ark of the Covenant to the north at Germigny des Pres (Orleans). This Germanic spirit of invention did spread to the aula, however, where the main apse distorted the traditio legis motif to depict Christ giving Peter his mandate, the left arch showed Christ bestowing the keys of heaven upon Peter and a banner to Constantine, while the right arch framed Leo receiving the papal stole from Peter and Charlemagne (rather pointedly not the Roman emperor Constantine VI or the empress Eirene) rather ambitiously receiving the banner of the ruler who founded Constantinople (Constantine). Leo also rebuilt SS. Nereo ed Achilleo [pic 15]. The mosaics there, however, have been restored so visitors are forced to assume that they resemble the originals. On the triumphal arch three scenes dominate, each emphasising the Incarnation: Transfiguration in the centre, Annunciation to the left, with the Virgin and Child accompanied by an angel to the right.
Thankfully, the scanty remains of Leo’s reign give way to the bounty of Paschal I (817–24) who endowed S. Prassede, S. Cecilia and S. Maria in Domnica. S. Prassede was dedicated to one of the sacred sisters who had sheltered St Peter in Rome and suffered for it. The church of the other sister (S. Pudenziana) is a short walk away. In S. Prassede’s apse [pic 16], Christ stands at the centre surrounded by those familiar red and blue clouds extending a blessing. To the viewer’s left, St Paul escorts S. Prassede and pope Paschal. To the right, St Peter brings forth S. Pudenziana and St Zeno. Palms sway at the sides, the River Jordan flows along the bottom, a phoenix (a symbol of everlasting life) balances himself above the pope’s square halo.
Below, a dozen sheep emerge from Jerusalem and Bethlehem to converge on the Lamb, which since the Council of Trullo (692) had become a controversial symbol. Specifically, the council forbade the representation of John the Baptist pointing to a lamb that prefigured Christ. When pope Sergius (687–701) received the canons, however, he rejected them and ordered that, at the breaking of the bread in the Eucharist, the “Lamb of God who taketh away the sins of the world, have mercy on us,” should be sung by clergy and people alike.
The hemisphere straightens into an apse wall which displays the Lamb occupying a throne that stands between seven candles, four angels and the evangelist symbols. Twenty-four elders fill the spandrels. This theme continues on a very distinctive triumphal arch where a bejewelled New Jerusalem hosts Christ with his nearest and dearest. Outside, martyrs wait to be admitted. On one side, female martyrs. On the other St Peter greets the elect. Below them crowds wave palms fronds. S. Zeno chapel [pic 17], off the north-east aisle, is tiny. It was built as a funerary chapel for Pascal’s mother, Theodora, but also hosted the relics of S. Zeno. Approaching the door there is a double arch filled with roundels of Christ, the Virgin and the saints. Inside, on the vaulted golden ceiling, a bust of Christ in a victory wreath is held aloft by four angels who look like they’re leaning off the marble capitals.
In front of the small altar there’s a mosaic panel of the Virgin and Child. In the short cross-arm (to the left of the altar) is an Anastasis, then four female busts: Theodora (square halo), anonymous saint, Virgin, anonymous saint. Though the two saints are probably S. Prassede and S. Pudenziana. Above a lunette presents two deer drinking from the rivers of paradise that flow from the feet of the Lamb (though the angle of the lamb’s face makes it look ominously one-eyed).
More martyrs – including Rome’s megastar St Agnes – rise above this scene. To the right of the altar, there are John, Andrew and James, while above the door stand Peter and Paul. The overall impression is that everybody is joyously dancing and praying that Christ’s vision above them will bring fruits on earth and in heaven.
The imagery at S. Cecilia [pic 18] is very similar. In fact, it’s almost identical: Christ is crowned by God, flanked by Peter, Paul and others. On St Paul’s side Cecilia puts her arm around pope Paschal. On St Peter’s side is Valerian (Cecilia’s husband) and St Agatha (the saint to whom the monastery attached to the church was dedicated). S. Cecilia’s has paradisiacal meadows, palms, red and blue clouds, sheep from Jerusalem and Bethlehem approach the lamb, and so on.
The diaconia, S. Maria in Domnica [Pic 19], diverged from this model. Instead, the Virgin and Child perch at the centre with Paschal – sans saintly sponsor – in a pose of supplication. The apse arch shows Christ in apocalyptic majesty seated on a rainbow. He blesses with his right hand and holds the law in his left. Six apostles flank him in an order that is fairly consistent in Rome: Peter to the immediate left, Paul to the immediate right. Below Peter is John the Baptist and below Paul is John the Evangelist. Both point to Christ as the way, the truth and the life.
Pope Gregory IV (827–44) continued Rome’s proud mosaic tradition when he rebuilt and decorated S. Marco [Pic 20] at the foot of the Capitoline Hill. Christ stands on some sort of dais emblazoned with the Alpha and the Omega. He blesses with his right hand and his other holds open a book open on the Latin “I am the light, the life and the resurrection.” Above his head God holds a wreath. Below the dais, a dove sits by a fountain.
To Christ’s right stands St Felicissimus, the Evangelist Mark and pope Gregory. To his left are St Mark (pope in 336) to whom the church is dedicated, another saintly pope in Agapetus (535–6) and St Agnes. Below, sheep emerge from Bethlehem and Jerusalem to greet the Lamb. The red and blue clouds are oddly exiled to the apse arch where they float absent-mindedly around spandrels of the evangelists’ symbols, while Peter (viewer’s right) and Paul (viewer’s left) point towards Christ in the apse. After Gregory’s commission, nothing survives in mosaic from Rome until the twelfth century. Whether this means it died out and had to be revived later, or whether it continued in places that simply haven’t survived, is impossible to state. Especially given one of the main sources for tracing papal patronage comes to a close with Stephen V (885–91). It’s probable that security concerns took over. After the Arabs plundered St Peter’s in 846, popes prioritised keeping Rome safe over lavish mosaics and other decorations. And of the 22 churches built between 860–1000, none was a papal foundation or contained mosaics.
Pic 1 = SS. Giovanni e Paolo al Celio
Pic 2 = S. Pudenziana apse mosaic
Pic 3 = S. Sabina apse mosaic
Pic 4 = S. Maria Maggiore triumphal arch
Pic 5 = St John the Evangelist chapel apse
Pic 6 = S. Paolo fuori le mura triumphal arch and apse
Pic 7 = Chapel of SS. Primus and Felician at S. Stefano Rotondo
Pic 8 = Apse of Cosmas e Damiano
Pic 9 = Triumphal arch of Lorenzo fuori le mura
Pic 10 = Apse of S. Teodoro
Pic 11 = S. Agnese interior Pic 12 = Apse and wall of St Venantius at the Baptistery
Pic 13 = Mosaic icon of St Sebastian at Pietro in Vincoli
Pic 14 = Triclinio Leoniano
Pic 15 = Triumphal arch of SS. Nereo ed Achilleo
Pic 16 = S. Prassede apse and triumphal arch
Pic 17 = S. Zeno chapel at S. Prassede
Pic 18 = Apse at S. Cecilia
Pic 19 = Apse and triumphal arch of S. Maria in Domnica
Pic 20 = S. Marco apse