“All That Glitters:” Christian Mosaics from the Late Empire to the XIII century
“All that glitters is not gold.” Yet in several churches in Rome, that’s not true! Christian communities, local aristocrats, and popes (or their cardinal nephews) lavished churches with sumptuous gifts including mosaics. Gold pressed between crystal panes, the occasional use of silver leaf, the weighty presence of navy blue glass… and the glitter! Imagine what the mosaics looked like during evening Mass as wavering candlelight shimmered over them… Their glitter spoke of an afterlife and eternal rewards. As we admire them, we’ll discuss Christian symbolism and Church politics.
Meeting in the morning (to accommodate all three churches’ opening hours), we start at the spartan church of Santa Pudenziana. While we will outline the saint’s life and the general history of her church, the apse mosaics immediately arrest our attention. Dating to the end of the 4th century, they are the oldest surviving mosaics in a Christian church in Rome.
Leaving Santa Pudenziana, we walk briefly uphill to the neighboring church of Santa Prassede, allegedly Pudenziana’s sister. According to primary sources, the first church dedicated to her—being too modest (and untenably rickety)—was overhauled by the renovator pope Paschal around 820 A.D. His monogram flashes white on blue in the gold mosaic, just below the Lamb of God. With Rockefeller-like munificence, he donated the funds to embellish the apse, together with its inner and outer triumphal arches, with scenes from the Apocalypse.
A big spender, Pope Paschal also had a chapel built and decorated on the side of Santa Prassede for his mother, Theodora. The chapel is unique in Rome, although it can be compared to several mausolea and monuments in Ravenna. Stepping into the sacred space, which can accommodate no more than a handful of people, you find yourself in a veritable sea of golden rays. From an undetected light source (a small window high above one’s head), light clatters into the chapel and reverberates warmly around it. There is no better place to understand how mosaic artists used illumination to heighten the beauty of their work and strengthen its spiritual significance.
Next door, is the mammoth Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore (The Bigger Saint Mary), with its gorgeous mosaics. When the church was built and decorated for the first time in the early 400s, its patron, Pope Sixtus III, had several concerns. One of them was the Nestorian heresy, which insisted that Mary was the Mother of Christ but not the Mother of God. This inspired some unusual approaches to the Life of Christ, which is depicted in the mosaics on the wall around the apse. There is no manger scene, since its humility strengthened Nestorians’ argument that Christ was merely human. The Adoration of the Magi shows the baby Christ sitting like an Emperor in a throne–an attempt to emphasize Christ’s God-nature. And, when you’ve seen Mary knitting in the Annunciation, you realize that you’ve probably seen it all! (Both images are in the small photo on the right.) Mary doing needle-work during the Annunciation comes from a book of the Bible which was expunged shortly after the mosaics were created and it is now part of the Apocrypha!
We conclude with the apse mosaics, conceived and completed by Giacopo Torriti in circa 1295. In it, his bold autograph as pictor is still visible. Since the church is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, Torriti’s work features both her Assumption and Coronation. An image of cosmic harmony, it contrasts with a similar, but older mosaic, in the Church Santa Maria in Trastevere, revealing that the church, her patrons, and her politics changed over the centuries.