“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) donated lavish mosaics to several churches. The most expensive mosaic pieces were made of gold and silver leaf pressed between crystal panes. Imagine their glitter! Especially 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 their symbolism and what they reveal about the early Christian Church’s politics.
Meeting in the morning (to accommodate all three churches’ opening hours), we will start at the spartan church of Santa Pudenziana. While the saint’s life and the church’s general history are fascinating, the apse mosaics steal the show. Dating to the end of the 4th century A.D., they are the oldest surviving mosaics in a Christian church in Rome.
Leaving Santa Pudenziana, we will walk to the neighboring church of Santa Prassede, allegedly Pudenziana’s sister. According to primary sources, the renovator pope Paschal demolished the first church dedicated to her and had the current one built 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, and its inner and outer triumphal arches, with scenes from the Apocalypse.
A big spender, Pope Paschal also had a side chapel built and decorated for his mother, Theodora. In Rome, the chapel is unique–although it can be compared to several mausolea and monuments in Ravenna. Stepping into the minuscule chapel, you’ll find yourself in a sea of golden rays. From an indirect source, light clatters into the chapel and reverberates around it. Here you’ll understand how mosaic artists used light to heighten the beauty of their work and strengthen its spiritual significance.
Next door to Santa Prassede 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 scenes, as artists depicted the Life of Christ in the wall mosaics around the apse. They skipped the traditional manger scene, since its humility strengthened Nestorians’ argument that Christ was merely human. To strength the idea of Christ’s divine nature, Pope Sixtus III’s artist depicted the baby Christ like an Emperor in a jewel-studded throne in the Adoration of the Magi. However Mary knitting in the Annunciation is the jaw-stopper! This image was inspired by a book of the Bible that was expunged shortly after the mosaics were created and it is now part of the Apocrypha.
We will conclude with the apse mosaics, conceived and completed by Giacopo Torriti in circa 1295. He signs them with a bold autograph: pictor. 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. (Santa Maria in Trastevere is part of my Trastevere in the Middle Ages stroll–but it can always be paired up with the churches in this itinerary!)