Early Christian and Medieval Apse Mosaics
The Edict of Milan, passed under Constantine, was a great victory for Christianity because it granted Christians the right to practice their religion and it marked a fundamental step in the development of Christian culture. Before this decree, private venues, or house churches, were the main places of worship found inside the city walls. Outside of the city’s walls, churches were built on funerary sites of early Christian martyrs. The construction of official Christian basilicas within the city began in the late fourth century. Within these basilicas, wall and ceiling mosaics were utilized to decorate the interior space and held a cultural and spiritual significance. An example of one of the early Christian apse mosaics is located in Santa Pudenziana, which dates to the late fourth century and is one of the first figural mosaics in Rome.1 A later mosaic at San Clemente dates to 1120 AD.2 This mosaic was created during the Gregorian reform, when it was popular to look back at the early Christian church.3 By this time, the image of Christ had become standardized. When contrasting the two mosaics found at Santa Pudenziana and San Clemente, the observer is able to analyze the specific historical and religious contexts that each holds within its iconography and see the development of art within these Christian basilicas.
The mosaic at Santa Pudenziana captures the viewers’ attention with its tesserae, glass with inlaid gold and colors, which create vivid patterns and imagery. The elaborate iconography found within the apse culminates an impressive entrance to the altar of the Church and creates a charged space of authority. In the Santa Pudenziana mosaic, Jesus is flocked by five figures, the apostles. The two figures right beside him are St. Peter and St. Paul, Jesus’ principal apostles. They are recognized by their distinct physical appearance. Peter is often associated with white hair and a beard, while Paul is recognized by his balding brown hair and beard. Behind the men are two women, one meant to signify the Jews and the other the Pagans. The women are crowning Peter and Paul with wreaths of martyrdom. The scene in the foreground is set within the city of heavenly Jerusalem. Four evangelical figures: the winged man, the winged lion, the winged ox and the eagle are behind the cross in the center. “The mosaic artist is skillfully employing a theophany to a prophet which by its biblical precedent justifies the bold enterprise of picturing the mystery of God.”4 In effect, these figures represent clear correlations with biblical texts and give validity to the mosaic. The setting of the mosaic also portrays an important message about how Christ’s image was understood at the time.
Christ is shown sitting upon a throne in the center of the scene wearing a gold robe. He is not only depicted as young man with his long hair and a full beard, but he is also perceived as either a ruler or an orator, with his hand in an outstretched gesture. Within this context, Jesus’ is imaged as a ruler of heavenly Jerusalem. From him, authority springs to the apostles, who are placed on a lower visual plane within the apse. Christ is transformed from this typical symbol of teacher and mentor, into a figure attributable to the gods or an emperor, seated on a throne and ruling over a kingdom. The overall function of this mosaic is its ability to evoke the question: “What does Christ look like? An emperor? A God?” These questions are crucial at a time when the image of Christ was still being established.
A later apse mosaic found at San Clemente provides an example of medieval Christian culture. The San Clemente mosaic was built in the 12th century around 1120 AD.5 Since the prophets foretold the coming of Christ, the Old and the New Testament are cross-referenced within this apse mosaic.6 Since it was constructed during the time of Gregorian reform, when it was popular to look back at the early...
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