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Bill Thayer

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Centuries Ahead of Its Time,
and of Ours


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13c mosaic over the door of the church's hospital.

The little church of S. Tommaso in Formis does not get too many visitors, lost as it is in an out‑of-the‑way area of the Caelian hill; it has no spectacular paintings or art treasures. Once part of a large abbey, it saw most of its buildings demolished in 1925 to make way for the headquarters of an Experimental Institute for Plant Nutrition, which in turn looked to me when I last saw it, like it's been closed for years (although it is not, and even has a website with a historical page). The hospital is gone, leaving behind only a door, with the mosaic above. So far, S. Tommaso does not sound like a winner.

Let's look at our mosaic, though. It is considered artistically important, since it is by Cosma Cosmati, the founder of the Cosmatesque tradition — but frankly, that's neither here nor there: what matters most is its message. We see Christ in his power, enthroned as Pantocrator, offering his hands to two slaves on either side of him, one white, one black. You can tell they're slaves, because you can see their shackles: the Christian slave's lie at his feet, the Moor's are still attached to his hands. Neither of the two men is totally free yet, since their feet are still chained together. We are looking at a snapshot in action of the process of liberation: this is an exciting image.

This strikingly modern image of empowerment isn't accidental, either: not only is this mosaic placed over the front door of the hospital building, it is a representation of the actual seal (signum) of the order, the name of which is given as Sanctae Trinitatis et captivorvm; not just the Order of the Holy Trinity, but of the Holy Trinity and the Captives; that is, the latter are placed on the same footing as the Trinity — which is no more than a strict interpretation of the words of Jesus (Matt. 25:39‑40).


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[ 11/21/00: 1 page, 2 photos ]

S. Tommaso is one of the rare churches in Rome that fronts onto a garden. Why?


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[ 11/25/00: 1 page, 4 photos ]

There's nothing much to it, but the interior of the church is simple and attractive.


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Finally, a topographical sourcebook for the more scholarly-minded: Christian Hülsen's notice on this church in Le Chiese di Roma nel Medio Evo, linked to Armellini's Le Chiese di Roma.


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Site updated: 1 Dec 12