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This webpage reproduces an article in
American Journal of Archaeology
Vol. 10, No. 3 (Jul.‑Sep. 1906), pp251‑281.

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though, please let me know!

p251 Roman church mosaics of the first nine centuries
with especial regard to their position in the churches

There is literary evidence to show that the mosaic decoration of early Christian churches probably followed, if not a set scheme, at least a tradition as to subjects and their placing in the church.1 It is intended in this paper to examine and classify the existing church mosaics of Rome and the immediate vicinity with a view to discovering what light the actual remains throw on the existence and history of this supposed traditional or conventional arrangement. The work has been limited to Roman mosaics originating before the close of the ninth century which are actually to be seen to‑day, because (1) it is deemed wise to classify and study the existing pictures before entering on the subject of the "lost mosaics," already covered by Müntz and other writers,2 and (2) the Roman mosaics up to the end of the ninth century exhibit a distinct local character in decided contrast to the later works.

The following churches in Rome contain mosaic pictures whose origin is before the year 900 A.D.: S. Agnese (Via Nomentana), Battistero Lateranense (Exedra di SS. Rufina e Secunda, Oratorio di S. Giovanni Evangelista, Cappella di S. Venanzio), S. Cecilia in Trastevere, SS. Cosma e Damiano, S. Costanza, S. Lorenzo in Agro Verano, S. Marco di Pallacine, S. Maria in Domnica, S. Maria Maggiore, SS. Nereo ed Achilleo, S. Prassede, S. Pudenziana, S. Paolo fuori le mura, S. Pietro in Vincoli, S. Sabina, S. Stephanoº rotondo, and S. Teodoro.

p252 These mosaics fall into the following chronological order:

Fourth century: S. Costanza (aisle), S. Pudenziana, Exedra di SS. Rufina e Secunda.

Fifth century: Oratorio di S. Giovanni Evangelista in Battistero Lateranense, S. Maria Maggiore (triumphal arch and nave), S. Paolo fuori (arch), S. Sabina.

Sixth century: SS. Cosma e Damiano, S. Lorenzo.

Seventh century: S. Agnese, S. Pietro in Vincoli, S. Stefano rotondo, Cappella di S. Venanzio in Battistero Lateranense.

Eighth century: S. Teodoro.

Ninth century: S. Cecilia in Trastevere, S. Maria in Domnica, S. Marco, SS. Nereo ed Achilleo, S. Prassede.

The mosaics are found in churches of the basilica type as well as in buildings of central construction. We may group the churches with regard to the parts on which mosaics are placed as follows:

Mosaic as altar-piece: S. Pietro in Vincoli.

Mosaics on interior walls: S. Sabina, Cappella di S. Zenone.

Mosaics on walls of nave over the supporting columns: S. Maria Maggiore.

Mosaics on triumphal arch: S. Maria Maggiore, S. Paolo fuori, S. Lorenzo fuori, S. Prassede.

Mosaics on tribune arch and apse: S. Venanzio, SS. Cosma e Damiano, S. Maria in Domnica, S. Prassede, S. Marco.

Mosaics on tribune arch (apse mosaic destroyed): SS. Nereo ed Achilleo.

Mosaic in apse only: S. Pudenziana, S. Agnese fuori, S. Teodoro, S. Cecilia in Trastevere.

Mosaics on minor apsidal vaultings or lunettes: S. Stefano rotondo, S. Costanza.

Mosaics on lateral or central vaults: S. Costanza, S. Giovanni Evangelista, Cappella di S. Zenone.

It should be noted in regard to the foregoing classification that reference is here made only to the mosaics coming within the limits specified at the beginning of this paper. Thus, p253S. Paolo fuori le Mura has mosaics on the tribune arch and apse, as well as elsewhere, but those on the triumphal arch alone date from our period. So as the mosaics in the apse of S. Maria Maggiore are later than the date set for our limit. S. Prassede is the only church presenting mosaics of this period on triumphal arch, tribune arch, and apse, and possesses also the highly decorated chapel of S. Zenone.

From the above classification it will be seen that the existing Roman mosaics of this period of church mosaic decoration are nearly all in that part of the church toward which the eyes of the congregation would be directed at all great ceremonies; that is, the triumphal and tribune arches and the apse. In one church only, S. Maria Maggiore, have the mosaics on the walls of the nave been preserved. Façade and wall mosaics have, naturally enough, suffered more from time and the rebuilder than those of the apse and interior arches. Chapel mosaic decorations have generally disappeared with the building of newer chapels and the "systematization" of interior and exterior. Some of the smaller churches in all probability had mosaic pictures only on the tribune wall and apse.3

A description of the various mosaic pictures will enable us to classify the subjects depicted in them. I follow the order of the classification given before.

1. S. Pietro in Vincoli.4

The only altar-piece of mosaic from our period is the figure of S. Stefano over the second altar from the entrance door in the left aisle of S. Pietro in Vincoli. The saint is represented about half of life size, and, contrary to the traditions of the painters, as an old and bearded man. The work is dated 680 A.D. and formed part of a votive altar erected in the nave of the church after the disastrous plague of that year. It was removed of its present position in 1576.

p254 2. S. Sabina.5 (Fig. 1)


[image ALT: A long rectangular mosaic in the church of S. Sabina, Rome, consisting of a seven-line inscription in monumental capitals flanked by two small rectangular panels each with a standing human figure. The mosaic is further described in the text of this webpage.]
Figure 1. — Mosaic in the Church of S. Sabina, Rome.

The only mosaic now preserved to us of the original decorations of this church is found on the interior of the rear wall over the famous carved doors of cypress wood. It dates, in all likelihood, from the time of the erection of the church, 425‑432 A.D. (De Rossi). The main part of the mosaic is a metrical inscription of seven lines in large letters of gold on a dark blue background. The inscription reads as follows:a

CVLMEN APOSTOLICVM CVM CAELESTINVS HABERET

PRIMUS ET IN TOTO FVLGERET EPISCOPVS ORBE

HAEC QVAE MIRARIS FVNDAVIT PRESBITER VRBIS

ILLYRICA DE GENTE PETRVS VIR NOMINE TANTO

DIGNVS AD EXORTV CHRISTI NVTRITVS IN AVLA

PAVPERIBVS LOCVPLES SIBI PAVPER QVI BONA VITAE

PRAESENTIS FVGIENS MERVIT SPERARE FVTVRAM.

At either end of the inscription are two full-length female figures, each holding an open book in the left hand and pointing to its pages with the right. Beneath the one on the left is the inscription eclesia ex circvmcisione, and beneath the other, eclesia ex gentibvs. It should be noted that these p255figures are at either end of the inscription and subsidiary to it in the eyes of the designer, just as later the same idea of the double origin of the church is expressed by the two cities, Jerusalem and Bethlehem, which invariably occupy a position at the ends of a mosaic. The workmanship of this mosaic is remarkably good.

Ciampini (Vet. Monum. I, tab. XLVII) gives, in addition, a design extant in his time, (1690), all trace of which has now vanished. It is De Rossi's opinion that these lost mosaics belonged to the ninth century restoration of the church. It is very unfortunate that the other mosaics of this early and once highly decorated church have been lost.

3. S. Maria Maggiore.6

The walls of the nave and the triumphal arch of this basilica contain mosaics of a date at least as early as the renovation of the church by Pope Sixtus III in 432 A.D. The apse mosaic dates from the thirteenth and the façade mosaic from the twelfth century. If the nave mosaics do not belong to the time of Liberius, founder of the basilica, they are supposed to be imitations of those he caused to be made in 355 A.D. Marked differences in style and execution, as well as architectural considerations, have been urged as a reason for assigning to the mosaics of the nave an earlier date than that known for those of the arch, 432‑440 A.D.

The walls of the nave, above the architraves, are divided into a series of panels once decorated with mosaics. Only twenty-seven of these panels now have mosaics, twelve on the left and fifteen on the right side. Six panels have been destroyed by the building of the Borghese and Sixtine Chapels, and others are filled with modern paintings designed to imitate mosaics. On the left side, beginning at the high altar, we have scenes from the life of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Esau. Eight of the twelve panels have two scenes, an upper and a lower, making twenty in all. The first three panels are occupied with p256Abraham's return from his victory over the three kings (Gen. xiv), his parting from Lot, and the visit of the three angels. The next panel containing a mosaic picture represents Isaac blessing Jacob. Five panels tell the fortunes of Jacob during his stay with Laban. The tenth gives the meeting of Jacob and Esau, while the eleventh and twelfth show the purchase of the land at Salem and the scenes resulting from the rape of Dinah.

The panels on the right side begin with two picturing the presentation of Moses to Pharaoh's daughter, his training, marriage, and occupation as a shepherd. The three following are gone, but a codex in the Biblioteca Barberini7 gives the designs. They represent Moses' return to Egypt, his demand before Pharaoh for the release of the Israelites, the command to prepare the Paschal lamb and the orders to depart, and the injunction to celebrate the Passover ever after. The sixth, one of the best, represents the passage of the Red Sea; the seventh, the promise of flesh and the coming of the quails; the eighth, Moses drawing water from the rock; in the lower panel, the meeting with the Amalekites; the ninth, the battle with the Amalekites; the tenth, the return of the spies; the eleventh, Moses presenting the Book of Deuteronomy to the Levites; below, the march to the Jordan; while the twelfth gives the passage of the river and the departure of the spies for Jericho; the thirteenth and the fourteenth are concerned with the capture of Jericho; while the rest give incidents of Joshua's warfare against Ai and the Amorites. The interpretation of these scenes it is not always clear.8 Fifteen of the panels of this side, including those supplied from the Barberini codex, have two divisions.

4. S. Maria Maggiore: Triumphal arch.9

At the summit of this arch stands the inscription Xystvs episcopvs plebi Dei. It is the work of Pope Sixtus III, who p257renewed the whole basilica in memory of the famous decision of the Council of Ephesus in 431. The scenes in the arch lie in four zones or fields, of which the upper one only extends completely across the top of the arch. In the centre of this upper zone is a richly ornamented throne on which stands a jewelled cross with a crown at its foot resting on a black cloth. The whole is surrounded by an aureole. The interpretation of the black cloth has been much disputed. It probably signifies death, while the superimposed cross and crown express triumph over death (De Rossi). At either side of the aureole stand SS. Peter and Paul, and above are the four symbols of the evangelists in the following order from left to right,10 Luke, Matthew, Mark, John. In the same zone at the spectator's left, is depicted the Annunciation, in which Gabriel is accompanied by four other angels, and Zacharias stands before the temple. At the right is figured the meeting of Joseph, Mary, and the infant Jesus with Anna and Simeon before the temple. Originally there was another scene at the right, of which one angel only remains.

In the second zone at the left we have the Visit of the Magi. Jesus is represented seated on a throne, with the Virgin and another female figure seated at either side. At the right is a scene which is variously interpreted either as the dispute with the doctors and the meeting of the parents and son (Garrucci), or as the reception of the holy family in Egypt as described in the apocryphal gospel of Matthew (Kondakoff, De Waal, De Rossi, Kraus).

The third zone gives on the left Herod commanding the slaughter of the Innocents and on the right his reception of the Magi; while beneath in the fourth zone are seen the two cities, Jerusalem at the left, and Bethlehem at the right. Originally there were six sheep, representing the faithful flock, under each of these cities. Five are still to be seen on the left side, but none remain on the right.

p258 This arch is decorated with more crowded and complicated compositions than are found on the triumphal arches of other early Christian churches in Rome. Its age and good workmanship make one wish that it were more easily examined. It should be noticed that all the scenes in this church are Biblical, with the exception of those in the higher zone of the arch, which may properly be termed symbolical.

5. S. Paolo fuori le Mura: Triumphal arch.11 (Fig. 2)

The mosaics of this arch have undergone many restorations. They were originally made at the suggestion and expense of the empress Galla Placidia under Pope Leo the Great (440‑461). But restorations in the ninth, twelfth, fourteenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries have so changed the work that in all probability only the design remains of the original. For our purposes, however, this is sufficient.


[image ALT: zzz in the church of S. Paolo fuori le Mura, Rome, zzz. The mosaic is further described in the text of this webpage.]
Figure 2. — Mosaics in the Church of S. Paolo fuori le Mura, Rome.

There are three zones. In the centre of the first and occupying a part of the second, immediately above the summit of the p259arch, is an enormous bust of Christ, with a nimbus and rays darting from the head. Above and at each side are the evangelistic symbols (order, Luke, Matthew, Mark, John). In the second zone are the four and twenty elders in white robes, offering their crowns to Christ. An angel kneels at each side of the bust of Christ. In the lowest zone are tall figures of S. Peter at the right, and S. Paul at the left.

Above is the inscription in mosaic:

Teodosivs cepit perfecit Onorivs avlam

doctoris mvndi sacratam corpore Pavli.

On the border of the arch an inscription in mosaic reads:

Placidiae pia mens operis decvs homine paterni

gavdet pontificis stvdio splendere Leonis.

In SS. Cosma e Damiano and S. Prassede we have the leading features of this design repeated, while in S. Marco and S. Maria in Domnica, the two tall standing figures again appear in the corners of the arch.

6. S. Lorenzo in Agro Verano: Triumphal arch.12 (Fig. 3)


[image ALT: A partial view of the interior of the church of S. Lorenzo in Agro Verano, Rome: the triumphal arch over the choir. The mosaic is further described in the text of this webpage.]
Figure 3. — Mosaic in the Church of S. Lorenzo in Agro Verano, Rome.

By the numerous alterations which this church has suffered the sole antique mosaic which it contains has entirely lost its original position. In the early church it was the front of the triumphal arch. Above the mosaic was an inscription which has been restored from manuscript evidence by De Rossi:

Demovit Dominvs tenebras vt lvce creata

his qvondam latebris sic modo fvlgor inest

angvstos aditvs venerabile corpvs habebat

hvc vbi nvnc popvlvm longiore avla capit

ervta planities patvit svb monte recisa

estqve remota gravi mole rvina minax

praesvle Pelagio Martyr Lavrentivs olim

templa sibi statvit tam pretiosa dari

mira fides gladios hostiles inter et iras

pontificem meritis haec celebrasse svis

tv modo sanctorvm cvi crescere constat honores

fac svb pace coli tecta dicata tibi.

p260 Two windows have been broken through at either end. They come immediately over the representations of Jerusalem and Bethlehem at the two lower corners.

The scene is as follows: In the centre Christ is seated on a globe, holding a sceptre in his left hand and blessing with his right. A nimbus with the cross encircles his head. Two groups of three persons each are at either side. Their names are written above their heads. At either side of Christ are SS. Peter and Paul, then the two martyred deacons, SS. Laurentius and Stephanus, holding open books, while at the left end Pope Pelagius presents the model of the basilica to Laurentius, and on the right S. Hippolytus, who was buried in the adjoining cemetery, holds out a jewelled crown. The two cities are below in the corners.

On the border of the arch below the mosaic runs the inscription:

Martyrivm flammis olim levvita svbisti

ivre tvis templis lvx beneranda redit.

p261 S. Prassede: Triumphal arch.13

These mosaics, as well as those on the tribune wall and apse, were executed by order of Pope Paschal I (817‑824), and bear his monogram. There are two zones, the field of the upper one extending completely across the church, while the lower one is divided by the arch. That there are only two zones is doubtless due to the small size of the church and consequently of the arch.

In the centre of the upper field is depicted in a characteristically mediaeval fashion the New Jerusalem. In the very centre Christ stands between two angels, below whom are S. John the Baptist and the Virgin on one side, and S. Prassede on the other. The apostles, six on either side, appear in line with the last mentioned group, showing about half their figures above the golden battlements of the heavenly city. At the right and left hand are two figures symbolizing the Law and the Prophets, with an angel also on the right. Without the doors stand figures of SS. Peter and Paul, while a company of saints led by angels fill each end of the picture. The two lower parts of the arch are filled with a great company of the saints. The whole design is based on the twenty-first chapter of the Apocalypse.

8. SS. Cosma e Damiano: Tribune Arch and Apse.14 (Fig. 4)

The mosaics in this church are by far the best of those with which we have to do in point of beauty, design, and execution. They date from the time of Felix IV (526‑530). The arch mosaics were seriously mutilated when Urban VIII (1623‑1644) reduced the church to its present form, and the apse mosaics have been partially restored; but despite these defects they are noteworthy monuments.


[image ALT: zzz in the church of SS. Cosma e Damiano, Rome, zzz. The mosaic is further described in the text of this webpage.]
Figure 4. — Centre of Apse Mosaic,
Church of SS. Cosma e Damiano, Rome.

In the centre of the arch above the apse Christ is represented by the Lamb, reposing on the throne with the book of the seven p262seals. The throne stands between seven candelabra on which are burning lamps. Four angels two on each side, standing on the clouds, and the evangelistic symbols complete the upper zone. Two only of the symbols remain, those of Matthew and John. In the lower zone were originally the four and twenty elders holding out their crowns, but of these some of the hands with the crowns alone remain.

Fortunately the apse has suffered less. At the summit is the hand of God stretched out from heaven with the wreath or crown. In the centre appears a full-length figure of Christ, holding a roll of parchment in his left hand and with the right p263arm extended at full length. The background of the apse is a deep blue, and behind and below the figure of Christ are red and gold clouds. Below at the right and left SS. Peter and Paul present to him the two martyred Arabian physicians, SS. Cosmas and Damian, who hold crowns in their veiled hands. Then come at the left Pope Felix IV, holding a model of the church, and at the right S. Theodore. The figure of Felix was restored in the seventeenth century. A palm tree, emblem of victory, closes the scene at each end. On the one at the left is the bird Phoenix.

Around the lower part of the apse run two narrow bands. The upper has in the centre, just under the figure of Christ in the main scene, the Lamb of God standing on the Rock or Mount from which flow the four Rivers of Paradise. The Lamb, as in all scenes of this and later date, has the nimbus. Twelve sheep proceeding from the two cities at each end fill the rest of the zone. This is a very common design for the lower part of the apse.

Below runs the inscription in letters of gold on a dark background which takes up as much space as the picture of the sheep and cities above:

Avla Dei claris radiat speciosa metallis

in qva plvs fidei lvx pretiosa micat

martyribvs medicis popvlo spes certa salvtis

fecit et ex sacro crevit honore locvs

optvlit hoc Domino Felix antistite dignvm

mvnvs vt Aetheria vivat in arce poli.

9. Cappella di S. Venanzio in Battistero Lateranense: Tribune Arch and Apse.15

Pope John IV (640‑642) caused the mosaics in this chapel to be made. The wall above the apse was pierced by three windows, now closed by masonry. There are two zones in the wall mosaic. The first has the two cities at the ends, and then two panels, separated by the windows, in which are the evangelistic p264symbols, two in each panel (order, Luke, Matthew, Mark, John). The lower zone has at each side of the apse four standing figures of martyrs whose relics had been brought here by Pope John IV. The names written above each are, beginning at the left, SS. Paulianus, Telius, Asterius, Anastatius, Maurus, Septimus, Antiochianus, Caianus.

The apse mosaic is divided into three fields. In the centre of the upper is the bust of Christ between two busts of angels, all three surrounded by clouds. Below, directly beneath the Christ, stands the Virgin in an attitude of prayer. On the left hand stand SS. Paul, John the Evangelist, Venantius, and Pope John IV, the latter holding a model of the church; each of the others holds a book. On the right are SS. Peter and John the Baptist, holding crosses, S. Domnius, and Pope Theodore (642‑649), who probably finished the work. The last two hold books. Below is this inscription:16

Martyribvs Christi Domini pia vota Ioannes

reddidit antistes sanctificante Deo

ac sacri fontis simili fvlgente metallo

providvs instanter hoc copvlavit opvs

qvo qvisqvis gradiens et Christvm pronvs adorans

effvsasqve preces mittit ad aethra svas.

10. S. Prassede: Tribune Arch and Apse.17

These mosaic paintings are of the same date as those of the triumphal arch, 817‑724. The general plan of the wall and apse design is similar to that of SS. Cosma e Damiano, although the execution is much inferior. In the centre of the wall above the apse is the Lamb of God on the throne with a cross above. The throne stands between seven lamps burning on tall candelabra. At either side are two angels and the evangelistic symbols (order, Matthew, Mark, John, Luke). Below are the twenty-four elders, twelve on each side of the arch, robed in white and holding crowns in their hands.

p265 The apse mosaic is like that of SS. Cosma e Damiano in that the Christ stands on the clouds in the centre, while SS. Peter and Paul below present to him two saints, this time women, SS. Prassede and Pudenziana. Pope Paschal is on the left and S. Zeno on the right. Below are the Lamb of God on the Mount and the twelve sheep coming from the two cities. The inscription reads as follows:

Emicat avla piae variis decorata metallis

Praxedis Domino svper aethra placentis honore

pontificis svmmi stvdio Paschalis alvmni

sedis apostolicae passim qvi corpora condens

plvrima sanctorvm svbter haec moenia ponit

fretvs vt his limen mereatvr adire polorvm.

11. S. Maria in Domnica, or Della Navicella: Tribune Arch and Apse.18 (Fig. 5)


[image ALT: zzz in the church of S. Maria in Domnica, Rome, zzz. The mosaic is further described in the text of this webpage.]
Figure 5. — Mosaic in the Church of S. Maria in Domnica, Rome.

These mosaics also were executed by order of Pope Paschal I, who restored the church. They were afterwards restored by p266Clement XI (1700‑1721), but the design remains as in the original. There are two zones in the arch. In the centre of the upper one Christ is seated on a throne, surrounded by an aureole; at either side a standing angel, and then the twelve apostles, six on each side, each carrying a symbol. A rich floral design covers the ground. In each of the two lower corners is a tall standing figure pointing to the Christ above. They are probably two prophets.

In the apse we have a new feature in the central figure, the seated Virgin who holds the infant Christ in her lap. A multitude of adoring angels surround her. Pope Paschal, distinguished as still living by the square nimbus, kneels at her feet. Below is the inscription:

Ista domvs pridem fverat confracta rvinis

nuncº rvtilat ivgiter variis decorata metallis

et decvs ecce svvs splendet sev Phoebvs in orbe

qvi post fvrva fvgans tetrae velamina noctis

Virgo Maria tibi Paschalis praesvl honestvs

condidit hanc avlam laetvs per saecla manendam.

12. S. Marco in Pallacine: Tribune Arch and Apse.19

The mosaics in this church are the latest of our series, having been ordered by Pope Gregory IV (827‑844). The figures are little more than caricatures of the noble representations of an earlier age. The arch has two zones. Above is a bust of Christ giving the benediction, and at either side the symbols of the evangelists (order, Luke, Matthew, John, Mark). Below are tall standing figures of S. Paul on the left, and S. Peter on the right.

At the top and centre of the apse appears the hand of God holding the crown. Below in the centre a full-length figure of Christ, blessing with the right hand and holding an open book with the left. Three figures are on each side of him, the last of whom on the left is Pope Gregory IV, with the square nimbus. Each one stands on a sort of platform on which his name p267is written. Below is the Lamb on the Mount, the procession of sheep and the two cities. The following inscription fills the remaining space:

Vasta tholi primo sistvnt fvndamine fvlchra

qvae Salomoniaco fvlgent svb sidere ritv

haec tibi proqve tvo perfecit praesvl honore

Gregorivs Marce eximio cvi nomine qvartvs

tv qvoqve posce Devm vivendi tempora longa

donet et ad caeli post fvnvs sidera dvcat.

13. SS. Nereo ed Achilleo: Tribune arch.20 (Fig. 6)


[image ALT: zzz in the church of SS. Nereo ed Achilleo, Rome, zzz. The mosaic is further described in the text of this webpage.]
Figure 6. — Mosaic on Arch in the Church of SS. Nereo ed Achilleo, Rome.

The apse mosaic in this church is gone and has been replaced by a fresco. The tribune arch decorations date from the time of Pope Leo III (795‑816). There is a long upper zone, but in the place of figures in the lower corners are found floral patterns. The centre of the picture is filled with the scene of the Transfiguration. A full-length figure of Christ surrounded by an p268aureole is in the centre, while Moses and Elias stand beside him. The prostrate figures of the three apostles follow, S. Peter on the left, and SS. John and James on the right. There is also a group at each end; at the left the Annunciation, and at the right the Virgin with the infant Christ in her arms, while an angels stands behind.

14. S. Pudenziana: Apse.21 (Fig. 7).

This mosaic is probably the oldest, as it certainly is the most interesting, of those in Roman churches. The church goes back to the time of Siricius (384‑392), and probably the mosaic is contemporary with that pope. It has, however, suffered much from restorations, and it is only in recent years that its great antiquity has been generally admitted.


[image ALT: zzz in the church of S. Pudenziana, Rome, zzz. The mosaic is further described in the text of this webpage.]
Figure 7. — Mosaic in the Church of S. Pudenziana, Rome.

The apse originally contained three zones. In the centre of the upper part was the hand of God reaching down the crown from the clouds. Below it stands a Latin cross, richly ornamented p269with jewels, above the head of the Christ in the scene below. At either side are the evangelistic symbols in the clouds (order, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John). The middle zone has a background of buildings which present interesting architectural features. In the centre, Christ sits on a raised throne, which is adorned with precious stones. An open book rests on his knee, and is supported with the left hand, while the right is raised in the act of benediction. Seated figures of the apostles are on either side. The last one at each end is no longer visible owing to restorations of the church in 1588. Two standing female figures, SS. Pudenziana and Prassede, are placing crowns on the heads of the two chiefs of the apostles. The third zone has almost entirely disappeared. In the centre was the Lamb on the Mount, and possibly the sheep, as in later pictures.

15. Cappella or Exedra of SS. Rufina e Secunda (Portico di Cappella di S. Venanzio): Apse.22 (Fig. 8)


[image ALT: zzz in the xedra of SS. Rufina e Secunda, Rome, zzz. The mosaic is further described in the text of this webpage.]
Figure 8. — Mosaic in the Exedra of SS. Rufina e Secunda, Rome.

This small apse is filled with a beautiful floral design of gold on a blue background, which dates from the end of the fourth century. At the summit of the apse is a semicircle, in which stands a lamb between four doves. Below this ring, and half hidden in the maze of the floral pattern, are six Latin crosses.

The Chapel was the ancient entrance to the Lateran Baptistery. The design of the mosaic, which is similar to that in the tomb of galla Placidia at Ravenna, was afterwards copied in the large apses of S. Clemente and S. Maria Maggiore.

16. S. Agnese Fuori: Apse.23

Constantine the Great is said to have founded this church, but its present form is due to the restorations of Pope Honorius I (625‑639). The apse alone contains mosaics. At the summit is the hand of God extending from the clouds the martyr's crown. Below this are two broad bands of blue with gold stars. In the centre stands the saint, clothed magnificently, p270and wearing a crown and rich jewels. Flames and a sword at her feet signify the manner of her martyrdom. Above her head is the inscription Sca Agnes. At the left stands Pope Honorius holding a model of the basilica. At the right is another Pope, probably Symmachus (Armellini, Kraus). The following inscription fills the remaining space:

Avrea concisis svrgit pictvra metallis

et complexa simvl clavditvr ipsa dies

fontibvs e niveis credas avrora svbire

correptas nvbes roribvs arva rigans

vel qvalem inter sidera lvcem proferet irim

pvrpvrevsqve pavo ipse colore nitens

qvi potvit noctis vel lvcis reddere finem

martyrvm e bvstis hinc reppvlit ille chaos

svrsvm versa nvtv qvod cvnctis cernitvr vno

praesvl Honorivs haec vota dicata dedit

vestibvs et fractis signantvr illivs ora

lvcet et aspectv lvcida corda gerens.

p271 17. S. Teodoro: Apse.24

The small round edifice at the foot of the Palatine was founded before the time of Gregory the Great (590‑604), and has been restored at least twice, under Nicholas V in 1447, and under Clement XI in 1674. There is some difference of opinion among investigators regarding the date of the mosaic. The weight of evidence appears to be for the time of Hadrian I (772‑795). The mosaic is on the vaulting of the apse at the rear of the church.

Above is the hand of God and the wreath. In the centre, Christ is seated on a globe with a sceptre in his left hand and blessing with his right. At the right, S. Peter presents to him S. Theodore, who holds the martyr's crown. This figure was restored in 1447. At the left, S. Paul presents another saint, possibly S. Cleonicus.

18. S. Stefano Rotondo: Apse of Chapel of SS. Primo e Feliciano.25

This apse is in a small chapel, originally a portico, on the east side of this famous round church. The mosaic was ordered by Pope Theodore I (642‑649). Above is the hand extending the wreath from heaven. Below it is a small bust of Christ, surrounded by a circle, and resting on the top of a jewelled Latin cross, which fills the centre. The full-length figures of the two saints, Primus and Felicianus, are at the left and right. Their names are inscribed on a level with their heads. Below is this inscription:26

aspicis avratvm caelvsti cvlmine tectvm

astrifervmqve micans praeclaro lvmine fvltvm.

19. S. Cecilia in Trastevere: Apse.27

Like the mosaics in S. Prassede and in S. Maria in Domnica, this one in S. Cecilia dates from the time of Paschal I, and p272bears his monogram. The general character of the figures is very much like that of the mosaics of these churches. There are three zones. In the upper we have the hand and wreath. Then a row of standing figures; these are, from left to right, Pope Paschal (square nimbus), holding a model of the church; a virgin (probably S. Cecilia); S. Paul; Christ, belong with the right hand; S. Peter; a young man, holding the martyr's crown (probably S. Valerianus); and another virgin, with the crown in her hand. A palm closes the scene at either end, with the Phoenix in the one at the left.

Below are the cities Bethlehem and Jerusalem, the twelve sheep, and the Lamb on the Mount, from which flow the Four Rivers. The inscription is as follows:

haec domvs ampla micat variis fabricata metallis

condidit in melivs confracta svb tempore prisco

hanc avlam Domini formans fvndamine claro

avrea gemmatis resonant haec Dindima templi

laetvs amore Dei hic conivnxit corpora sancta

Caeciliae et sociis rvtilat hic flore ivventvs

qvae pridem in crvptis pavsabant membra beata

Roma resvltat ovans semper ornata per aevvm.

20. S. Costanza: Lunettes and Lateral Vaults.28 (Fig. 9).

Over the doors of this church are two lunettes which are covered by extremely rude mosaics. Some attempt has been made in them to copy the coloring of the fine mosaics in the aisle. They date from the eighth century. In one we have God seated on a globe presenting with his left hand the law to Moses. In the other we have Christ standing and blessing with the right hand, while below is the Mount with the Four Rivers. SS. Peter and Paul stand on either side, one bearing a scroll with the words, Dominvs pacem dat. At each end is a hut with a palm behind it. Four sheep stand below. It would be hard to imagine a greater contrast than that between p273these mosaics and those on the vaulting of the round aisle or colonnade.

This round church was originally erected as a baptistery, and later, about 354, it became the tomb of Constantia, daughter of the Emperor Constantine, from whom its modern name is derived. Of the sumptuous and elaborate decorations in mosaic which originally covered its dome and other parts only the scenes on the vault over the aisle between the inner circle of columns and the outer wall have been preserved. There are sketches of the lost portions which enable us to form some idea of the original designs, but here we are concerned only with what remains. The vaulting is divided into eleven compartments. p274They are filled with conventional designs of rare beauty. Fruits, flowers, birds, fishes, even domestic utensils, male and female heads, and figures of Cupid and Psyche occupy the vacant spaces in geometrical designs, in which squares, circles, spirals, and crosses are the chief elements. There are two representations of a wine press, oxen drawing the grapes, etc., and in the centre of these particular panels are busts. The background is decorated with grapevines full of birds and Cupids. There is nothing in this decoration which is not pagan, and still nothing which might not have a purely Christian interpretation.


[image ALT: zzz in the church of S. Costanza, Rome, zzz. The mosaic is further described in the text of this webpage.]
Figure 9. — Mosaic in the Church of S. Costanza, Rome.

21. Oratorio di S. Giovanni Evangelista, Lateran Baptistery: Central Vault and Lunettes.29

The mosaics in this chapel are from the pontificate of Hilary (461‑468). They are found on the vaulted ceiling and the upper part of the walls, and on lunettes. In the centre of the ceiling is a square within which is a wreath of flowers. Within this stands the Lamb. Floral bands radiate to the four corners, while birds, in either groups of two each, are between these bands on the ceiling near the walls. The combination of flowers, birds, and laurel wreaths is very beautiful against the gold background. The lunettes also contain mosaics of floral and geometrical designs.

22. Cappella di S. Zenone, S. Prassede: Central Vault and Walls.30

These mosaics, like the others in this church, are from the time of Paschal I (817‑824). The vaulted ceiling and upper walls of the chapel are covered with mosaics. The entrance to the chapel, on the right aisle of the church, is decorated with a series of medallions arranged in the form of an arch above an arch, with the bust of Christ as the keystone of the upper and that of the Virgin of the lower arch. There are medallions of eight female and two male saints on the lower arch, and of the p275twelve apostles on the upper arch. On the spandrils of the upper arch are two medallions of men.

In the interior, the vaulted ceiling pictures a medallion of Christ, supported by four angels, each of whom springs from a corner of the chapel. On the walls are scenes of SS. Peter and Paul, three martyred virgins with their crowns, three apostles each carrying a book, and smaller scenes of Christ between two saints, the Lamb on the Mount, etc. The whole is extremely "Byzantine" in character.

In recapitulation we may say broadly that the triumphal arch, of which we now have only four examples covered with mosaics of our period, is large and has several zones. The two earlier ones, S. Maria Maggiore and S. Paolo Fuori, have in the upper zone the signs of the evangelists and the representation of Christ in the centre, in one case a cross enthroned and in the other the actual figure. The lower zones in the arch of S. Maria Maggiore present Biblical scenes with the exception of the picture of the enthroned Christ with the Virgin seated beside him, which is probably a restoration. In S. Paolo Fuori the other scenes are apocalyptic, as are those in S. Prassede. The mosaic painting on the arch of S. Lorenzo divides with the inscription the attention of the spectator, and, like the inscription, honors the patron saint of the church by bringing him into connection with Christ and the two chiefs of the apostles.

The mosaics on the tribune wall or arch should be studied in connection with those of the apse immediately beneath and beside them. Here are always at least two distinctly marked fields. The arches of SS. Cosma e Damiano and S. Prassede are similar in design, representing scenes from the Apocalypse; i.e., the Lamb enthroned between the seven candelabra, the evangelistic symbols, and the twenty-four elders. The arch in the Cappella di S. Venanzio has the evangelistic symbols and the figures of the martyrs buried in the chapel. SS. Nereo ed Achilleo gives two Biblical scenes, the Transfiguration and the Annunciation, and also the Virgin and infant Christ. S. Maria p276in Domnica presents a single purpose; the Christ enthroned in the upper zone is the central figure toward which the apostles turn and the two prophets point. Similarly in S. Marco the bust of Christ is the centre of the evangelistic symbols and the Apostles Peter and Paul.

In the apse we see distinctly the triumph of the symbolical over the Biblical. The Apocalypse furnishes the greater part of whatever Biblical ideas appear. In all but the two chapels of the Lateran Baptistery, S. Prassede, and S. Maria in Domnica the summit of the apse is occupied by the Hand and Crown. The central figure is generally taller than the others, and in all but S. Agnese, S. Maria in Domnica, and the Exedra of SS. Rufina e Secunda it is Christ, represented either as standing or sitting or in bust form. The rest of the apse is generally filled by figures of SS. Peter and Paul, the two patron saints of Rome, the particular patron saint of the church with other saints connected with him by legend or history, and the founder or restorer of the church. In the larger apses the procession of sheep appears below, and in all but three cases a metrical inscription completes the mosaic.

The decoration of chapels is decidedly different because of the great diversity of form between a flat wall or a rounded apse which can be seen only from in front, and a small, vaulted space which may be seen from many angles. In vault mosaics patterns of great beauty are found in S. Costanza and the Oratorio di S. Giovanni Evangelista. But interesting as they are, they lie somewhat outside the scope of this paper.

We have seen that but one church in Rome confines its representations to those Biblical scenes, which, from the authors of the fifth and earlier centuries, we might expect to discover in large numbers; nor are these scenes in S. Maria Maggiore in accord with any of the schemes set forth in the literature. But we must remember that in this same church alone have the panel mosaics of the nave been preserved. Architecturally these panels lend themselves to the portrayal of separate incidents far better than the more prominent arches and the apse, p277which are of a form somewhat awkward for the composition of groups of figures in action. And it is only by the device of distinctly marked fields that Biblical scenes are represented on the arch of S. Maria Maggiore, and because of the smallness of the tribune arch of SS. Nereo ed Achilleo (which has hardly room for more than one zone), that we have the three groups of the Transfiguration, the Annunciation, and the Virgin and Child. It is therefore only natural that the symbolical and apocalyptic scenes in which not action but attributes are involved should occupy the fields toward which the worshipping congregation directed their looks.

A classification of these figures and symbols by position and approximate date is here given. The Roman numerals refer to the century in which the mosaic was executed.

Christ. In every mosaic painting except S. Agnese and one of the apses in S. Costanza we have the Christ, generally as the centre around which the other figures are grouped. We have the

Bust (centre): in S. Paolo, V, arch of Triumph; S. Marco, IX, tribune wall; S. Venanzio, VII, apse; S. Stefano, VII, apse.

Full length figure standing (centre): S. Prassede, IX, arch of triumph; apse: SS. Cosma e Damiano, VI, apse; S. Marco, IX, apse; S. Cecilia, IX, apse; SS. Nereo ed Achilleo, IX, tribune wall; S. Costanza, VIII, lunette.

Enthroned (centre): S. Maria in Domnica, IX, tribune arch; S. Pudenziana, IV, apse.

Seated on globe (centre): S. Lorenzo, VI, arch of triumph; S. Teodoro, VIII, apse.

Lamb enthroned: SS. Cosma e Damiano, VI, tribune wall; S. Prassede, IX, tribune wall.

Lamb on the Mount: S. Pudenziana, IV, apse; SS. Cosma e Damiano, VI, apse; S. Prassede, IX, apse; S. Marco, IX, apse; S. Cecilia, IX, apse.

Lamb (without other symbols): SS. Rufina e Secunda, IV, apse; Oratorio di S. Giovanni Evangelista, V, ceiling.

p278 Most of the figures of Christ in both the bust and the full-length form are in the act of benediction. A nimbus always surrounds the head. In SS. Paolo Fuori, Lorenzo, and Teodoro, he has the sceptre in the left hand; in SS. Pudenziana, Cosma e Damiano, Nereo ed Achilleo, Cecilia, and Marco a scroll or an open book.

The Virgin Mary is depicted in the Biblical scenes on the arch of S. Maria Maggiore, but not again until the seventh century in the Cappella di S. Venanzio, where she stands under the bust of carry in an attitude of prayer. The church of SS. Nereo ed Achilleo, IX, shows the Virgin and Child and the Annunciation as end pieces in the tribune arch, while in S. Maria in Domnica, IX, the Virgin and Child occupy the centre of the apse, surrounded by the angelic host and worshipped by the reigning Pope, Paschal I.

SS. Peter and Paul. These heads of the apostolic church and patron saints of the eternal city appear in most of the mosaic paintings. Generally, S. Peter is distinguished by his baldness, a square-cut white beard, and the keys, while S. Paul has a pointed beard, and either the sword or a scroll. They are generally found on either side of Christ, or some other central figure, while twice they occupy prominent positions on the triumphal arch. In every case but S. Lorenzo Fuori, S. Paul is at the right hand of the central figure and S. Peter at the left. They occur in the apse in SS. Pudenziana, IV, Cosma e Damiano, VI, Venanzio, VII, Teodoro, VIII, Costanza, VIII, Cecilia, IX, Prassede, IX, on the tribune wall in S. Marco, IX, and on the arch of triumph in S. Maria Maggiore, S. Paolo Fuori, and S. Lorenzo Fuori, VI. They are found with the ten other apostles on the arch of triumph in S. Prassede, the tribune wall in S. Maria in Domnica, both seventh century, and on the apse of S. Pudenziana, IV.

The Patron Saint of the Church (other than the Virgin) is placed on the triumphal arch in S. Lorenzo Fuori, VI, and in S. Paolo Fuori, V, but in neither case as the central figure. In one church only, S. Agnese, VII, does the patron saint p279occupy the central position in the apse, although in SS. Pudenziana, IV, Cosma e Damiano, VI, Teodoro, VIII, Prassede, IX, Cecilia, IX, and Marco, IX, the patron saint is introduced in a position of honor in the apse, and in the chapels of S. Venanzio, VII, and Primo e Feliciano, VII, the saints to whom the chapel is dedicated figure in the apses.

Other saints are found depicted in the church mosaics in addition to the apostles, the patron saints, and the Virgin. Generally they are those who have some connection with the patron saint, either by similarity of office or suffering, or by locality, as, for example, SS. Stephen and Hippolytus in S. Lorenzo; S. Stephen being another deacon made illustrious by martyrdom, and S. Hippolytus being buried in the cemetery near at hand. So S. Pudenziana and S. Prassede are connected in the apses of their churches, while in the mosaics of the Chapel of S. Venanzio are martyrs whose relics lie in that spot.

The Apocalyptic Symbols of the man, lion, ox, and eagle, connected early in the history of the church with the evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, are but once found in the apse. They are regularly in the upper zone of the arch surrounding the figure or symbol of Christ. The variations in order noted in the description may possibly have some significance. These symbols occur on the arch of triumph of S. Maria Maggiore, V, S. Paolo Fuori, V, the tribune wall of SS. Cosma e Damiano, VI, S. Venanzio, VII, S. Prassede, IX, S. Marco, IX, and on the apse of S. Pudenziana, IV.

Other symbols are:

1. The Cross: always of the Latin form, and decorated with gems, in the centre of the triumphal arch of S. Maria Maggiore, V, and in the apse of S. Pudenziana, IV, SS. Rufina e Secunda, IV, Cappella di Primo e Feliciano, VII.

2. The Hand, extending the martyr's Crown: apse only; in S. Pudenziana, IV, S. Agnese, VII, Cappella di SS. Primo e Feliciano, VII, S. Teodoro, VIII, S. Cecilia, IX, S. Prassede, IX, and S. Marco, IX.

p280 3. The Seven Candelabra: tribune wall, SS. Cosma e Damiano, VI, S. Prassede, IX.

4. The Sheep: representing the church, generally twelve in number, either coming from or standing near the cities Jerusalem and Bethlehem, arch of S. Maria Maggiore, V, apse of S. Pudenziana, IV, SS. Cosma e Damiano, VI, S. Prassede, IX, S. Cecilia, IX, S. Marco, IX, S. Costanza, VIII.

5. The Two Cities: signifying the Gentile and Jewish origin of the church. These are found on the triumphal arch in S. Maria Maggiore, V, S. Lorenzo, VI, on the tribune wall in S. Venanzio, VII, and on the apse of SS. Cosma e Damiano, VI, S. Cecilia, IX, S. Prassede, IX, S. Marco, IX.

6. The Palm: signifying victory, in two cases with the Phoenix in its branches. Apses of SS. Cosma e Damiano, VI, S. Prassede, IX, S. Cecilia, IX, and S. Costanza, VIII.

7. The Martyr's Crown: carried by the person depicted in the veiled hand.

8. The Four Rivers of Paradise: found flowing from the Mount on which stands the Lamb of God.

9. The River Jordan: SS. Cosma e Damiano, VI, and S. Prassede, IX.

The twenty-four elders of the Apocalypse are shown on the triumphal arch of S. Paolo, V, the tribune arch of SS. Cosma e Damiano, VI, and S. Prassede, IX. The triumphal arch of the latter church is wholly taken up with scenes supposed to represent the saints in Paradise.

Popes, both those living at the time the mosaic was made, and earlier ones, are depicted in the apses of certain churches. They are regularly the founders or restorers of the church. Living popes are distinguished by the square nimbus. There are representations of Popes in S. Agnese, VII, S. Venanzio, VII, S. Prassede, IX, S. Maria in Domnica, IX, S. Cecilia, IX, S. Marco, IX.

p281 An important feature of the mosaic decoration of churches was the Inscription. We have the inscription covering a great portion of the wall space in S. Sabina, V, and in the arch of S. Lorenzo, VI. It should be remembered also that the inscriptions are an integral portion of the apse decoration in most of the churches which we have been studying, and that they were originally much lighter and more legible than at present; also that they were not darkened by the altar canopies as many are now. In addition to those given above, others no longer extant are given in De Rossi's Inscriptiones christianae Urbis Romae, vol. 2. They were found in S. Pietro in Vaticano, "in arcu maiore et abside" (2, p20, no. 6), "in abside Sancti Petri super fontem" (ibid.), and "in trono Sci. Crisogoni" (ibid. p152, no. 27); three in the church of S. Stefano rotondo, in addition to the one given above (ibid. p152), and one "in abside templi S. Petri ad vincula" (ibid. p134). They are of the same character as those already given in extenso, and so are omitted.

It would be interesting to pursue this subject further and to inquire into the relations of the facts set forth in the foregoing pages to the liturgy and the religious conceptions of the times in which these mosaics were made. They have already been carefully studied and described on their artistic and technical side by others, and but little remains to be done in that direction. The limits of this paper, however, forbid such an inquiry, but it is hoped that some other person better equipped for the task may enter upon it. Certainly these stiff and erect saints and martyrs, these quaint and curious symbols, these glowing and badly composed verses, are witnesses to thought and belief worthy of as much attention as the written opinions and learned discussions of the time.

William Warner Bishop.

Princeton University Library.


The Author's Notes:

1 Cf. Kraus, Geschichte d. christlichen Kunst, I, pp383‑389.

2 Cf. De Rossi, Gio. Battista, Musaici cristiani . . . delle chiese di Roma, Rome, 1899, 'Note bibliografiche sui musaici perduti.'

3 S. Agnese, for instance. Cf. the notices in the Liber pontificalis under Symmachus (ed. Mommsen, 1898, p123), and especially Honorius (ibid. p174), who fecit absida eiusdem basilicae ex musibo.

4 Cf. De Rossi, op. cit. tav. XX; Garrucci, Storia dell' arte cristiana, IV, tav. 275.

5 Cf. De Rossi, op. cit. tav. XII; Garrucci, op. cit. IV, tav. 210.

6 Cf. De Rossi, op. cit. tav. VI‑VIII; Garrucci, op. cit. IV, tav. 215‑222.

7 Now transferred to the Vatican.

8 I follow that given by Garrucci, op. cit. IV, pp17‑30.

9 Cf. De Rossi, op. cit. tav. V; Garrucci, op. cit. IV, tav. 211‑214.

10 In this paper the terms right and left are always used of objects at the right or left of the spectator.

11 De Rossi, op. cit. tav. XVI; Garrucci, op. cit. IV, tav. 271.

12 Cf. De Rossi, op. cit. tav. XVI; Garrucci, op. cit. IV, tav. 271.

13 Cf. De Rossi, op. cit. tav. XXVI; Garrucci, op. cit. IV, tav. 285.

14 Cf. De Rossi, op. cit. tav. XV; Garrucci, op. cit. IV, tav. 253.

15 Cf. De Rossi, op. cit. tav. XIX; Garrucci, op. cit. IV, tav. 272‑273.

16 I give the words printed by De Rossi (op. cit. ad tav. XIX), instead of the readings of the modern inscription, which has suffered from restorations.

17 Cf. De Rossi, op. cit. tav. XXV; Garrucci, op. cit. IV, tav. 286.

18 Cf. De Rossi, op. cit. tav. XXIII; Garrucci, op. cit. IV, tav. 293.

19 Cf. De Rossi, op. cit. tav. XXVIII; Garrucci, op. cit. IV, tav. 294.

20 Cf. De Rossi, op. cit. tav. XXII; Garrucci, op. cit. IV, tav. 284.

21 Cf. De Rossi, op. cit. tav. X; Garrucci, op. cit. I, frontispiece.

22 Cf. De Rossi, op. cit. tav. XI; Garrucci, op. cit. IV, tav. 283.

23 Cf. De Rossi, op. cit. tav. XVIII; Garrucci, op. cit. IV, tav. 274.

24 Cf. De Rossi, op. cit. tav. XVII; Garrucci, op. cit. IV, tav. 252.

25 Cf. De Rossi, op. cit. tav. XVII; Garrucci, op. cit. IV, tav. 274.

26 Supplied in part from De Rossi, Inscrip. Christ. 2, p440.

27 Cf. De Rossi, op. cit. tav. XXIV; Garrucci, op. cit. IV, tav. 292.

28 Cf. De Rossi, op. cit. tav. II‑IV; Garrucci, op. cit. IV, tav. 205‑207.

29 Cf. De Rossi, op. cit. tav. XIV; Garrucci, op. cit. IV, tav. 238.

30 Cf. De Rossi, op. cit. tav. XVXI‑XXVII; Garrucci, op. cit. IV, tav. 287‑291.


Thayer's Note:

a A careful look at the photograph shows that in the fifth line we have not CHRISTI but CRHISTI. Armellini, p581, makes the same mistake (and two more).


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