Mirabilia Urbis: Rome Walking Tours

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All That Glitters: Christian Mosaics from Roman Antiquity to the Late 1200s

"All that glitters is not gold," but in several churches around Rome, can you be sure? Christian communities, local aristocrats, and popes (or their cardinal nephews) often lavished sumptuous mosaics on their favorite churches. Sparkling gold backgrounds, the occasional use of silver leaf, the weighty presence of navy blue glass… and the glitter! Imagine what the mosaics looked like during Mass in the evening as torchlight caused them to shimmer.

The glistening Santa Pudenzia colors were enchanting, and more importantly, for the faithful the mosaics brought to life promises of an afterlife and their eternal reward. During this visit, we will study the apse mosaics in three different churches from three different periods: Santa Pudenziana, Santa Prassede, and Santa Maria Maggiore, in order to better understand Christian symbolism and Church politics.

Meeting in the morning (to accommodate all three churches), we start at the spartan parish church of Santa Pudenziana on the Esquiline hill.  We will delve into the saint’s biography and the general history of her church, but it’s the mosaics in the apse that immediately catch our attention. Dating to the end of the 4th century, these are the oldest surviving mosaics in a Christian church in Rome. Mosaic Lamb

 Leaving Santa Pudenziana, we walk briefly uphill to the neighboring church of Santa Prassede, whose saint is alleged to be Pudenziana’s sister. According to historical records, a sanctuary dedicated to her stood somewhere near the current church. Deeming the original sanctuary too modest (and untenably rickety), a renovator pope by the name of Paschal replaced the old church around 820. That’s his monogram flashing in the gold mosaic, just below the Lamb of God mentioned in the Apocalypse.  With Rockefeller-like munificence, he donated the necessary funds to embellish the apse, together with its inner and outer triumphal arches, with scenes from the Apocalypse.

A big spender, Pope Paschal had a chapel for his mother, Theodora, built and decorated on the side of Santa Prassede. The space is unique for Rome, although it can be compared to several mausolea and monuments in Ravenna. Stepping into the sacred space, which can comfortably accommodate no more than 8 or 9 people, visitors find themselves 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. 

Santa Maria Maggiore Next door, at the mammoth Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, gorgeous mosaics await. But before diving in, we peruse this church's colorful history, which includes a miraculous snowfall in August.

Proceeding to the 5th century mosaics along the outer triumphal arch, we see that some images are preoccupied with the Nestorian heresy that wracked the Church at that time; still others were gleaned from the books of the Bible now considered a part of the Apocrypha. We then fly forwards in time and concentrate on the apse mosaics, executed around 1290-1295 by Giacopo Torriti, whose bold autograph as pictor is still visible. Since the church is dedicated the Virgin Mary, Torriti's work features both her Assumption and her Coronation. An image of cosmic harmony, it must be contrasted with its equivalent in the church of Santa Maria in Trastevere. Interesting dissimilarities will divulge much about the historical and political realities in which Santa Maria Maggiore and the artist, Torriti, were involved. Santa Maria Exterior

Time permitting, the visit ends with the mosaics on the facade of Santa Maria Maggiore. Here we admire the late medieval craftsmanship that was brutally covered by a neoclassical loggia in the 1700s. After purchasing the necessary tickets, we are escorted to the upper story of the loggia, which overlooks the Square in front of the church. At close quarters with four enormous vignettes, which uplifted and edified the populace in the piazza for centuries, we will admire and decipher the work of Filippo Rusuti, a contemporary of Torriti.