Tag Archives: mosaics

Things in which I delight: Mosaics

A lot of people feel that 2016 was a terrible year, largely because of the Brexit referendum, Donald Trump, and the untimely deaths of several celebrities. Some of my friends also had personal sorrow and loss. I do not wish to downplay the bad stuff in the world, and I think we should think hard about how to make 2017 better.

In the spirit of making 2017 awesome, I’m going to post about things in which I delight every once in a while. Whenever the fancy strikes me, about whatever thing that grabs me.

Today: Mosaics

I’ve chosen mosaics because on Monday, I gave the introductory lecture to first-year Roman imperial history. As part of the lecture, I listed reasons to study the Roman Empire, including this mosaic:

IMG_2192This is an early second-century mosaic of doves from Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli, now in the Capitoline Museum in Rome. The tesserae (the little bits of glass/tile/stone used to make a mosaic) are very, very tiny, often only a few millimetres in length. From a distance, it can be mistaken for a painting, so fine is the handiwork.

I delight in mosaics.

They have a particular aesthetic that other forms of art do not have. Now, I like other visual arts, other media of beauty. Maybe I’ll share some stained glass one day soon. Each has its own particular way of displaying beauty. Few mosaics look quite as much like a painting as the doves above (although there is only one painting in San Peter’s, Rome!). The bringing together of many small items, each unique, to create a larger whole, results in a different feel.

I’m not very good at writing about art, so let’s just move on to the pictures. If you want a set of 105 mosaic photos, I’ve got one of those on Flickr.

Here are some of the mosaic photos that I’ve taken. (Not, however, photo mosaics.)

The walls of the Vatican museum are full of mosaics, the provenance of which I don’t know. But I like the mosaics. Some of them are also on the floor, come to think of it. Here’s one on the wall:

14324068596_a409c855cb_oI like this next in particular; also from Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli, it’s similar to the doves in size, both its own and its tesserae. It features goats, which are something else in which I delight:

14323870206_d48757db82_oThis next mosaic is from the Vatican’s floor, depicting Achilles dragging Hector around:

14160544047_57589817ec_oYou can also find ancient mosaics at the Louvre in Paris:

9739292243_e77aef4002_oThis one is part of the Mosaics of the Seasons, c. 225, from Daphne a suburb of Antioch (modern Antakya, Turkey).

Elsewhere in Paris, you can see medieval mosaics, such as this one from the 12th-c floor of the double ambulatory of St-Denis. It is also about the seasons — in October, the vintner puts wine in his barrel:

7796704496_6968b492a7_oGoing back in time, the first ancient mosaics I saw were in Cyprus when I was there 2005-06, such as this one in situ in a villa at Kourion:

114095207_4ec73ac5a7_oMost mosaics I’ve seen, however, have been in Italian churches…

IMG_5381This is a vaguely blurry image of half the triumphal arch at Santa Maria Maggiore as well as some of the apsidal dome. The mosaic on the arch dates to the papacy of Xystus III (432-440). At the bottom is Jerusalem (parallelled by Bethlehem on the right side of the mosaic. Above it we see stories from Jesus’ life, such as the massacre of the innocents, Jesus in the Temple as a boy, and an event at the top that I can’t place. The glistening gold of the apse is 13th-century and features the Coronation of the Virgin; all of my photos of it are extraordinarily blurry.

IMG_2879This 11th-century mosaic is on the apse of the Basilica di Sant’Ambrogio in Milan. Christ, throned in glory, is flanked by angels. In the lower corners of the semi-dome you can see some of St Ambrose’s miracles.

Speaking of St Ambrose, here is my rather lacklustre attempt at a photo of the fifth-century mosaic in the side chapel of San Vittore in the same basilica.

6804126324_0054676f10_oStaying in the fifth century, let’s zip back down to Rome to San Paolo fuori le Mura to nod our heads in admiration of this big mosaic of Jesus dating to the papacy of Leo and lifetime of Galla Placidia (440-50):

Fifth-century mosaic from San Paolo fuori le Mura, Rome

Fifth-century mosaic from San Paolo fuori le Mura, Rome

I could fill this post with images of Roman church mosaics, but won’t. I’ll give two more, though. First is Santa Prassede, which is Rosamond McKitterick’s favourite Roman church:

IMG_2755Second, St Paul’s within the Walls (the American Episcopal church in Rome):

14121281141_9958bb96b7_oAs with many 19th-c images I love, this (sadly, blurry photo) is Pre-Raphaelite — Edward Burne-Jones.

In a vain attempt to keep Rome under control, here are camels on a dome from the porch of San Marco, Venice:

12743169073_9138f75184_oI think I’ll end here. Sorry that some of these are blurry. I do like a mosaic, though!

Art does not exist in discrete boxes designated by period

Santa Maria Maggiore, competing visually with the Colosseum?

Santa Maria Maggiore, competing visually with the Colosseum?

Growing up in Rocky Mountain House, Alberta, and then Thunder Bay, Ontario, I had this idea that the history of the arts was neatly compartmentalised. After mediaeval stuff, there was Renaissance, then Baroque, then Classical, then Romantic. (Which is where music history should maybe end?) My first clue that this was not so cut-and-dry was when I learned that Beethoven, although ‘Classical’ is, in certain respects, drawing us into the Romantic.

When we think about visual art, it’s pretty much the same. People didn’t stop building Romanesque churches just because Gothic had come around. Gothic-style art was not immediately engulfed by the Renaissance. And sometimes it can be hard to see where the Renaissance ends and the Baroque begins.

Not only do stylistic periods overlap, but in real life they also co-exist. This coexistence is abundantly evident in Rome, where the same church might house ancient columns, Late Antique mosaics, mediaeval mosaics and a mediaeval crucifix, as well as some Renaissance paintings and Baroque architecture and sculpture. Some places that look like the Baroque vomited all over their inside still have their wooden, mediaeval crucifices and maybe an early mediaeval Byzantine Madonna and Child. And sometimes you can find the 19th century peeking around the corner.

It’s a simple point, but an important one. The visual world of a single place and period is not restricted to its historical moment. The Colosseum is not just a Flavian monument; it persists in monumentality in Late Antiquity, in the Middle Ages, in the Renaissance, through every period of art in the Eternal City, right up until today. It does not cease to be part of the visual landscape of Rome just because modern Roman buildings are quite different.

I think this simple observation is important for historians when they start to try to take into account the visual evidence of a given period. It is important to track the changes and developments peculiar to each moment, but we also need to remember what the rest of the visual world of these people was.

For example, fifth-century Rome is not just refurbished Constantinian basilicas. It is not just the Theodosian Mausoleum. It is not just the mosaics in Santa Sabina and Santa Maria Maggiore. It is also the Basilica of Maxentius, the Baths of Trajan, the Ara Pacis, the Column of Trajan, the Pantheon, the Circus Maximus, the imperial residence on the Palatine. Rome in the 400s was still ancient Rome, and these secular and pagan monuments were the main visual displays for the populace of the City, including her bishops (‘popes’).

This means that when we look at the mosaics in the fifth-century basilicas, we need to ask ourselves what message Xystus III or Celestine I was sending into this world full of triumphal arches, secular military campaigns, pagan temples, altars to false gods. What does it mean? In this still-so-pagan visual world, is the drowning of the Egyptians in the Red Sea up on the wall in Santa Maria Maggiore, alongside Joshua making the sun stand still in the sky in battle against the Amorites, or Melchizedek prefiguring Christ not making its own statement about the supremacy of Rome’s new religion and protector?

Finally, I think that this Classical visual culture will still have had its effect upon the Christians as they started to make themselves visible in the public spaces of Rome, or in their sarcophagi. I think it would be unavoidable, living right alongside the Arch of Septimius Severus and the Column of Marcus Aurelius, let alone the Classical sarcophagi along the roads in and out of the City.

These are thoughts that could be considered for any city and any time. What did it look like to them? What else was there besides what was new? How might this have influenced them? Did it affect Tallis to write Renaissance music for singing in Gothic churches? Who knows? We never will if we don’t ask.

Roman Basilicas: Hunting Late Antiquity

Santa Sabina

Santa Sabina, fifth-century basilica on Aventine Hill, Rome

The Mausoleo di Santa Costanza, as discussed here, was not the only Late Antique building I found on my hunt through Rome. On the day I visited Santa Costanza, I also visited several basilicas and the Baths of Diocletian — not to mention a variety of artefacts on display in the Museo Nazionale Romano. Now for basilicas.

When we think of basilicas today, we immediately think of St Peter’s in Rome or Sacré Coeur in Paris; that sort of basilica, especially the latter, is not so much an architectural term any more as it is a special type of church that has a special papal blessing, if memory serves me right. However, our earliest Christian basilicas are not of that sort.

The architectural origins of the Christian basilica, as with so much other early Christian art and architecture, are classical. (The argument about alleged pagan tainting of Christianity can be had over at this blog, not here.) A basilica is a big, public building in the Roman world. They served many functions — social, economic, judicial. Stuff went down in basilicas.

The earliest named basilica is the Basilica Porcia, mentioned by Livy as being built by Cato the Elder in 184 BC. People kept building them for everyday, secular purposes throughout antiquity; there is one that served basically as a throne room at Trier, the Aula Palatina, and the giant remains of the Basilica Nova of Constantine and Maxentius are a very prominent feature of the Roman Forum today.
Basilica of MaxentiusWhen Constantine made Christianity definitively legal ca 312/3, Christian basilicas started popping up as places for public worship. The basilica at Tyre, for example, opened in the year 316 with a homily by Eusebius — and from as early as that Christian theology of space and buildings was already infusing what went on in basilicas.

The city of Rome is filled with basilicas, popping up all over the place. They started with St John’s Lateran — of which basilica (not counting the baptistery next door) nothing ancient remains, although the current Renaissance building is striking — and continued being built throughout the Late Antique and Early Mediaeval worlds.

My first basilica after visiting Constantina’s lovely, fourth-century mausoleum, was down the hill at Sant’Agnese Fuori le Mura, a seventh-century basilica built by Pope Honorius I that houses the remains of St Agnes in a tiny crypt beneath the apse large enough for five devout Korean women:


Basilica di Sant'Agnese

Saint Agnes flanked by Pope Honorius and some other dudeIt is a classic basilica design — a large, central nave with two smaller aisles to the side, ending in an apse. The orientation, as with all ancient Christian basilicas, is East. Before Vatican II, the priest and people would together have faced East with Saint Agnes, dressed as a Byzantine queen, and Pope Honorius looking down on them. As St Basil the Great says in a famous quotation:

For this reason we all look towards the East in our prayers, though there are few who know that it is because we are in search of our ancient fatherland, Paradise, which God planted towards the East. We fulfil our prayers standing upright on the first day of the week, but not all know the reason for this. –De Spiritu sancto 66, quoted by Andrew Louth in ‘Experiencing the Liturgy in Byzantium’, p. 83.

Louth, in the essay wherein the Basil quotation is found, observes that facing East is as old as our records of Christian worship can take us.

I like Sant’Agnese. We see in this church beautiful, Late Antique mosaics as well as the late ancient innovation of placing arches directly on top of columns. Most of the decoration, save the mosaic, is later, but the effect is undoubtedly much the same as it would have been in the 600s.

My next basilica took me back further in time to the mid-400s (my playing field!). This was San Pietro in Vincoli. The fabric of the basilica is essentially fifth-century. However, none of the ancient decoration is left, and there is a lot of Renaissance embellishment in the way. Nonetheless, San Pietro in Vincoli is much wider, brighter, and airier than Sant’Agnese. This is the sort of space a newly-relocated imperial court or an ascending papacy would like to show off.

Worth noting are St Peter’s alleged chains housed in the church, brought back to Rome from Constantinople during the papacy of my dear Leo the Great, although my trip to the basilica was the first I’d heard of it! Also worth noting is a seventh-century mosaic of St Sebastian:

St SebastianOh, and if you dig things Renaissance, there’s always Michelangelo’s Moses as part of the unfinished tomb of Pope Julius II …

From San Pietro in Vincoli, I took a trip to Santa Maria Maggiore. This basilica dates from the fifth century as well, prior to the papacy of Leo. The apsidal mosaics, stunning as they are, date from 1294. However, the triumphal arch segmenting the apse from the nave sports fifth-century mosaics, and the series of mosaics running along the nave above the columns are also fifth-century originals, sporting scenes from the Old Testament.

Second trip to Santa Maria Maggiore

Triumphal Arch

Triumphal Arch

Triumphal ArchMy final basilica of the day was San Lorenzo Fuori le Mura. This basilica is an interesting bit of architecture, as you can see:

The Late Antique NaveThe Late Antique basilica from the 580s — dating to the period of Byzantium’s rule over Rome — has had a 13th-c nave added onto it at a higher level, then was bisected horizontally, and turned into an apse-cum-crypt. So you can’t really get a feel for sixth-century Roman architecture here. But you can get close to the capitals, which strike me as reused old ones:

Classical capitalAnd you can see the sixth-century mosaics on the triumphal arch:

Byzantine mosaicsThese are the four Late Antique basilicas I saw that day in April — two fifth-century, one sixth-century, and one seventh-century. The mosaics were that Late Antique style typically called ‘Byzantine’, and they all followed the same architectural layout, a wide nave with two side aisles and an apse; all save Santa Maria Maggiore face East.

Other Late Antique basilicas of note in Rome: Santa Sabina (5th-c, stripped of Baroque accretions) and Santa Cecilia in Trastavere (4th-c, lovely 9th-c mosaics and many modern interventions).  The highly traditional, ‘Byzantine’, decoration in Santa Prassede (9th-c) makes it also a basilica of note in this regard. And if you really like mosaics and are going to Rome, don’t miss Santa Maria in Trastavere and San Clemente — the latter has Late-Antique-inspired, 13th-c apsidal mosaics and is on top of what’s left of a fourth-century basilica on top of a Temple of Mithras and an old Roman house.

Bibliography (because I’m that kind of nerd)

Dodge, Hazel. ‘Basilica‘, in Grove Art Online, part of Oxford Art Online, accessed 22 June, 2014.

The Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. Booklet available for purchase at the basilica.

Louth, Andrew. ‘Experiencing the Liturgy in Byzantium’, in Experiencing Byzantium, Claire Nesbitt and Mark Jackson, edd.  Pp. 79-88.


Late Antique Rome: Mausoleo di Santa Costanza

The Mausoleo di Santa Costanza was the first stop on my hunt for Late Antique Rome four weeks ago (although I’d seen the Baths of Diocletian [298-305] several times from the bus window already!), given that it’s only a ten minute walk from where I’m staying. I tried going after work on a Friday night, but got there at 6:09 — nine minutes after closing! Alas. I peeked around at the seventh-century (and beyond) Basilica di Sant’Agnese at the bottom of the hill and returned the next morning to see Santa Costanza at the start of a long day of churches and museums!

Mausoleo di Santa Costanza

As you can see, the mausoleum, like similar, larger ones elsewhere in Rome (Castel Sant’Angelo [Hadrian’s] & Augustus’ spring to mind) is basically a large, brick cylinder on the outside. I understand that it was initially faced in coloured stone.

This mausoleum was built for the daughters of the Emperor Constantine in the fourth century. The real showcase is not the exterior, I can assure you, although it does look a lot like the mausoleum built by Maxentius for his son in 307 (in the Forum, originally mistakenly identified as the ‘Temple of Romulus’):

It's Forum Time!

The mausoleum of Maxentius’ son is on the right, over my left shoulder.

The real show case is the lightness of the interior, now a church (although Constantina was not a saint), with its circle of pillars supporting arches and a dome; the fresco is not original, although I think I read somewhere that the theme of it is.

Mausoleo di Santa Costanza

Mausoleo di Santa Costanza

Mausoleo di Santa CostanzaIn the background of the first of these three photos, you can see a reproduction of Constantina’s porphyry sarcophagus, the original of which is now in the Vatican Museums. When they moved it, the cart required four oxen to pull it! Porphyry is a very heavy, very dense stone.

Not my photo (but I have seen it in person!)

Architecturally, Santa Costanza reminds me of the Late Antique roots of Romanesque architecture. Italian Romanesque is never as heavy as it is somewhere like Durham Cathedral or Dunfermline Abbey, and I’ve read that some people refuse the name to Italian architecture of the Middle Ages. Be that as it may, Italian mediaeval architecture such as that visible in San Clemente or San Lorenzo Fuori le Mura or the churches of Verona is visibly and tangibly linked to this Late Antique style; tradition runs strong in Italian art and architecture.


Sant’Agnese Fuori le Mura; 8th-century, just down the hill from Santa Costanza

Verona Cathedral

12th-c Cathedral of Verona

For me though, the real star of Santa Costanza is the interior decoration. The ambulatory — that is, the space between the pillars and the outer wall — still has a good supply of the original mosaics. And I love mosaics, especially Late Antique and Early Mediaeval ones.

The ceiling of the ambulatory contains these very lovely designs, and the image of the people partying (?) in the last one is my favourite. Mausoleo di Santa CostanzaMausoleo di Santa CostanzaMausoleo di Santa CostanzaThe star of the show, however, is Jesus. First, here is a beardless Christ from the eastern niche of the ambulatory:

Mausoleo di Santa CostanzaMausoleo di Santa CostanzaAnd a bearded Christ in the western niche:

Mausoleo di Santa Costanza

I like that the people, including Jesus, are all dressed as Romans in these images. And bearded Jesus even has on a purple toga, which is fitting for the King of Kings. The others, too, have togas. Sometimes people criticise these old, encultured images of Jesus and the Apostles; sometimes those same people get excited about new, encultured images. These images are portals into the mindsets of fourth-century Romans. They are also portals into upper-class fashion of fourth-century Rome!

In a Late Antique mosaic, every stands out sharply. There is enough naturalism that these people do not look like children’s drawings, but there is a growing preference for showing things head-on. This is especially the case for Christ, who is the main attraction, after all. This is part of a wider movement of making a beautiful whole that is made up of smaller, brilliant pieces, each interesting in its own right — a stylistic departure from ‘classical’ modes of balance and proportion.

Finally, beardless Jesus is not surprising, since the Good Shepherd in the catacombs is himself beardless! I am not sure what the interpretation of him beardless is, though. Nonetheless, already in the 300s he has a halo.

Romanesque and Byzantine art are only a short step away…