Tag Archives: santa prassede

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 oneĀ 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!

Roman — not Byzantine

Although this title looks the sort of thing you’d expect from continuist Byzantinists, I’m actually arguing about Rome in what follows — that early mediaeval art in Rome is not Byzantine.

Apsis_mosaic_San_ClementeWhen I first visited San Clemente in 2014, there was a group of people looking at the magnificent apsidal mosaic. One of them remarked, ‘This is Byzantine’, in as natural a way as possible. I recommend you click on that image to the left to get a taste of San Clemente’s apsidal mosaic. It is a remarkable piece of craftsmanship, and I would never speak ill of it. People in the Middle Ages were great workers of beauty, and Roman mosaics are among those works of beauty.

But I was annoyed at the person saying that San Clemente’s mosaic was Byzantine. For one thing, it was built c. 1099-1125. I don’t think it’s very precise to call Roman art in the twelfth century ‘Byzantine’ — the papacy was already into its schism with the East, and the city was largely a papal city, although the Normans sacked it in 1084 due to papal-imperial politics, including the destruction of the fourth-century San Clemente, leading to the creation of the new one. The emperor in these politics was not in Constantinople but in the Holy Roman Empire. Crusading zeal aside, the outlook of Rome in this period was decidedly western.

Nonetheless, I can imagine someone saying that the current mosaic is a replacement of the fourth- (or ninth-?) century mosaic lost in the fire of 1084. And surely that mosaic would count as Byzantine. Therefore, this mosaic is an imitation Byzantine mosaic.

I guess here’s where I get properly controversial, since there are mediaevalists and art historians who would argue for the use of the word Byzantine in relation to early mediaeval Roman art. Nonetheless, two days ago I visited Santa Prassede with Rosamond McKitterick, and she argues strongly for the Romanness of Santa Prassede’s mosaics. So I’m in good company. Here are a few of my photos of Santa Prassede’s mosaics to give you the flavour:

First of all, I can see immediately why we want to call early mediaeval Roman art Byzantine. Just look at it! And then, just look at Byzantine art, like the famous Christ Pantokrator from Ayia Sophia:

Jesus-Christ-from-Hagia-SophiaThat one from 1261, of course, is much more naturalistic than these ninth-century mosaics. What people usually have in mind is more the sixth-century apsidal mosaic at St Catherine’s in Sinai:

transfiguration-st-catherines-monasteryOr the sixth-century mosaics at Ravenna:

Pendentive_(San_Vitale_in_Ravenna)There is certainly a visual continuity running across these sixth-century mosaics from the edges of the ‘Byzantine’/Justinianic world into the Roman mosaics of the ninth century sponsored by Pope Paschal I. However, this same visual continuity also strikes the heart of sixth-century Rome, as Santi Cosma e Damiano, at the edge of the Roman Forum and built by Felix IV c. 524, as seen in my photos below:

Rome in 524 is living under the rule of Ostrogothic king Theoderic. They are only newly reunited ecclesially with Constantinople. Is it really accurate to say that this kind of art is ‘Byzantine’ in this case? Indeed, is it not visually united with the fifth-century mosaics of Santa Maria Maggiore?

IMG_1613 IMG_1606Finally, why don’t we step back and see the visual continuity that runs from the Constantinian age and the Mausoleo di ‘Santa’ Costanza? (My photo)

IMG_1569This is Roman-style Late Antique and Early Mediaeval art, and it exists in mosaic and fresco, although mosaics are more durable. I have given examples from the fifth and sixth centuries as well as the ninth (see also the apsidal mosaics at Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, also commissioned by Paschal I), but I could have added the late sixth (San Lorenzo fuori le Mura, c. 580) and seventh as well (Sant’Agnese fuori le Mura and San Teodoro for mosaics and the remnants of the diaconia in the curia, now in Cripta Balbi, for frescoes). I do not know my eight-century Roman churches at all — apologies there.

Christian Roman art and architecture are habitually traditionalist. Their style remains Late Antique and persists with a certain degree of Classicism in architecture combined with a visual abstraction that we consider ‘Byzantine’ while northern Europe and Spain go through Romanesque and Gothic. This ‘Byzantine’ style of Roman art, indeed, continues well beyond definitively traceable Byzantine cultural influence in Rome, such as this 14th-century mosaic at Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome’s only Gothic church (my blurry photo; apologies):


Or what about the Dormition of the Virgin, a thirteenth-century mosaic in Santa Maria Maggiore? (My pic.)

IMG_1609None of this is to say that ‘Byzantine’ forces were never at work in Rome during the Middle Ages. Eastern Christian influences were certainly present in Rome after the Fall of the Western Roman Empire, such as through ongoing contacts with the Emperor in Constantinople, especially after Justinian’s Reconquest, and then through the arrival of eastern clerics. In the seventh century, many ‘Greek’ (that is, Greek-speaking) clerics came to Rome, such as the circle of St Maximus the Confessor. The Roman liturgy adapted some Greek/Eastern liturgical practices to her own use, and the papacy may even have taken on some Greek bureaucratic ideals. St Gregory the Great, in fact, even spent time in Constantinople before becoming Bishop of Rome! So, yes, there is cultural exchange. But it also goes both ways — Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care is very popular in Eastern Christianity, for example.

All this to say — since words matter, we should be precise. Early mediaeval art in Rome is not Byzantine. It stands in its own strong Roman tradition, a tradition that persists in mosaics, at least, up to the High Middle Ages, and also has ties with its sister art in the Easter Mediterranean (‘Byzantine’ art).