I have recently been in a mosaic phase, as mentioned in my last post. My mosaic phases are cyclical – all that glittering gold in the gloaming is so wonderfully atmospheric – but this one began last month when watching a BBC documentary about the Dark Ages (specifically this one). It reminded me I had only been to Ravenna once, aged sixteen on a school trip. I remember being impressed but little else. To be honest I probably wasn’t concentrating as much as I should have been. So I earmarked a couple of free days and hopped on a train to explore 5th and 6th century mosaics.

Orthodox Baptistery, Ravenna. Mosaics mid-5th century

The Orthodox Baptistery (also known as the Neonian Baptistery) set me thinking about apostles shown, somewhat ironically given the treatment the Empire meted out to the early Christians, in the opulent togas of Roman senators.

Senatorial apostles, detail, Orthodox Baptistery, Ravenna

Senatorial apostles, detail, Orthodox Baptistery, Ravenna

It also has some glorious Roman architectural elements, for example here framing the hetiomasia, the empty throne which awaits Christ on the day of Judgement.

Hetiomasia, detail, Orthodox Baptistery, Ravenna

Hetiomasia, detail, Orthodox Baptistery, Ravenna

When I came back to Rome, my appetite whetted and ready for more, I returned to some mosaics here in Rome of roughly the same period with a new perspective. The oldest of these is at the church of Santa Pudenziana, now the church of Rome’s Filippino community (Pudenziana was declared patron of the Philippines by the Conquistador Miguel LĂłpez de Legaspi). She is a poorly documented figure, indeed her very existence is questionable. Believed to have been the sister of Santa Prassede (whose church is on the other side of Santa Maria Maggiore, and about which I wrote this), the sisters were the daughters of a Roman senator called Pudens. He is said to have harboured St Peter at his house on this spot. Nearly a century after Peter is said to have stayed here (c. 60 AD), the house was replaced by a bath complex, which was itself subsequently partially incorporated into the basilica.

Tucked away behind Santa Maria Maggiore, it contains the earliest major Christian mosaic decoration in Rome. Despite major and multiple remodellings in the intervening sixteen centuries, the church’s ancient foundation is attested to by the fight of steps which leads one significantly below the nineteenth century street level.

Once inside, the apse mosaic beckons. It dates to the church’s construction under Pope Innocent I (402-417) and offers a glimpse into the very origins of Christian art. If earlier Christian decorations had been largely restricted to funerary chapels in the catacombs and sarcophagi, commissioned by relatively humble patrons, the decree of Theodosius of 380 saw Christianity declared the only religion of state. This marked a major shift in every aspect of Roman culture, including art: patronage was now in the hands of the very wealthy, and the expensive art of mosaic was at the disposal of a Church which now had an institutional role.

Apse mosaic, Santa Pudenziana

Apse mosaic, Santa Pudenziana

Christ is enthroned in the centre of the scene. He wears a toga of gold and purple, both colours associated with Imperial power, and is shown bearded. This marks a dramatic departure from earlier depictions (such as the Good Shepherd at the catacombs of Sts Peter and Marcellinus) where Christ is a fair, clean shaven, and youthful figure. Here institutional recognition of the Church sees him imbued with a new gravitas.

Christ, detail, apse mosaic of Santa Pudenziana

Christ, detail, apse mosaic of Santa Pudenziana

The scene appears to be set in the atrium of a grand Roman house. With his left hand Christ holds a book, on which is inscribed “DOMINUS CONSERVATOR ECCLESIAE PUDENTIANAE” (Lord protect the church of Pudenziana), while his right hand is raised in a gesture of benediction. Six apostles are seated on either side. Robed in the togas of Roman noblemen and senators, they emphasise the dynamic nature of the scene by turning to one another and gesturing vehemently.

Sts Peter (to the left) and St. Paul (to the right) are closest to Christ. Behind them St Prassede is in the act of placing a crown upon the head of Peter, and St Pudenziana does the same behind St Paul.

Santa Pudenziana crowning St Peter, detail, apse mosaic of Santa Pudenziana

Santa Pudenziana crowning St Peter, detail, apse mosaic of Santa Pudenziana

The faces of the women follow faithfully in the expressive tradition of Hellenistic art, the flush of their cheeks, the parting of their hair and the generous folds of their robes tangible in their realism. In the background the roofs of a Roman cityscape stretch into the distance, just the kind of view which would have been seen on the walls of the villas of the Roman haut-bourgeoisie, for example this fresco from Boscoreale, near Pompeii.

Cityscape from the Boscoreale frescoes, Metropolitan Museum, New York

Cityscape from the Boscoreale frescoes, 1st century. Metropolitan Museum, New York

This lower part of the scene could show an orator instead of a god. The discussion might be one of earthly legislation instead of the divine. The language and hierarchy of Roman art has been transplanted in the service of the new religion of the State. However, look up and the mystical nature of the subject matter is clear. Above Christ a jewelled cross floats amid fiery clouds, itself a bombastic symbol of triumph, another thoroughly Roman concept. On either side, heavily damaged by later remodelling, are the winged symbols of the evangelists; this is no earthly Imperial cityscape, we are told, this is the new Jerusalem.

Santa Pudenziana could be incorporated into a walk focussing on early Christian art on the Esquiline

Santa Pudenziana,
via Urbana 160

Open 9am-12noon, 4.30-7pm