Sacred Sunday: 11th Century Italian Mosaics in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome

Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, Roma

Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, Roma

According to tradition, Pope Liberius (pope from 352 to 366) and a patrician had the same dream at the same night. The Virgin appeared and expressed her wish to raise a church at the site which she will mark by snow at the middle of the summer. Next day the Esquiline hill was covered by snow and it became the site of the church of Santa Maria Maggiore.

The Early Christian church was erected by Pope Sixtus III (432-440) and its mosaic decoration in the nave and the apse also date from this period. The Early Christian apse mosaic has been lost, having been replaced by the one by Jacopo Torriti during a redesign of the entire choir area under Pope Nicholas IV (1288-1292) who commissioned the replacement without entirely changing the original subject matter.

The commission for the new apse mosaic was given to Jacopo Torriti, who left the Lateran workshop around 1291 to assist the work at Santa Maria Maggiore. The main subject of the mosaic is the Coronation of the Virgin, with five scenes from the life of Mary beneath if: the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Adoration of the Kings, the Presentation in the Temple, and the Dormition. The latter, interrupting the chronological sequence of the events, occupies the center compartment, which places it in a direct relationship to the Coronation in form and content.

The subject of the Coronation of the Virgin as linked to her physical resurrection had already been popular north of the Alps as early as the twelfth century. In Italy, however, it found its first inclusion in monumental art in Torriti’s mosaic, and it had never before been pictured with such splendor.

Apse mosaic: Coronation of the Virgin 1296 (completed) Mosaic Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome

Apse mosaic: Coronation of the Virgin
1296 (completed)
Mosaic
Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome

Apse mosaic: Coronation of the Virgin 1296 (completed) Mosaic Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome

Apse mosaic: Coronation of the Virgin
1296 (completed)
Mosaic
Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome

Apse mosaic: Coronation of the Virgin 1296 (completed) Mosaic Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome

Apse mosaic: Coronation of the Virgin
1296 (completed)
Mosaic
Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome

The mosaic from the apse of Santa Maria Maggiore is beneath the dome of the apse where are scenes from the life of the Virgin. The artist, who was commissioned by the Franciscan pope, Nicholas IV, combined new iconographic elements from Gothic cathedrals with traditional Roman elements such as the acanthus vine.

The Coronation of the Virgin had never before been pictured with such opulence. Against a gold ground a round slice of heaven in dark blue, set with the sun and moon and numerous stars in gold and silver, serves as a foil for the heavenly throne on which Christ welcomes the Virgin into the topmost sphere of heaven. Both are dressed in gold, and together they share the centre of the symmetrical composition. With his right hand Christ is placing a crown on her head, while Mary has turned toward him and raised her hands in the gesture of an intercessor. Throngs of adoring angels take an active interest in the ceremony. They are flanked on either side by applauding saints – Peter, Paul, and Francis on the left, John the Baptist, John the Evangelist, and Anthony on the right. At the left and right edges of the mosaic two large acanthus plants send out tendrils that uncurl into round volutes framing the figural composition at the sides.

Apse mosaic: Coronation of the Virgin 1296 (completed) Mosaic Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome

Apse mosaic: Coronation of the Virgin
1296 (completed)
Mosaic
Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome

The mosaic from the apse of Santa Maria Maggiore is beneath the dome of the apse where are scenes from the life of the Virgin. The artist, who was commissioned by the Franciscan pope, Nicholas IV, combined new iconographic elements from Gothic cathedrals with traditional Roman elements such as the acanthus vine.

The Coronation of the Virgin had never before been pictured with such splendour. Against a gold ground a round slice of heaven in dark blue, set with the sun and moon and numerous stars in gold and silver, serves as a foil for the heavenly throne on which Christ welcomes the Virgin into the topmost sphere of heaven. Both are dressed in gold, and together they share the center of the symmetrical composition. With his right hand Christ is placing a crown on her head, while Mary has turned toward him and raised her hands in the gesture of an intercessor. Throngs of adoring angels take an active interest in the ceremony. They are flanked on either side by applauding saints – Peter, Paul, and Francis on the left, John the Baptist, John the Evangelist, and Anthony on the right. At the left and right edges of the mosaic two large acanthus plants send out tendrils that uncurl into round volutes framing the figural composition at the sides.

View of the apse calotte 1296 (completed) Mosaic Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome

View of the apse calotte
1296 (completed)
Mosaic
Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome

Pope Nicholas IV commissioned the mosaic decoration of the apse of Santa Maria Maggiore, replacing the fifth-century mosaic but without entirely changing the original subject matter and retaining the bust of the Savior, believed to have appeared miraculously at the time of the basilica’s consecration. The task was given to Jacopo Torriti, who left the Lateran workshop around 1291 to assist the work at Santa Maria Maggiore.

Coronation of the Virgin 1296 (completed) Mosaic Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome

Coronation of the Virgin
1296 (completed)
Mosaic
Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome

Against a gold ground a round slice of heaven in dark blue, set with the sun and moon and numerous stars in gold and silver, serves as a foil for the heavenly throne on which Christ welcomes the Virgin into the topmost sphere of heaven. Both are dressed in gold, and together they share the centre of the symmetrical composition. With his right hand Christ is placing a crown on her head, while Mary has turned toward him and raised her hands in the gesture of an intercessor. Throngs of adoring angels take an active interest in the ceremony.

In his left hand Christ displays a book inscribed with a verse taken from the office for the feast of the Assumption.

Coronation of the Virgin (detail) 1296 (completed) Mosaic Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome

Coronation of the Virgin (detail)
1296 (completed)
Mosaic
Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome

Mary has turned toward him and raised her hands in the gesture of an intercessor.

Apse mosaic (detail) 1296 (completed) Mosaic Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome

Apse mosaic (detail)
1296 (completed)
Mosaic
Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome

Throngs of adoring angels take an active interest in the ceremony. They are flanked on either side by applauding saints – Peter, Paul, and Francis on the left. Pope Nicholas IV is seen kneeling in adoration of the two figures on the throne, but he is considerably smaller than they, even smaller than the angels and the saints standing behind them.

Apse mosaic (detail) 1296 (completed) Mosaic Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome

Apse mosaic (detail)
1296 (completed)
Mosaic
Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome

Throngs of adoring angels take an active interest in the ceremony. They are flanked on either side by applauding saints – John the Baptist, John the Evangelist, and Anthony on the right. Cardinal Jacopo, the archpriest of Santa Maria Maggiore, is seen kneeling in adoration of the two figures on the throne, but he is considerably smaller than they, even smaller than the angels and the saints standing behind them.

Apse mosaic, window level: 1. Annunciation 1296 (completed) Mosaic Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome

Apse mosaic, window level: 1. Annunciation
1296 (completed)
Mosaic
Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome

Five scenes from the life of Mary are beneath the Coronation of the Virgin at window level: the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Adoration of the Kings, the Presentation in the Temple, and the Dormition.

The picture shows the Annunciation…

Apse mosaic, window level: 2. Nativity 1296 (completed) Mosaic Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome

Apse mosaic, window level: 2. Nativity
1296 (completed)
Mosaic
Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome

…The picture shows the Nativity.

Apse mosaic, window level: 3. Adoration of the Kings 1296 (completed) Mosaic Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome

Apse mosaic, window level: 3. Adoration of the Kings
1296 (completed)
Mosaic
Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome

…The picture shows the Adoration of the Kings.

Apse mosaic, window level: 4. Presentation in the Temple 1296 (completed) Mosaic Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome

Apse mosaic, window level: 4. Presentation in the Temple
1296 (completed)
Mosaic
Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome

…The picture shows the Presentation in the Temple.

Apse mosaic, window level: 5. Dormition 1296 (completed) Mosaic Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome

Apse mosaic, window level: 5. Dormition
1296 (completed)
Mosaic
Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome

…The picture shows the Dormition. This scene, interrupting the chronological sequence of the events, occupies the centre compartment, which places it in a direct relationship to the Coronation in form and content.

Apse mosaic, window level: Dormition (detail) 1296 (completed) Mosaic Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome

Apse mosaic, window level: Dormition (detail)
1296 (completed)
Mosaic
Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome

Apse mosaic, window level: Dormition (detail) 1296 (completed) Mosaic Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome

Apse mosaic, window level: Dormition (detail)
1296 (completed)
Mosaic
Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome

The Artist: Jacopo Torriti was an Italian painter and mosaicist, active c. 1270-1300. Not much is known of his life. Two mosaics in Rome are signed by him: one, on the apse of S. Giovanni in Laterano, that once bore the date 1291 (or, according to some sources, 1290 or 1292); and another on the apse and triumphal arch of S. Maria Maggiore, now replaced by a 19th-century restoration but at one time dated 1295 or 1296. Torriti is also known to have executed a mosaic for Arnolfo di Cambio’s tomb of Pope Boniface VIII (1296; destroyed) in Old St Peter’s, Rome. Torriti was active during the same period as Cimabue and Giotto, Pietro Cavallini and Arnolfo di Cambio, but his fame has been obscured by theirs, no doubt because of his closer links with Byzantine art. He was nevertheless one of the most important artists working in Rome during the papacy of Nicholas IV (1288–92) and was entrusted with some of the most prestigious commissions of the day. He recaptures something of the vitality of late antique mosaics; he was clearly influenced in his choice of color by the pale delicate harmonies and silvery lights of the 5th-century mosaic on the triumphal arch of the S. Maria Maggiore. A small series of frescoes in the Upper Church of San Francesco, Assisi, has been attributed to him on stylistic grounds.

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