Sacred Sunday: 12th Century Mosaics in San Clemente, Rome

Interior view 1130s Mosaic San Clemente, Rome

Interior view
1130s
Mosaic
San Clemente, Rome

The present church of San Clemente was constructed to replace the Early Christian basilica from the 4th century. It was built by the cardinal and priest of San Clemente, Anastasius, who is documented between 1102 and 1125, and it rises above its predecessors’s centre and left side aisles.

The structure was completed and consecrated around 1118-19. The mosaic decoration of the apse is generally dated to this time. However, recent studies suggest a a considerably later date in the 1130s.

The mosaic in San Clemente was the first great apse mosaic to have been produced in Rome in roughly two hundred years. It incorporated any number of familiar motifs from Early Christian mosaics, but combined them with distinctly medieval pictorial elements to create a new synthesis.

Overall view of the apse 1130s Mosaic San Clemente, Rome

Overall view of the apse
1130s
Mosaic
San Clemente, Rome

The central motif in the apse mosaic is a Crucifixion, with Mary and John the Evangelist flanking the cross and turned toward it in mourning. The cross is rooted in a large acanthus bush, and in a dark blue clearly stands out against the gold ground. Twelve white doves, pictured in profile, adorn the cross as symbols of the apostles.

The vines leading out from the acanthus bush uncurl into a total of fifty round volutes across the entire surface of the calotte. Four rivers of paradise appear beneath the acanthus bush, two stags drink from them; and various kinds of birds, including peacocks are depicted. All these motifs are derived from Early Christian iconography.

At the outer ends of the base strip stand the familiar depictions of Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Twelve lambs emerged from them to flank the Lamb of Christ in friezelike rows.

The mosaic in San Clemente was the first great apse mosaic to have been produced in Rome in roughly two hundred years. It incorporated any number of familiar motifs from Early Christian mosaics, but combined them with distinctly medieval pictorial elements to create a new synthesis.

Apse mosaic (detail) 1130s Mosaic San Clemente, Rome

Apse mosaic (detail)
1130s
Mosaic
San Clemente, Rome

The church of San Clemente was rebuilt over the buried remnants of the destroyed old basilica on the order of pope Pascal II in 1110. The rich furnishings of the church reflected the formal repertoire of early Christian churches. Many of the erstwhile were integrated in the new project. The mosaic representing the Cross of Life is one of the new works. Its gleaming blue recalls the art of “email”, or baked enamel. Mary and John flank the upright of the cross, at whose foot emerge the four rivers of paradise. Twelve white doves embodying the Apostles perch on the joist and crossbeam.

Apse mosaic (detail) 1130s Mosaic San Clemente, Rome

Apse mosaic (detail)
1130s
Mosaic
San Clemente, Rome

Apse mosaic (detail) 1130s Mosaic San Clemente, Rome

Apse mosaic (detail)
1130s
Mosaic
San Clemente, Rome

The cross is rooted in a large acanthus bush, and in a dark blue clearly stands out against the gold ground. Four rivers of paradise appear beneath the acanthus bush, two stags drink from them; and various kinds of birds, including peacocks are depicted.

Apse mosaic (detail) 1130s Mosaic San Clemente, Rome

Apse mosaic (detail)
1130s
Mosaic
San Clemente, Rome

The vines leading out from the acanthus bush uncurl into a total of fifty round volutes across the entire surface of the calotte. Some of the spandrels between the volutes are filled with small figures. In the lower section these include the Latin church fathers Gregory, Jerome, Augustine and Ambrose, who are identified by name. They are dressed as monks and hold open books. Also strewn among the vine’s branches are numerous birds and other ornamental elements like decorative flowers, oil lamps, baskets of fruit, and vases.

Rural scenes – a woman feeding hens and their chicks, shepherds with their herds of sheep and goat – appear on the strip of ground beyond the peacocks on either side.

Apse mosaic (detail) 1130s Mosaic San Clemente, Rome

Apse mosaic (detail)
1130s
Mosaic
San Clemente, Rome

Apsidal arch (detail) 1130s Mosaic San Clemente, Rome

Apsidal arch (detail)
1130s
Mosaic
San Clemente, Rome

In the upper section of the apsidal arch Christ appears as World Ruler in a round aureole. At the bottom of the spandrels the two prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah, holding bands of inscription, gaze directly upward at the image of Christ. The picture shows the prophet Isaiah.

Apsidal arch (detail) 1130s Mosaic San Clemente, Rome

Apsidal arch (detail)
1130s
Mosaic
San Clemente, Rome

In the upper section of the apsidal arch Christ appears as World Ruler in a round aureole. Below Christ, Sts Peter and Clement sit enthroned.

Crash

 

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