Rome, S Maria in Trastevere

Era 12AD
Location Piazza di Santa Maria in Trastevere, 00153 Roma RM, Italy

The mosaics at S Maria in Trastevere are on the external façade, and in the apse.

The façade mosaics may be the earliest surviving in the church and date (mostly) to the twelfth century. They have the Virgin and Christ in the centre, flanked by five female figures on each side. Because they are female and hold lamps, they have often been identified as the Wise and Foolish Virgins. But the numbers don’t work. In Christ’s parable (Matthew 25, 1-13) there were five Wise with lit lamps and five Foolish whose lamps had gone out, but here eight of the facade figures have their lamps lit whilst two do not, and all are crowned and haloed. The small figures of donors at Mary’s feet are probably thirteenth-century (one of the lamp-holders may also be thirteenth-century, but this is impossible to tell from the ground).

The apse mosaic comes next in terms of date. Christ is the central figure, below the Hand of God . He is seated on a very swish throne (note the silk curtained back to it), he’s dressed in gold and pale blue, with a book open on his lap, and reading ‘Veni electa mea et ponam in te thronum meum’ (‘I will place in you my throne’). His right arm across a woman’s shoulders (you can see the knuckles of his right hand on her right shoulder. She is seated next to him on the same stretch throne. She is dressed in very rich robes, reminiscent of imperial Byzantine robes, with a splendid crown with pearls dangling from it and a halo. She is Mary, but Mary as Queen of Heaven. She holds a scroll which reads ‘Leva eius sub capite meo et dextera illius amplesabitur me’.

This imagery of Mary as Queen of Heaven and Mary embraced by Christ is a very up-to-date twelfth century message, an image just coming in in art. It may derive from French (Gothic) images of the Coronation of the Virgin or it may, since Christ does not crown his mother in the mosaic here, be a reference to the Song of Songs, with Mary representing the Church, the Beloved of the Song, and to the popular Roman celebration of the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin. Both texts held by Christ and Mary are paraphrases of the liturgy of the Feast of the Assumption festival, which takes material from the Song of Songs. The other thing to say is nip off and have a look at the icon (well, technically, copy of an icon) on the altar of the left hand side chapel. This is a seventh-century image of Mary crowned and it may be that her depiction in the apse was modelled on this icon, one of the great treasures of the church.

To your left, next to the Virgin, are three figures, St Callixtus, St Laurence and Pope Innocent II, the patron of the mosaic, at the far end. He holds a model of his church as donors often do. To your right, beyond Christ, are four figures, an attempt to keep the image symmetrical. They are Sts Peter, Cornelius, Julius and Calepodius (their names are all below their feet). All, except Pope Innocent and Peter himself are saints and martyrs of the Early Church and may have been connected specifically with S Maria in Trastevere: the relics of at least three were held in the church.

Above all them, the Hand of God holds a wreath, coming into view below a canopy of heaven set out with clouds and lambs, very like that of S Clemente. Below, there are six and six sheep, emerging from the divine cities of Bethlehem (left) and Jerusalem (right), herding towards the Lamb of God with his red halo with a gold cross, perched on a rock.

On the Triumphal Arch, in the centre, the four evangelist symbols (they run Mark/lion; Matthew/man; John/eagle and Luke/ox) set in blue and red clouds flank a cross with an Alpha and Omega (declaring Christ to be alpha and omega, the beginning and the end) and seven candlesticks (all of this is seen in other Roman churches such as like Cosmas and Damien, Prassede, Cecilia, Clemente). Below them are two prophets, Isaiah and Jeremiah, with their names below them, and below the prophets, little putti hold cloths bursting with fruits, a very classicising motif.

The background to the apse is gold, and somehow this makes it a very vivid and clear image: most of the colours are both light and bright. He inscription around the base of the mosaic explains how Innocent’s role as patron.

The final set of mosaics are the seven mosaic panels below the apse mosaic. These were the work of Pietro Cavallini (1259-c1330, and see also S Crisogono and S Paolo fuori le mura). Six panels depict scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary running chronologically: her birth; the Annunciation; the birth of Christ; the coming of the Wise Men (or Magi); the Presentation of Christ as a baby in the Temple; the Death of Mary (Dormition). Below these in the centre and flanked by wall paintings is one further panel. Mary and her child are enclosed in a rainbow mandorla-cum-roundel and he extends his blessing to a kneeling figure supported by St Peter on our right hand side. On the left hand side, sword over his shoulder, is St Paul (martyred by being beheaded with a sword). The kneeling bloke is identified in the long inscription as Bertoldo Stefaneschi, titular cardinal of the church, and brother of a more famous cardinal, Giacomo Stefaneschi (who may have sponsored Giotto’s mosaic of the Navicella).

Clearly the panels must work with the apse mosaic, emphasising the theme of the Virgin as Christ’s mother and her assumption into heaven as queen. But if you go to S Maria Maggiore in Rome, look at the apse mosaic there and the panels about the life of Mary below it and think of these mosaics. Four of Cavallini’s scenes here, the Annunciation, Nativity, Magi, Presentation, and Dormition are the same as those in S Maria Maggiore but at S Maria Maggiore the ordering is not chronological: the Dormition is deliberately presented in the centre. Torriti’s apse in S Maria Maggiore has been seen a response to that of S Maria in Trastevere, where Cavallini’s panels answer in turn to Torriti’s work, supposedly bringing the church up to date. A battle of patrons was potentially being fought between the Colonna at S Maria Maggiore and the Stefaneschi in S Maria in Trastevere, for both apses are strikingly alike in their emphasis on the importance of Mary.


Look at the mosaics with the lights switche don and without them - really interesting what details appear and/or disappear.

S Maria in Trastevere was an Early Christian foundation, perhaps from the fourth century. Over the centuries, it received considerable papal patronage. It was rebuilt in the eighth century by Pope Hadrian, who brought the relics of Sts Callixtus, Cornelius and Calepodius into it. There was another large-scale reconstruction of the church by Innocent II (1130-43), retaining the basilica plan and taking material from the Baths of Caracalla. He may have changed the dedication of the church to the Virgin. In the process, Innocent destroyed the tomb of his anti-pope rival Anacletus II and fitted the space up for his own burial. The mosaics may therefore fit somewhere into this scenario of papal rivalry.

Vasari, writing in the sixteenth century, had a low opinion of mosaic as a medium, a view coloured by his own biases and interests. Nonetheless, he gave Cavallini a Life of his own, and because he was also a well-known and well-respected fresco painter, there is considerable debate about where the mosaics of S Maria in Trastevere fit into his work. The mosaics of S Maria in Trastevere certainly seem to belong to the 1290s but whether before or after he had painted the frescoes of S Cecilia is a subject of fierce debate. After 1308, Cavallini is known to have worked in Naples, together with Rusuti, painting, but he returned to Rome before 1325 and began work on the facade mosaic at S Paolo fuori le mura.

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