Rome, S Francesca Romana, apse mosaic

Also known as church also known as Sta Maria Nova
Era 12AD
Location Piazza di Santa Francesca Romana, 4, 00186 Roma RM, Italy

The church of S Francesca Romana is just on the edge of the Forum. It’s a good place to go (via the ramp away from the Colosseum and parallel to the Via de Fori Imperiali) for a bit of peace, quiet and shade. It’s railed off from the Forum, but you can sit on the steps and watch the hot visitors exploring the classical remains. Originally, until the sixteenth century, it was S Maria Nova to distinguish it from the other Forum church of S Maria Antiqua, but S Francesca is the patron saint of motorists and her body is visible in the crypt below.

The church was rededicated by Pope Alexander III (1159-1181) in 1161 and the apse mosaic is conventionally dated to this restoration. The façade mosaic (now lost but which depicted either an Ascension or a Maiestas Domini) may have dated to the same time, or it may have been thirteenth century. There are a lot of Baroque accretions in the church, most perfectly foul.

The mosaic however is not. It depicts an enthroned Virgin with her Child. She is elaborately dressed in a blue robe with great sweeping sleeves and sumptuous gold, red and blue ornament, and crowned, and the throne itself is rather elegant. Her Child, in gold, is shown like a miniature man, striding out across her chest. The apostles James and John (brothers) are located to the viewer’s left; Peter and Andrew (also apostolic brothers) to the viewer’s right, all standing on sweet little mats. Unusually for Roman mosaics, St Paul is absent. At the top is the canopy of heaven with the Hand of God descending with a wreath, red and blue clouds, but no lambs holding it up; instead, vases are used. The saints and the Virgin are set in arches with brickwork above, separated by columns, almost like Late Antique sarcophagi in design.

The image reflects many aspects of earlier Roman mosaics: canopy; hand; clouds; saints and mats (see SS Cosmas and Damien, S Clemente, S Maria in Trastevere and so on and so forth). The Virgin’s pose is an intriguing one, almost a cross between the idea of an enthroned Mother of God and Child, with additionally Mary portrayed crowned and in rich robes (S Maria in Trastevere) with the image of the Virgin Hodegetria, ‘She who shows the way’, in which Mary gestures to her son as the path to redemption. The decorative scrollwork in the inside face of the arch is very different to that of S Maria in Trastevere and indeed to S Clemente. S Francesca also lacks its sheep at the base and the mosaics of the Triumphal arch, though these once existed.

The mosaic has never really been highly praised by art historians. The figures are sometimes rudely described as solid and chunky; the Virgin as ‘provincial’, an art historical way of saying ‘second-rate’ or ‘rubbish’. But this is short-sighted. This is a really nice mosaic. It has parts that look like things we can see in Romanesque art – so the detailed spiralling folds shown on the clothes of the saints. And all sorts of details - the little labelled mats for one -are very appealing. Look as well at where the light from outside comes from to fall on the mosaic. Seen in the church, in its setting, picking up light, it’s a very striking mosaic.

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