Rome, S Marco, apse mosaic

Era 9AD
Location Piazza di S. Marco, 52, 00186 Roma RM, Italy
Placement In the apse

The church is a part of Palazzo di Venezia. but is entered from the Piazza S Marco (it makes sense when you're there!) It's a basilica church (rectangular box with an apse at the east end) - the shape suggests its Late Antique and medieval origins (it was founded in the fourth century and rebuilt in the ninth), but it has undergone several rebuildings and reconstructions since then, in the fifteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which means that there's a lot of nasty Baroque beige in there. Pope Gregory IV was the ninth-century rebuilder and the mosaic is his.

We have, in the centre of the golden apse, a large figure of Christ on a golden footstool emblazoned with an A and an Ω, Alpha and Omega, first and last. He blesses with his right hand and holds a book, with a Latin inscription, ‘I am the light, the life, the resurrection’. Above his head, a divine hand holds a wreath; below his footstool, a dove perches on the edge of a fountain. To his right hand (our left as we look at it) stand St Felicissimus, then the Evangelist Mark and finally Pope Gregory in a square halo, clutching a model of the church. To his left (our right) are St Mark (pope in 336) to whom the church is dedicated, St Agapetus (pope 535-36) and St Agnes. All six stand on little decorated mats (similar mats are visible at Sta Francesca Romana) bearing their names. Below them, in a broad band , twelve sheep (representing twelve apostles) move out from Jerusalem and Bethlehem towards a central Lamb standing on a little hill with the four rivers of Paradise flowing out. Around the inner face of the apse is a garland of fruits and leaves with Gregory’s monogram in the middle at the crown of the arch. The arch in front of the apse has a truncated version of some common imagery: a bust of Christ in the centre is flanked by roundels with the evangelist symbols (Matthew the man, Mark the lion, Luke the ox and John the eagle) and a sky of blue and red clouds, whilst the familiar patron saints of Rome, Paul (black beard, black hair, going bald) and Peter (curly-ish grey hair, grey beard, fine head of hair) occupy the (viewer’s) left and right spandrels respectively.


Many of the churches in Rome share aspects of the same iconography (Sta Cecilia, Sta Prassede, SS Cosmas and Damien, S Lorenzo fuori le mura, S Clemente, S Francesca Romana). But none are unthinking copies. The differences here: the donor (Pope Gregory himself) is not introduced by the titular saint of the church, St Mark the pope, but instead by Mark the Evangelist. The inscription below the apse mosaic ambiguously asks Mark, without specifying which Mark, to plead for Gregory before God. Further, Peter and Paul, normally to the left and right of Christ, are replaced by Mark the pope on Christ’s left and St Felicissimus on His left. Paul and Peter appear instead in the spandrels of the apse arch, in the space usually (as at SS Cosmas and Damien and S Prassede, for example) occupied by the twenty-four elders of the Apocalypse. Not mistakes but deliberate choices by the pope.

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