Rome, S Maria Maggiore

Era 5AD - 13AD
Location 00185 Rome, Metropolitan City of Rome, Italy

The largest and most prestigious church built in fifth-century Rome was S Maria Maggiore (79 x 35 metres) on the Esquiline, constructed under the patronage of Pope Sixtus III (432-40). It was built as a great papal basilica built for the whole city and dedicated to the Mother of God (ecclesia sanctae dei genetricis). Despite the various restorations, changes and Baroque accretions to the architecture and the decoration of the church, S Maria Maggiore still feels close to its early Christian appearance, retaining much of the shape of a three-aisled basilica and the huge re-used marble columns and very large windows above the columns of that basilica. Now every second window is blocked, but then the building would have been full of light. S Maria Maggiore was lavishly marbled, stuccoed and mosaicked. Sixtus’s fifth-century mosaics survive in the nave and on the Triumphal arch and give us a sense of what the top patron and his mosaicists could accomplish,

Nave and Triumphal Arch mosaics: a statement of confidence.

What survives of Sixtus’s mosaic decoration are forty-two mosaic panels below the windows in the nave and the mosaics on the Triumphal arch in front of the apse. The mosaic of the apse itself is much later – thirteenth century, when renovations moved the apse itself back by about six metres. What was depicted in the original apse is now unknown but, given the dedication of the church, it may possibly have been Mary herself, perhaps with her child. There was a second image of Mary in the church, recorded by an inscription: it was a mosaic on the inner wall above the entrance to the nave which depicted her with five martyrs offering her their crowns.

The nave panels are framed by stucco; traces of a mosaic scroll frieze running the length and breadth of the church survive below these. They portray Old Testament scenes: on the north wall are stories concerning God’s promise to Abraham that his people would be the Chosen People and its fulfilment; on the south are stories about Moses and Joshua, both precursors of Christ. But these were stories with a Christian twist. In narrating the story of the salvation of the Children of Israel, the images also invoked the redemption of mankind and the completion of the Old Testament covenant through the mission of Christ. It’s no accident that the Old Testament priest, Melchisedek, the priestly forebear of Christ, offering bread and wine, is located closest to the east on the south side of the church, suggesting both the Eucharist (celebrated on the altar located more or less below the image) and the sacrifice of Christ. Opposite it, on the north wall, is the scene of Abraham entertaining three angels unawares, a scene believed to foretell the Trinity.

The mosaics of the Triumphal arch are more overtly Christian than those of the nave. At the top is the Hetoimasia, the empty or prepared throne bearing the insignia of Christ’s Passion and awaiting his Second Coming. It is flanked by the Apostles of Rome, Peter to our left and Paul to our right, together with four winged creatures, a man, an ox, a lion and an eagle. These are the four living creatures of the Apocalypse positioned around the throne of God, who were also identified with and used as representations of the four Evangelists. Below are two registers of scenes from the New Testament that place an emphasis on the childhood of Christ and give Mary a prominent place. But these are not straightforward images. Who is shown and in what context is often hard to understand: What did viewers make of the enthroned Christ-child flanked by two seated female figures – who were they? Mary and a Sibyl? A personification of the Church? These images move away from a simple Biblical narrative into something more complex, but with no guides, no names, to help the viewers. At the very bottom, six sheep stare up at the jewelled cities of Bethlehem and Jerusalem, the first time this motif survives in mosaic. In the centre of the Triumphal arch, below the Empty Throne, Sixtus placed an inscription reading Xystus episcopus plebs dei – ‘Sixtus, bishop to the people of God’. This is perhaps a key to understanding the mosaics. By calling the Romans ‘people of God’, the Pope was taking that claim away from the Jews (of the Old Testament and the Old Covenant) and giving it to the Christian Romans. Both the nave and arch mosaics make points about the New Covenant and the new People of God: the Infancy of Christ underlined the message both of the salvation of mankind through his birth and of the merging of Jew and Gentile to create the Christian Chosen. Demonstrating how the Old Testament foreshadowed the New, how Christ’s salvatory mission was always part of God’s divine plan for mankind, and highlighting the promise (and potential threat) of the Second Coming were recurrent themes in fourth- and fifth-century Christian art. Putting the Roman people at the centre of that was something new and radical. This was one step in the long-drawn-out process that transformed the Bishop of Rome into St Peter’s heir and the leader of Christendom.

But what everyone says of these mosaics, both along the walls and on the Triumphal Arch, is that they are impossible to see, which is true. They are actually too small to see or make much sense of; and it is questionable how much of them anyone using the church would have taken in. Were fifth-century viewers meant to understand these images? Could they even see them? Did that matter, as long as those in the church received a sense of grandeur, gold and glitter?

The apse and facade mosaics Pope Nicholas IV (1288-92) moved the apse back about 6.5 metres, thus causing the old apse and its mosaic to be demolished, and inserted a transept. These were very similar architectural changes to his work at the Lateran. Between c1290-c1325 (the date range varies by art historian – these dates are the two widest), new mosaics were installed in the apse by Torriti (Torriti’s inscription in the apse gives a date of 1296) and on the facade by Rusuti. Nicholas was also responsible for the painted cycle in the transept and the mosaics on the exterior of the apse.

The apse mosaic is the largest single image surviving from thirteenth-century Italy. It depicts the Coronation of the Virgin, with Christ and his mother seated together, both off-set from the centre of the apse. Enthroned and located in a blue roundel (which with its stars suggests the vault of heaven), Christ crowns his Mother, whose robe is now more gold than blue. . On either side is a crowd of adoring angels and saints. To the viewer’s left, Pope Nicholas kneels closest to the roundel next to St Peter (he is identified by inscription and the text that originally ran around the lower level of the border asked Francis to protect him). Beyond him stand Peter, Paul and Francis. To our right kneels the Pope’s friend, Cardinal Giacomo Colonna, also at a smaller size, and followed by the standing figures of John the Baptist, John the Evangelist and Anthony. The rest of the apse above their heads is filled with luxuriant vine scrolling and birds, whilst the crown of the apse is occupied by the ever-popular Canopy of Heaven. Below, fish, waterfowl and boating putti, even a river god beneath Francis’s feet, pouring the river from his water pot, and a ship remarkably similar to second or third century Roman ships, share the river of life. The artist, Jacopo Torriti, has signed the work at the far left of the lowest border.

Five narrative scenes from Mary’s life are shown below (in the order in which they are shown, the Annunciation, Nativity, Dormition at the centre, Coming of the Magi, and the Presentation of Christ in the Temple). The placing of the Dormition below the Coronation made reference to the Assumption of the Virgin into heaven.

The central depiction, the Coronation of the Virgin, is a new one in thirteenth-century imagery, derived from France. This is one of its earliest monumental representations in Italy. It was also a theme popular among the Franciscans. The scene may also carry an eschatological reference to the Woman of the Apocalypse (who was said to be Mary), which would in turn echo something of the fifth-century mosaics that survive on the Triumphal arch, which had now become detached from the apse and located further down the church. The putti too hint at changes within Roman art, a reference to increasingly popular classicising trends, and two of the saints shown, Francis and Anthony of Padua, could hardly be more contemporary – Nicholas was the first Franciscan pope and Francis had been canonised as recently as 1228, Anthony in 1232 .

On its outside, the apse also had a series of lunette-shaped mosaic panels depicting four standing female martyrs either side of a central Virgin and Child, who were on a larger scale. Below the Virgin and Child was a scene of the Magi, perhaps in reference to the crib, the most sacred relic of the church, but also making a reference to the venerated icon of the Madonna Salus Populi Romana held within the church. The front façade, the work of Rusuti, has Christ in the middle with the Cardinals and brothers Giacomo and Pietro Colonna placed to either side, and the Colonna arms at several points on the facade. Saints flank them; the evangelist symbols are above and below, probably part of the same commission, are four scenes depicting the Foundation of the Church by Pope Liberius. Pope Nicholas is not pictured, so was probably dead by this time. But the work must predate 1305, for by that time Rusuti and his workshop had left Rome for France and the employ of King Philip IV – as painters.

Tomb of Bishop Gunsalves: this is in the south east corner of the church, right up where the east wall meets the south. Many visitors ignore it. Do go and look. The bishop is shown to the left at the feet of the Virgin and Christ and Sts Matthias and Jerome stand to left and right. Look for which bits of the tomb are done in mosaic and which in paint - mosaic has the superior place in the hierarchy. Gunsalves died in 1298, so the mosaic must be very late thirteenth century; it is inscribed as the work of John son of the Master Cosmatus.


Theological Digression: Mary had been given the title ‘Mother of God’, genetrix dei, or ‘God-bearer’, Theotokos, at the Church Council of Ephesos in 431, a Council that had met to settle a Christological dispute between the Patriarchs of Constantinople and Alexandria about the nature of Christ. In approving the theology of Cyril of Alexandria, which taught that the humanity and divinity of the incarnate Christ were joined in one hypostatic union, the Council recognised two natures, human and divine, in the one person of Christ and identified Mary as Mother of God, a title and a role that were to have enormous significance for her cult. As a result of this theology, Mary’s portrayal served to underline her Son’s Incarnation, and so his whole salvatory mission. Sixtus’s predecessor, Celestine I, had backed Cyril and sent delegates to Ephesos and it seems very likely that Sixtus’s foundation with its dedication reflected the conclusions of Ephesos.

The apse mosaic It is possible that the vine scrolling and the Canopy were an echo of the original fifth-century mosaic (like in the Lateran Baptistery); equally, they and the putti may reflect thirteenth-century interests (both are found at S Clemente), as may the other allusions to Classical art. These are impressive and technically-assured mosaics. The detailing is very fine: chequer-boarding, for example, is clear in the modelling of faces; very small tesserae are used in the details of flesh and drapery; the gem on the Virgin’s right wrist is made from a single cut rock crystal. Torriti may well have been influenced by what he had seen in the working of textiles and embroideries, especially that known as opus anglicanum, ‘English work’, a fantastically detailed form of embroidery using gold thread.

Torriti Not much is known about Jacopo Torriti despite his being Pope Nicholas IV's favourite artist. Vasari did not bother giving him a life, which is typical of Vasari's attitude to mosaicists. We do know Torriti worked on the Lateran and S Maria Maggiore and that Pope Nicholas brought him back from working on his church at Assisi (commemortaing Francis, of course) to work on S Maria Maggiore, much the more important commission.

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