Rome, S Cecilia

Era 9AD
Location Piazza di Santa Cecilia, 22, 00153 Roma RM, Italy

The mosaic in the apse of Sta Cecilia in Trastevere was the commission of Pope Paschal I (817-24). The story of how Paschal searched for the relics of St Cecilia and how the saint appeared to him in a dream and encouraged him to keep searching, and how he did indeed discover her body was one of the best-known stories about this pope. It was as a result of his revelation and discovery in 821 that the church was rebuilt over the site of the saint’s house, to contain her body and those of her five companions, brought, as with the relics of S Prassede, by the pope from the catacombs. Paschal substantially rebuilt the earlier church as a large basilica with elaborate and expensive fixtures and fittings, and put mosaic in the apse and on the apse arch.

The imagery is very similar to that of S Prassede in Rome, another of Paschal’s foundations. Here at Sta Cecilia, Christ is in the centre of the apse, crowned by the Hand of God, and flanked by Paul, Peter and accompanying saints. On Paul’s side, our left but Christ’s right, an unnamed female saint (presumably Cecilia) has her arm around an ecclesiastical figure with a square nimbus and a model of the church (he must be Paschal). On Peter’s left (to the right hand side of the mosaic) are two unnamed saints, a young man, perhaps Valerian, Cecilia’s husband, and St Agatha, the other saint to whom the monastery attached to the church was dedicated. The ground is a meadow of flowers; there are palm trees to left and right, and that on Paschal’s side has a phoenix sitting in it. The background is a deep blue, rather than gold, but Christ is still surrounded by the usual Roman red and blue fluffy clouds. The crown of the arch bears Paschal’s monogram, giving him a central place in the image. Along the bottom, sheep emerge from the heavenly cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem and head towards the Lamb on a hillock in the centre.

The apsidal arch has mosaics from the same period but these are now totally obscured by a foul nineteenth-century stucco vault. There is a Virgin and Child at its centre, flanked by angels. Ten female saints move towards them, carrying crowns and flanked in turn by palm trees and below them, the twenty-four elders of the apocalypse hold up their crowns.


I have lost count of the number of times I have arrived at Sta Cecilia only for it to be shut. Check its opening times! Also beware of the crypt, which is fascinating but very chilly. (And has some truly awful mosaics, not medieval)

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