Medieval Europe + Byzantine
- The Good Shepherd in Early Christianity — Hermes recast
- The Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Ravenna
- Mausoleum of Galla Placidia (quiz)
- Santa Maria Maggiore
- Santa Sabina
- Santa Sabina (quiz)
- Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome
- Santa Maria Antiqua Sarcophagus
- Santa Maria Antiqua Sarcophagus
- Santa Maria Antiqua
- Santa Pudenziana
- Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus
- Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus (quiz)
- Basilica of Santa Sabina, Rome
A ritual space
The opulent interior of the Constantinian basilicas would have created an effective space for increasingly elaborate rituals. Influenced by the splendor of the rituals associated with the emperor, the liturgy placed emphasis on the dramatic entrances and the stages of the rituals. For example, the introit or entrance of the priest into the church was influenced by the adventus or arrival of the emperor.
The culmination of the entrance as well as the focal point of the architecture was the apse. It was here that the sacraments would be performed, and it was here that the priest would proclaim the word. In Roman civic and imperial basilicas, the apse had been the seat of authority. In the civic basilicas this is where the magistrate would sit adjacent to an imperial image and dispense judgment. In the imperial basilicas, the emperor would be enthroned. These associations with authority made the apse a suitable stage for the Christian rituals. The priest would be like the magistrate proclaiming the word of a higher authority.
A late fourth century mosaic in the apse of the Roman church of Santa Pudenziana visualizes this. We see in this image a dramatic transformation in the conception of Christ from the pre-Constantinian period.
From Teacher to God
In the Santa Pudenziana mosaic, Christ is shown in the center seated on a jewel-encrusted throne. He wears a gold toga with purple trim, both colors associated with imperial authority. His right hand is extended in the ad locutio gesture conventional in imperial representations. Holding a book in his left hand, Christ is shown proclaiming the word. This is dependent on another convention of Roman imperial art of the so-called traditio legis, or the handing down of the law. A silver plate made for the Emperor Theodosius in 388 to mark the tenth anniversary of his accession to power shows the Emperor in the center handing down the scroll of the law. Notably the Emperor Theodosius is shown with a halo much like the figure of Christ.
While the halo would become a standard convention in Christian art to demarcate sacred figures, the origins of this convention can be found in imperial representations like the image of Theodosius. Behind the figure of Christ appears an elaborate city. In the center appears a hill surmounted by a jewel-encrusted Cross. This identifies the city as Jerusalem and the hill as Golgotha, but this is not the earthly city but rather the heavenly Jerusalem. This is made clear by the four figures seen hovering in the sky around the Cross. These are identifiable as the four beasts that are described as accompanying the lamb in the Book of Revelation.
The winged man, the winged lion, the winged ox, and the eagle became in Christian art symbols for the Four Evangelists, but in the context of the Santa Pudenziana mosaic, they define the realm as outside earthly time and space or as the heavenly realm. Christ is thus represented as the ruler of the heavenly city. The cross has become a sign of the triumph of Christ. This mosaic finds a clear echo in the following excerpt from the writings of the early Christian theologian, St. John Chrysostom:
You will see the king, seated on the throne of that unutterable glory, together with the angels and archangels standing beside him, as well as the countless legions of the ranks of the saints. This is how the Holy City appears....In this city is towering the wonderful and glorious sign of victory, the Cross, the victory booty of Christ, the first fruit of our human kind, the spoils of war of our king.
The language of this passage shows the unmistakable influence of the Roman emphasis on triumph. The cross is characterized as a trophy or victory monument. Christ is conceived of as a warrior king. The order of the heavenly realm is characterized as like the Roman army divided up into legions. Both the text and mosaic reflect the transformation in the conception of Christ. These document the merging of Christianity with Roman imperial authority.
It is this aura of imperial authority that distinguishes the Santa Pudenziana mosaic from the painting of Christ and his disciples from the Catacomb of Domitilla, Christ in the catacomb painting is simply a teacher, while in the mosaic Christ has been transformed into the ruler of heaven. Even his long flowing beard and hair construct Christ as being like Zeus or Jupiter. The mosaic makes clear that all authority comes from Christ. He delegates that authority to his flanking apostles. It is significant that in the Santa Pudenziana mosaic the figure of Christ is flanked by the figure of St. Paul on the left and the figure of St. Peter on the right. These are the principal apostles.
By the fourth century, it was already established that the Bishop of Rome, or the Pope, was the successor of St. Peter, the founder of the Church of Rome. Just as power descends from Christ through the apostles, so at the end of time that power will be returned to Christ. The standing female figures can be identified as personifications of the major division of Christianity between church of the Jews and that of the Gentiles. They can be seen as offering up their crowns to Christ like the 24 Elders are described as returning their crowns in the Book of Revelation.
The meaning is clear that all authority comes from Christ just as in the Missorium of Theodosius which shows the transmission of authority from the Emperor to his co-emperors. This emphasis on authority should be understood in the context of the religious debates of the period. When Constantine accepted Christianity, there was not one Christianity but a wide diversity of different versions. A central concern for Constantine was the establishment of Christian orthodoxy in order to unify the church.
Christianity underwent a fundamental transformation with its acceptance by Constantine. The imagery of Christian art before Constantine appealed to the believer's desires for personal salvation, while the dominant themes of Christian art after Constantine emphasized the authority of Christ and His church in the world. Just as Rome became Christian, Christianity and Christ took on the aura of Imperial Rome. A dramatic example of this is presented by a mosaic of Christ in the Archepiscopal palace in Ravenna. Here Christ is shown wearing the cuirass, or the breastplate, regularly depicted in images of Roman Emperors and generals. The staff of imperial authority has been transformed into the cross.
Text by Dr. Allen Farber
Want to join the conversation?
- "Just as Rome became Christian, Christianity and Christ took on the aura of Imperial Rome."
Does this not lessen the holy and divine nature of the religion to know that it's roots were of direct descent from the earthly Roman style of imperial control?(3 votes)
- I don't know in exactly what sense you mean this - lessen the aura for Roman worshipers or later worshipers? Either way, it would have actually helped. In Roman times, it would have only made the religion feel more familiar culturally. In future generations (such as in the Middle Ages) the mystery and gradeur associated with ruins of Roman technology would have made Christianity's air of Rome even more awe-inspiring.(3 votes)
This page on wikipedia describes Santa Pudenziana as the national church for philippines. Is it right ? how ?(1 vote)
- Yes, that is correct. Though this was not originally the case of course.(1 vote)
- I have to say that Jesus in the bible is described correctly; we as humans only want to see him as we choose to and not what the word of God says. This idea that he looks a certain way to appease the imagination of the reader or listener(1 vote)
- What does the "L" on Christ's sash in the apse mosaic represent? It could be "logos", meaning "word", referencing John 1, which describes Jesus as "the word became flesh".(1 vote)
- I couldn't say for sure, but I doubt that it was for "Logos", a Greek word, spelled in the Greek alphabet. The "L" on the mosaic is clearly latin, but John 1:1 in Latin uses "Verbum" to translate logos .(1 vote)
- Why do people say goddammit and holyshit and jesus christ?(0 votes)
- They shouldn't, but, hey, in places like America and China, people are free to say whatever they like. Partly it is the fun of mixing the sacred and the profane, partly it is because they have drained the "holy" parts of what they are saying of all holiness, so what they say is devoid of meaning. When a Soviet fighter pilot shot down a Korean airliner in 1983 the transcript of the cockpit voice had him saying, "holki polki", which was meaningless, even in Russian.(3 votes)
- Thank you for the article
when I read your subtitle from teacher to God or I thought you might mean from a prophet to God, is that what you mean?
I couldn't get however the representation of this aspect in the art of the church(0 votes)
- I believe this is a description of the mosaic itself, in which Jesus is depicted in the poses and gestures of a teacher, including holding a book, and yet is haloed, as a Roman god was, so we read the picture of one who is a teacher, yet who becomes divine.(1 vote)