Rome began to change its look almost as soon as Constantine started to support Christianity. Large new basilicas were built to house the tombs of those who had died for their faith, to hold religious services, and to showcase holy relics, including those Constantine’s mother, St. Helen, brought back to Rome from the Holy Land. Among the first new basilicas were those dedicated to Saints Peter, John, Paul, Agnes, Lawrence, and Sebastian. All were martyrs.
I’ll devote pods first to their architecture, which invites a discussion of the basilica, and then to their decoration, which generally entailed the use of mosaics. Most basilicas had an apse, and the apses of most early Christian basilicas were decorated with mosaics. The same is true of another architectural feature of the Christian basilica, the Triumphal Arch. The subjects chosen to be represented in these mosaics varied, but all of them showed how new was the world the Christians brought to Rome.
To serve as a sort of placeholder, until I get around to doing one or more pods on the great apse mosaics we find in Rome, which range from the fourth to the twelfth centuries, I place below a photo of the Chapel of San Zeno in the Basilica of Santa Prassede. I also include a link to a good introduction to Rome’s mosaics on a page of Roberto Piperno’s website, Rome Art Lover.
The Vault of the Chapel of San Zeno, the finest little chapel of mosaics in Rome (My photo)
The Chapel of San Zeno is located within the Basilica of Santa Prasssede, near the much larger Papal Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. Like the chapel, both of these basilicas feature a high concentration of mosaics. I find them beautiful, and I cannot but think always of the painstaking care it took to place each little tessera or glass sandwiches of color into place. One reward for the patience needed to work in this medium is that the colors are protected against fading, and the mosaic tiles are more easily cleaned than paintings on canvas and frescoes. Mosaics are designed to endure.
I limit myself to the simplest point: Roman art has been transformed. Here four angels support a bust of Christ against a golden background. We have left not only the political and military preoccupations of Ancient Rome, we have left nature itself. Winged angels, a halo, the son of God, and a gold or heavenly background all signal an ascent into the supernatural, and we will hear in a later pod that all of Rome’s mosaics stress this ascent. Only in the Renaissance will we see an exuberant return to nature and human nature.