Rome > Mosaics


from Santa Maria Maggiore

to Santa Maria in Trastevere

Perhaps not everyone knows that in Rome there are some extremely important wall mosaics which, today still, tell ancient stories and illustrate theological concepts which at times are difficult to interpret.
These fascinating “paintings” made almost exclusively of glass pieces, in a wide range of colours and 
shadings, applied on layers of mortar, were created in various places of worship, some of which can be visited by following this itinerary.

On Via Urbana is the Church of Santa Pudenziana, an ancient 2nd-century thermal building turned into a church and redecorated starting in the late 4th century.

At the end of the nave it is possible to see the apse mosaic, probably done during the papacy of Innocent I (401-417). It is the oldest apse mosaic which has come down to us in a Christian church, and is a fundamental example of the art of the early centuries since the mosaics that decorated the early Christian basilicas of St. John Lateran and St. Peter's have been lost.

The mosaic of Santa Pudenziana depicts Christ enthroned among the apostles and two female figures, generally interpreted as the Church of the Jews and the Church of the Gentiles. In the background there is an exedra: it is the monumental courtyard of Jerusalem which enclosed Mt. Golgotha, which can be seen behind Christ, topped by a jeweled cross.

For one square meter of mosaic, approximately 10,000 tesserae were needed, all hand-set using the thumb. lt may thus be hypothesized that, to create a large mosaic, the work of an entire shop of artisans specialized in the trade was needed and, in a city such as Rome, there must have been numerous such shops, considering the growing demand for mosaic work.

From Santa Pudenziana it is easy to reach the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, the main entrance to which is on the square of the same name.
The building was erected between 432 and 440 by Pope Sixtus III, who dedicated it to the Virgin.

The Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore is the first basilica in Rome built not by an emperor, but by a

pope, who also had it splendidly decorated.
The arch of triumph and the nave still present their original mosaics, from the time of Sixtus III.

They depict the unusual theme of the childhood of Jesus and scenes from the Old Testament. For the first time, a mosaic revetment has the function of telling, through its images, the holy story: from Christ's ancestors in the panels over the columns, to the life of Jesus illustrated on the triumphal arch.

The events narrated are clearly readable from below because they were done respecting the principle of functional colourism of the early Christian mosaics, that is to say according to the practice of intensifying the tones of the subjects represented.

Observing the panels closely, it is possible to note the infinite shadings and colour contrasts of the skies, vegetation, buildings, faces, Clothing, weapons, and all the other details making up the single scenes.

lnstead, the apse mosaic created by Jacopo Torriti between 1291 and 1296 dates from the time of Nicholas IV. The artist signed the mosaic on the vault, at the lower left:  IACOB(US) TORRITI PICTOR H(OC) OP(US) FEC(lT). At the centre of the vault, at the top Jesus and Mary are seated on the same throne and Christ, crowning his mother, shows the faithful the book with the words explaining the entire mosaic “Vieni mia diletta e ti porrò sul mio trono” - "Come, my beloved, and l shall place you on my throne”. The models to which Jacopo Torriti must have referred for the Coronation of the Virgin come from France, as indicated by similar scenes depicted on the portals of the Cathedrals of Notre-Dame in Paris, Strasbourg, and Sens.

On the other hand, the little scenes depicted at the feet of the central group, with putti-cupids sailing the waters of the River Jordan, are more Roman!
The visit to Santa Maria Maggiore may be concluded by going up to the, or taking a look at the mosaics on the external façade of the church. Done by Filippo Rusuti between the 13th and early 14th centuries, the episodes illustrate, in the lower part, the story of the miraculous summer snow connected with the building of the church.

The legend of the summer snow it is said that during the night of 4 August 358, the Virgin appeared simultaneously in a dream to Pope Liberius and to the rich and devoted John, to ask them for the dedication of a basilica on the site in Rome where snow would have fallen that night. The next morning John went to the pope to tell him of the apparition of the Virgin and, together, they went to the Cispian Hill, where the pope traced out, in the fresh snow, the outline of the new church. The miracle of the snow is still remembered in the basilica every year on 5 August: during the celebration of Mass, white jasmine and rose petals are made to flutter down over the high altar.

Leaving the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore we can continue the itinerary towards the Basilica of Santa Prassede, whose secondary entrance is on the street of the same name.

Among the numerous and valuable works of art contained in the church, the Chapel of St. Zeno and the mosaics of the apse and triumphal arch created for Pope Paschal l in the 9th century are stand-outs.  They are the expression of the rebirth of a Roman mosaic school which ended up playing a fundamental role in the resumption of a religious art in the Christian West.

But it is the second chapel of the right-hand aisle that holds the most significant example of Byzantine artistic culture still visible in Rome.

The chapel, dedicated to St. Zeno, was built as a mausoleum for Theodora, the mother of Paschal l,  and was called the “Garden of Paradise” because of  the richness of its decorations. The mosaics have no equals in medieval Roman art for their complexity, creative fantasy, richness of symbols, density of  colour, and profusion of gold.

From Santa Maria Maggiore, crossing Via Carlo Alberto we reach Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II, called more simply by Romans Piazza Vittorio. It is the largest piazza in Rome of those created after the unity of ltaly, in the late 19th century (measuring 316 x 174 m). Designed on the model of English squares, it has been the site, since 1902, of a traditional market which is really worth a visit. Characteristic foods of many countries, especially Chinese, African, Arab and Indian, are sold.  Moreover, in several neighborhood shops run by immigrants, it is possible to find imported objects, furniture and clothing.

From the Esquiline, it is possible to continue the visit by going to the Trastevere quarter, with its Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere.

If you happen to find yourself in this zone of the city, we recommend that you eat in Trastevere, where numerous trattorias still have the atmosphere of the old inns.

In Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere, the heart of the quarter, stands the church of Santa Maria in Trastevere, one of Rome's medieval gems. Founded in the -lth century. by Pope Julius l (337-352), it was the first church in the city to be dedicated to the veneration of the Virgin. The apse mosaits depict the Coronation of the Virgin, executed in 1143, and the Stories of the Virgin, executed by Pietro Cavallini ca. 1290. on commission from Cardinal Bertoldo Stefaneschi. The mosaic cycle documents the gradual from an elegant but immobile Byzantine language to threedimensional compositions, in which figures and architecture gain greater thickness and depth.  Architecture plays a decisive role, seeming to be a protagonist of the Scenes: it is not vet possible to speak of perspective, but a new conceptíon of space is evident. The figures also, with their bodily volume, are imbued in their gestures and expressions with a umanity that recalls Giotto. another great protagonist of painting between the 13th and 1-lth centuries.

Practical suggestions: lt is advisable to wear suitable Clothing when   visiting places of worship.