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Early Christian Churches in Rome, Part 2

Updated: Feb 28, 2021

Here, I continue to point out some features of church architecture, generally before 1100. Please see Part 1 post for more on this topic.



San Lorenzo Fuore Le Mura

San Lorenzo is a special case in terms of its architecture, because it is a hybridization of two very early churches which were side-by-side in the 6th century. I include it here for two reasons: it's an example of how, as churches were renovated and expanded later in the Middle Ages, the older section would be preserved in part; it retains its marble bishop's throne behind the altar. In San Lorenzo, as with San Costanza, Sant'Agnese, and Santo Stefano, the presence of the saint's tomb is the focal point of the worship. Various scholars point to the origins of Christian worship in catacombs, over the tombs of saints and fellow Christians, as a beginning of this tradition.


By the 4th century, when public churches become part of state religion, altars were customarily placed over the tombs of martyrs, and moving relics to appropriate sites, or, raising churches on sites of martyrdom became standard practice. In the case of San Lorenzo here, you see a response to the great resurgence of pilgrimage and church power in the 12th/13th centuries. The crypt, where the martyr was originally worshipped, becomes a lower floor, and a more grand church is literally raised up. The 6th century floor is raised in San Lorenzo, becoming the sanctuary. In the foreground you see the fashionable Cosmatesque large-pieced mosaic floor, a series of carpets in stone. The tomb of the saint is no longer the altar, but is under the altar. Other churches which still have this element include the duomo in Modena and Canterbury Cathedral.


The upshot of this is that the churches themselves are identified by their name-saints, as sites where that saint (through the spiritual resonance of their relics) can be prayed to for intercession. Performing mass over a saint's tomb reaffirms the belief in resurrection. The architectural decision at San Lorenzo to keep access to the crypt visible from the new nave, and to raise the early floor to be the holy sanctuary sets a stage for the ritual theater of the liturgy.


Please note the marble benches with colored marble and gold inlays in the background of the photo above, in particular the raised marble throne, the cathedra. This is where the bishop would have sat at particular points in a ritual or meeting with other officials in the sanctuary. I have a better image of one in San Vitale in Ravenna.


San Vitale Cathedra

There are other famous cathedra thrones of this type, perhaps most notable is the Throne of Bari.


But, back to San Lorenzo.


The Sanctuary

There are two side benches of marble, flanking the bishop's seat. Much less fancy, but probably would have held cushions. The 13th-century lion is taken from its orginal place in the portico entrance.


Madonna Fresco

Speaking of the portico, the 13th century facade has the remnants of beautiful frescoes, my favorite of which is this enthroned Mary, with her enigmatic gaze. I am stunned that more isn't done to protect the piece in the open air. She's crumbling away before your eyes.




Santa Prassede

The 9th century church, Santa Prassede has an original program of mosaics which contain several standard images from Byzantine iconography, many of which are used less often in the later Middle Ages. You see here two arches. the one in the foreground is a triumphal arch (sometimes called a "victory arch"), which is an interesting adaptation of classical Roman architecture to Christian purposes. Where the Roman triumphal arch was built outside, to commemorate a great leader, especially if he won a particular military campaign, the Christian triumphal arch is an interior feature. Roman polytheism built temples with small interiors, but large and ostentatious exteriors--worship and rituals were mostly performed outside the building. Christianity inverted the practice (perhaps rooted in their origins of having to worship in private homes and underground in catacombs), with the exteriors of churches being rather plain, but the ostentation and the rituals taking place indoors. Just so, the interior victory arch celebrates the victory of the Church Triumphant (Christ and the Saved in heaven), and sets the building itself as a ritual space for the Church Militant (those who battle sin and evil on earth--the clergy and the congregants).


So, this first arch shows celestial Jerusalem, (presented as a bejeweled walled city), with the apostles (front row, in white robes, carrying their crowns), flanking John the Baptist (in a "purple" robes), Mary, and on the other side of Jesus, Santa Prassede. Jesus is on a raised platform, as befits a king, and has angels attending him. (I'm not sure about the two white-robed figures standing above and behind the apostles.) On the far sides, you see angels guarding the gates of the city. The underside of the arch has at its apex the name of the (then-living) Pope Paschal I), who commissioned the church.


The second arch is an apsidal arch (it frames the apse, which is the convex half-dome which is behind the sanctuary and altar, and which usually has an imposing religious scene). In it, you see Christ as the sacrificial lamb, enthroned, per the Apocalypse, with a scroll bearing the seven seals on the footrest of his throne. On either side of him, the seven candles, representing the seven churches of Asia mentioned in the Apocalypse, are depicted.



Santa Prassede Halos

When you view the apse itself, you see Christ in the center, with the River Jordan behind him, and separating him from the saints. Peter and Paul are closest to him, and they each are presenting a newly-crowned saint: Santa Prassede, and her sister, Santa Pudenzia (who has her own church nearby). What's really remarkable in this mosaic is the figure on the far left: Pope Paschal 1. He is shown presenting the church of Santa Prassede itself to Jesus and the saints. This is significant because he has a rare square halo; he has it (a halo type reserved for a living saint--and, remember, most saints are so because they are martyred; that is, dead) because he was canonized while alive. Above him on the palm tree is a phoenix (with its own very striking halo), symbolizing eternal life. Paschal was apparently pretty convinced that this church was his ticket to heaven.



The Tetramorph in Mosaic Form


Mark and Matthew

Santa Prassede's arch has a gorgeous array of the tetramorph--four creatures which are typically described as representing the four synoptic gospels (and, indeed, each is carrying his book), but they are also a disambiguation of an older apotropaic creature from the East, the Lamassu. The Lamassu was a protecting creature which protected in dominion over all (The heavens--the eagle; the domesticated realm--the bull; the wild realm--the lion; the human realm--the man. Not all lamassu have lion parts, so the bull in those represent all animals.). The gospels and their evangelists as the tetramorph affirm God's total rule. In the image above, you see Mark (the lion) and Matthew (the man/angel). I love going through medieval art to see the various weird depictions of lions by artists who'd never seen one in reality. Below Mark and Matthew you see saved martyrs with the crowns of immortality they receive in heaven (per Revelations). It is a funerary crown (used in burial practices for pre-Christian royalty), reinvented/transformed into a crown to signify having won eternal life. It's useful to note here that these martyrs all have the same facial features--their individuality is not important in this period and type of art--what they share in common is what's important. They are as similar as a representation of soldiers would be.


Below, you see the other two figures of the tetramorph--John, the eagle, and Luke, the ox.


Luke and John

I will include here a video which will give you a fuller view:


Thoroughly Modern Mary


Just by way of comparison, here is a fresco in one of the side chapels of Santa Prassede, which was redesigned in the 1920s, finished in 1933. The artist was Giuglio Bargellini, and his style is somewhat pre-Raphaelite. This is Mary, being crowned by the Trinity (Jesus, the Holy Spirit as dove, and God--look at *His* halo!). Like Boticelli's Venus, Angels and cherubim float in to give Mary her mantle. She is standing in a bed of lilies--symbol of purity, as opposed to Venus' clamshell. Bargellini knew well the Byzantine style throughout the nave and sanctuary of the church, but opted to have it both ways, using the colors and composition of the Byzantine, but romanticizing the figures in a comparatively modern way.



Pre-Raphaelite Saints

This dome part of the same renovation (although its paint has suffered in the intervening decades, so that it looks more run-down than the older art in the church). A modernization of the early medieval themes of martyrdom, royalty, and protection, but with everyone looking like they're in a fashion spread.




Santa Maria in Trastevere

To conclude here, let's review with another a church that keeps the elements of the early churches, while itself is a product of late Romanesque, heading into the Gothic.(1138-48), Santa Maria in Trastevere. It was built on top of an earlier building, with the same dedication. It has a mix of familiar elements and themes: triumphal arch, apsidal arch with narrative mosaics, an apse with a Byzantine program and composition. The sanctuary is blocked off with a stone screen. The altar is raised above the relics of several saints, and is 12th c., but that ciborium only looks medieval--it's 19th century. It's not visible in this photo, but there's a twelfth-century cathedra, evoking the early stone bishop's chair. You have a lovely Cosmatesque floor, which is a 19th century restoration of the 12th century original. The other nice touch for making a medieval church seem older is the set of Corinthian columns--they actually are antique, from the Roman Baths of Carcalla and/or maybe the quarries of Egypt. The bases and capitals are spolia.


Close-up of the Apse

Here is a close-up of the apse mosaic. Everything evokes the Byzantine style--the robes, the throne, the use of colors, the cast of characters, and even the string of lambs barely visible in the lower-right, but this is 12th-13th century. This was a new church (as they all are when they are being built), but the intent was to imbue it with all the glamour and awe of the earlier tradition.



Dormition of the Virgin

I'm including one of the scenes from the apsidal arch, which contains scenes from the life of the Virgin, because it's a scene that is very popular in the Romanesque period, and will tie into other posts of mine. This is a Dormition scene, where Mary dies, but her soul is taken immediately to heaven by Christ. You can see her soul in Christ's arms, shown as a baby. This symbolic choice is interesting, because the idea of rebirth/resurrection is made concrete through a figure that is recently-born: an infant. When we get to scenes in other church art which evoke the Last Judgment, we'll see frequent representation of the weighing of souls, and the soul will be shown as a naked infant. What I also like about this representation of Mary's soul is that it is an inversion of the Madonna and Child motif. Mary gives birth to Christ as a man, this mosaic seems to be saying, but Christ re-births her as divine. There's a reflexive quality to their relationship expressed in this scene--the mother to the Son becomes the daughter to the Father.


Madonna della Clemenza

My favorite piece in Trastevere is the oldest thing in it, and one of the oldest paintings in Rome: La Madonna della Clemenza. It is an icon in the Byzantine style. Mary is dressed as an empress, in a pearl and gem crown, with the infant Christ on her lap. Both wear gowns of imperial purple. Attending angels are on either side of their throne. The icon once had encrusted glass or semi-precious stones and gold leaf to adorn it, as objects for veneration at that time did. I love this piece because, to me, it *doesn't* look like most Eastern icons. It doesn't appear so static; the faces seem more realistic and natural. Most of all, her eyes don't have that otherworldly gaze; they seem to actually be looking at you.




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