Iconographic presentation of the apse mosaic
of the basilica of San Clemente in Rome
This Basilica is situated some three hundred yards from the Colosseum. It is named after Pope Saint Clement, the third successor of St Peter in the See of Rome, who died about 100 A.D. The first church was a rectangular building.
In 1100 it was found that the building was unsafe and should be abandoned. The fourth-century church was filled in with rubble to the top of the pillars that set off the nave from the aisles, and on these foundations a replica of the old basilica was erected.
The façade, was rebuilt by the architect Carlo Stefano Fontana in 1715.
The basilica today with the mosaic of twelfth century
It is generally agreed that the work was done in the 12th or beginning 13th century by a group of skilled craftsmen under the direction of a master artist. This mosaic reveals a general Byzantine influence together with a decoration made in the paleochristian tradition of 4th century. The theme of the mosaic is the Redemption of mankind, and of all creation.
Latin inscription around the bottom of the absyde:
GLORIA IN EXCELSIS DEO SEDENTIS SUP THRONUM ET IN TERRA PAX HOMINIBUS BONEVOLUNTAT
“Glory to God in the highest who seats on the throne and peace on earth for men of goodwill.” Luke 2,14
The cross is the great piece of the whole mosaic, the throne from which the Redeemer-King reigns and creates all creation. Beside the Saviour of the world: Mary and John. On the branches of the cross are twelve doves, symbol of the Apostles who brought the “good news” of Redemption to the whole world.
The cross is represented as a tree planted in the ground. From its base grow splendid acanthus leaves and Vine liana-branches whose coils unfold as if to reach to men at all times and in all places. The vegetation that springs from the foot of the cross is symbol of the Church, which springs from the ground where it is watered by the blood, and which flows from the opened side of Christ on the cross.
Latin inscription, at the foot of the cross, in plank to the bottom of absyde, above the ewe and the Lamb:
ECCLESIAM CHRISTI : VITI SIMILABIMUS ISTI + DE LIGNO CRUCIS . JACOBI DENS IGNATIIQ: INSUPRA SCRIPTI . REQUIESCUNT . CORPORE CHRISTI + QUAM LEX ARENTEM :SED CRUX FACIT ESSE VIRENTEM
« We compare the church of Christ to this vine; the Law made it wither but the cross causes it to bloom. A piece of the true Cross, a tooth of James and of Ignatius rest in the body of Christ above this inscription. ”
The four headwaters of the Paradise River which spring from the foot of the cross to water the earth are represented here according to two biblical texts: Gn 2:10: “A river watering the garden flowed from Eden; from there it was separated into four headwaters.” and the Revelation 22, 1-2: “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2 down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”
At the foot of the tree of life, a little deer sniffs at a serpent, perhaps representing a soul seduced by the attraction of sin, from which it will be saved by the cross.
Under the cross and the leaves of acanthus two thirsty deer drink from the rivers of salvation. They picture the desire of the faithful to be united with God as expressed in the words of the Psalmist:
“As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.” Psalm 42, 2
Like in the paleochristian tradition of 4th century, we can see peacocks, symbol of the resurrection and of immortality (because of the feathers which always push back).
In the lower part of the apse, within encircling branches of Vine, we see men and women engaged in their familiar and daily occupations, all of them receiving from the cross and all sharing in Christ the teeming fullness of pardon and new life.
All daily labour of life are blessed by the Redeemer!
- A woman feeding hens and a shepherd is with his herd
- Shepherds with goats and ewes + a servant is milking a goat.
- On both sides of the cross, artist’s patrons and the feudal lord with his wife and a servant
- The lord’s sons
- The feudal lord’s chaplain: A tonsured figure giving food and drink to a gaily coloured bird.
- The steward of the feudal household: The figure with a basket from which he is feeding a bird.
- St Ambrose, St Gregory, St Augustine and St Jerome: In line with the feudal family and the foot of the cross are four great doctors of the Church. Nourished by Bishops and Doctors of the Church, the faithful can reach the heights of the spiritual life symbolised by the upper part of the apse.
On the central vertical line we can see, upwards: the lamb with a halo, the four rivers of the paradise, the acanthus, the cross, the hand of the Father, and at the top Christ in majesty.
The Father’s hand offers his son the laurel wreath, symbol of victory.
The monogram of Christ is represented in apex of the vault. The central device combines the Greek letters X and P, which correspond to CH and R of our alphabet; thus they form the first letters of the name of Christ. A and W are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet; they stand for Christ the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End, the One who by dying on the cross has conquered death and is alive for evermore.
The Christ in Majesty in a mandorle surrounded by stars, symbol of his glory. In a triumphal arch, Christ is represented as Pantokrator, no longer as a martyr on the cross but as coming in glory to judge all mankind. In one hand he holds a book, the Scriptures of which he is the completed achievement.
The four evangelists: On either side of Christ within the celestial cloud, we can see “four living creatures” with wings like in Revelation 4, 6-8: “Before the Throne there is a platform, transparent like crystal. Around and beside the Throne stand four living creatures, full of eyes, both in front and behind. The first living creature is like a lion, the second one like a bull, the third has the face of the man and the fourth looks like a flying eagle. Each of the four living creatures has six wings full of eyes, all around as well as within; day and night the sing without ceasing : Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God, master of the universe, who was, and is to come.”
The iconographic representation takes as a starting point this passage of the Revelation without however being perfectly faithful.
According to St Augustin, the symbols of evangelists are:
- The lion for Saint Mark, because Mark, at the beginning of his gospel, mentions the voice (John the Baptist) calling in the desert to prepare the way of the Lord. (Mark 1, 1-3). It is also in the desert where Jesus was driven by the Holy Spirit to be tempted by Satan. He was with wild animals (like lions), but angels ministered to him (Mark 1, 13).
- The ox (or bull) for Luke. Bull is an animal being used for the sacrifice and Mark’s Gospel starts with the sacrifice offered by Zechariah. (Luke 1, 5...)
- The eagle for John because (John 1, 1-5) at the beginning was the Word, and all things were made through him. In him was the life and the life which for humans was also Light. God is the Light and only the eagle can look at the sun without being blinded.
- The man for Matthew. Matthew’s gospel starts with a list of Jesus’s ancestors.
St Laurence and St Paul
Just as the four living creatures had adored the Lamb who had opened the book, so either side of the arch, the prophets and martyrs testify to the glory of Him “who is seated on the throne”.
On the left, St Laurence learning from St Paul to follow the cross. St Laurence is represented with a cross on his left hand and with his feet on a grill, beneath which a fire is burning. This refers to his martyrdom in 253 A.D.
Below this group is the prophet Isaiah with the inscription: “VIDI DOMINUM SEDETEM SUP. SOLIUM” I saw the Lord sitting upon the throne (Is 6, 1).
St Peter and St Clement
To the right of the triumphal arch, is St Peter (Agios Petrus) instructing St Clement: “RESPICE PROMISSUM CLEMENS A ME TIBI CHRISTUM” = “Clement looks at Christ as I promised you”. St Clement is represented with his feet on a boat around which fish are swimming. He is reputed to have been martyred by being tied to an anchor and drowned in the Black Sea. He holds this anchor in his left hand.
Below this group is the prophet Jeremiah holding in his hand the scroll of his secretary Baruch: “HIC EST Ds. NOSTER ET N. ESTIMABITUR ALIUS ABSQ. ILLO » = « This is our Lord, and no other can compare with Him. » Bar 3, 36.
Its name is written over the arch of the gate of the city and on the steps (at the lower part of the door) we can see a child (The infant Jesus?)
Its name is also written over the gate of the city of Jerusalem. We can see a cross, and on the steps a cock, recalling St Peter’s betrayal of Jesus.
The nest is another traditional fourth century motif. Birds symbolise Christian souls transported into the beauty of heaven.
The lowest portion of the bowl of the apse is occupied by twelve lambs, representing the twelve apostles. The lamb with a golden circle, a halo around his head, standing on a hill in the center, represents Christ, towards whom all the others are turned.
Lambs are represented as passing between the two cities of Bethlehem and Jerusalem, which symbolise the birth and death of the Divine Redeemer.
That is the theological message of this mosaic.
The link between heaven (triumphal arch) and earth (apse) is forged by the hand of God the Father directing the course of history and offering the crown of the victory of His Son and to all who follow Him as the “light of life). The deep and rich symbolism of this mosaic, and the perfection with which it is expressed through coloured stone and glass, made it one of the masterpieces of Christian art.
Some suggested biblical passages
for further reflection on “the lamb.”
Lamb in the EXODUS
First, it is very important to remember the role of the lamb during the exit from Egypt.
With the blood of the lamb painted on the doorposts and on top of the doorframes of the houses during the Passover, the people can be saved from the hand of Yahweh. It is the sign of alliance between God and his people.
Exodus 12, 1-20: Yahweh spoke to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt and said, «This month is to be the beginning of all months, the first month of your year. Speak to the community of Israel and say to them: On the tenth day of this month let each family take a lamb, a lamb for each house. If the family is too small for a lamb, they must join with a neighbour, the nearest to the house, according to the number of persons and to what each one can eat. You will select a perfect lamb without blemish, a male born during the present year, taken from the sheep or goats. Then you will keep it until the fourteenth day of the month.
On that evening all the people will slaughter their lambs and take some of the blood to put on the doorposts an on top of the doorframes of the houses where you eat. That night you will eat the flesh roasted at the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs....
And this is how you will eat: with a belt round your waist, sandals on your feet and a staff in your hand. You shall eat hastily for it is a Passover in honour of Yahweh. On that night I shall go through Egypt and strike every firstborn in Egypt, men and animals; and I will even bring judgement on all the gods of Egypt, I, Yahweh! The blood on your houses will be the sign that you are there. I will see the blood and pass over you; and you will escape the mortal plague when I strike Egypt. This is a day you are to remember and celebrate in honour o Yahweh. It is to be kept as a festival day for all generations forever.”
The lamb is the symbol of the exit from Egypt, of the Exodus and of the release from slavery.
For Christians, Jesus, the Christ is the Lamb of God who died and rose for the salvation of the world. He is the Easter Lamb offered as sacrifice.
The Thav traced on the lintels with the blood of the lamb is the cross on which Jesus poured his blood.
In the Revelation this vision of the lamb is imposing.
And if the notion of sacrifice is present, the notion of glory is more important.
The lost sheep in Luke 15, 4-7,
• 4 “Who among you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, will not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and seek out the lost one till he finds it? 5 And finding it, will he not joyfully carry it home on his shoulders? 6 Then he will call his friends and neighbors together and say: ‘Celebrate with me for I have found my lost sheep.’ 7 I tell you, just so, there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one repentant sinner than over ninety-nine upright who do not need to repent.
The good shepherd in John 10, 1-18
• 1 Truly, I say to you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate, but climbs in some other way, is a thief and a robber. 2 But the shepherd of the sheep enters by the gate. 3 The keeper opens the gate to him and the sheep hear his voice; he calls each of his sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them and the sheep follow him for they know his voice. 5 A stranger they will not follow, rather they will run away from him because they don’t recognize a stranger’s voice.” 6 Jesus used this comparison, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. 7 So Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, I am the gate of the sheep. 8 All who came were thieves and robbers, and the sheep did not hear them. 9 I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be saved; he will go in and out freely and find food. 10 The thief comes to steal and kill and destroy, but I have come that they may have life, life in all its fullness.11 I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives his life for the sheep. 12 Not so the hired hand or any other person who is not the shepherd and to whom the sheep do not belong. They abandon the sheep as soon as they see the wolf coming; then the wolf snatches and scatters the sheep. 13 This is because the hired hand works for pay and cares nothing for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 as the Father knows me and I know the Father. Because of this I give my life for my sheep. 16 I have other sheep that are not of this fold. These I have to lead as well, and they shall listen to my voice. Then there will be one flock since there is one Shepherd. 17 The Father loves me because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down freely. It is mine to lay down and to take up again: this mission I received from my Father.”
Ezekiel 34, 11-16
11 Indeed Yahweh says this: I myself will care for my sheep and watch over them. 12 As the shepherd looks after his flock when he finds them scattered, so will I watch over my sheep and gather them from all the places where they were scattered in a time of cloud and fog. 13 I will bring them out from the nations and gather them from other countries. I will lead them to their own land and pasture them on the mountains of Israel in all the valleys and inhabited regions of the land. 14 I will take them to good pastures on the high mountains of Israel. They will rest where the grazing is good and feed in lush pastures on the heights of Israel. 15 I myself will tend my sheep and let them rest, word of Yahweh. 16 I will search for the lost and lead back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the fat and strong will be eliminated. I will shepherd my flock with justice.