Thursday, January 27, 2011

Mosaic detail of Honorius III

In January 1218, Pope Honorius III (1216-27) asked the Doge of Venice, Zaini, to send Byzantine-trained craftsmen to Rome so that the mosaic decoration of the apse of the basilica of San Paolo fuori le Mura, begun by Innocent III (1198-1216) might be completed. Much of this work is a 19th-century restoration, both before and after the 1823 fire, but the apse mosaics are faithful to the original work of the Venetian artists. We are familiar with this apse because each year on the feast of the Conversion of St Paul, the Holy Father celebrates Solemn Vespers in the basilica and is seated on a throne directly under the great figure of Christ enthroned.

In a traditional Roman apsidal mosaic, the frieze under the figures of Christ and the saints normally depicts a row of sheep, symbolizing the apostles, looking towards the Lamb of God. However, in this mosaic, which marks the first major work in a new phase of Byzantine-inspired church decoration in Rome, there is a row of apostles, saints, and archangels. The basilica is famous for its mosaic medallions of all the popes. However, what is especially beautiful and rather moving is a tiny mosaic figure of Pope Honorius III clinging to the foot of the Lord in this apsidal mosaic.

Papal HumilityExecuted within the lifetime of the pontiff, he is shown dressed in pontifical vestments. The details reveal his red buskins, an alb trimmed with a blue chevron pattern, and cuffs like the 'epimanika' still worn in Eastern rites. The fringe of a decorated stole can be seen, and over this he wears a russet dalmatic with a tasselled fringe, and trimmed with jewels or an embroidered orphrey. The fabric itself is woven, it seems, with gold dots. Over this is a wide flowing chasuble with a repeating pattern of gold dots, stars and clovers. Finally, over this is the pallium in its full and ancient form.

It's not clear, of course, how much of these details concerning the vesture of Honorius III actually reflects what he wore in the early 13th-century. Mgr Guido Marini notes that the "long pallium crossed over the shoulder was not worn in the West as from the 9th century onwards. Indeed, the painting in the Sacred Cave of Subiaco, dating back to ca. 1219 and representing Pope Innocent III with this type of pallium, seems to be a deliberate archaism". So, perhaps the same archaising tendency is evinced here in this portrait of Pope Honorius III? Nevertheless, it is a beautiful detail that shows the richness of material and noble form of ancient vestments, and it appears to be a style with which that reigning pontiff wanted to associate himself.

Click the image of Pope Honorius III above to enlarge it.

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