Thursday, February 11, 2021

The Roman Mosaics of Pope St Paschal I

The Roman Martyrology today includes a notice of Pope St Paschal I (817-24), one of many sainted Popes of the early medieval period whose feast was hardly ever kept outside Rome itself. The story of his reign is much concerned with the relationship between the church of Rome and the Frankish kingdom. It was his predecessor but one, St Leo III (795-816), who crowned Charlemagne as the Emperor of the Romans at St Peter’s Basilica on Christmas Day of 800, the beginning of what would later come to be called the Holy Roman Empire. (The Pope between Leo and Paschal, Stephen IV, reigned for only seven months.)
The Coronation of Charlemagne, by Raphael, 1514-15 (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
This event has often been discussed solely in political terms, as a shifting of the Church’s attention away from the slowly waning power of Byzantium, which held a nominal suzerainty over much of Italy that it could not effectively exercise, and towards the Franks under the much more effective rulers of the relatively new Carolingian dynasty. This is a fair way to look at the matter, but not by any means the whole story.
Rome and Byzantium had become estranged (not for the first or last time) a century earlier over the iconoclast heresy, which the Eastern emperors imposed on the Church within their domains with terrible violence, beginning in the days of Charlemagne’s grandfather, Charles Martel. And in point of fact, today is also the feast of Pope St Gregory II (715-31), who in a famous letter, reproved the inventor of Byzantine iconoclasm, Leo III the Isaurian (emperor from 717-741), by saying, “It grieves us that the savages and barbarians are becoming tame, while you, the civilized, are becoming barbarous (i.e., by destroying the sacred images).” By “savages”, the Pope means the peoples of northern Europe, whom St Boniface was then converting to Christianity, sent by Gregory himself.
A mosaic with a bare cross, a motif admitted by the first iconoclasts, in the church of Holy Peace (Hagia Irene) in Constantinople, ca. 750. (Image from Wikimedia Commons by Nina Aldin Thune, CC BY-SA 3.0)
Iconoclasm was officially repudiated in 787 at the Seventh Ecumenical Council, the second to be held in the city of Nicea. (For a sense of chronological perspective, a greater distance in time separates Nicea I from Nicea II than separates Trent from Vatican II.) It was not, however, permanently defeated. In 814 (also the year of Charlemagne’s death), the Emperor Leo V the Armenian revived it, a policy continued under his successors until its definitive overthrow in 847. St Paschal had therefore to contend with its re-emergence after almost a quarter of a century of relative peace. [note]
During his papacy of seven years, three of Rome’s ancient basilicas were either significantly restored or completely rebuilt: St Cecilia in Trastevere, Sancta Maria ‘in Domnica’ on the Caelian hill, and St Praxedes on the Esquiline, a minute’s walk from St Mary Major. Each of these churches has over the subsequent centuries undergone at least one other massive restoration, such that on the whole, they now bear little resemblance to the buildings as Paschal himself would have known them. Nevertheless, in each of them there are still preserved to this day important parts of the mosaic work installed in his time. At Sancta Maria in Domnica and St Cecilia, these consist solely of the apsidal mosaic, but at St Praxedes, they are very much more extensive.
The high altar, chancel arch, proscenium arch and apse of the church of St Praxedes; photo by Nicola de’ Grandi.
These mosaics are often described as Byzantine in style, and this is not wholly inaccurate. They show much of the same lack of depth and proportion to the figures that is often seen in the iconographic style of Byzantine art, which is as much a function of the era’s simple lack of technical capacity as of anything else. But Paschal’s works also deliberately look away from Byzantium, and back to an earlier aspect of Rome’s Christian heritage.
In 527, Pope St Felix III had rebuilt part of an early 3rd-century structure in the Roman Forum as a church dedicated to Ss Cosmas and Damian. Of the original decorations, only the apsidal mosaic remains, and that much restored, but in St Paschal’s time, it would, of course, have been much closer to its original state. This mosaic is the Eternal City’s last truly Roman artwork, made right before a series of events that mark the real break between late antique and early medieval Rome. Shortly after they were completed, the city was almost totally depopulated during a devastating war between Byzantium and the Goths over control of the Italian peninsula. When it was reoccupied, much of its cultural and historical tradition was irrevocably broken, and its population reduced to perhaps as many as 10,000. Byzantium, the Pyrrhic victor of the Gothic wars, would become the dominant cultural influence in Rome and in the Roman church for the next two hundred years.
The following four photos are by Fr Jordan Hainsey, from an article published in 2016. The central figure of Christ in the apsidal mosaic of Ss Cosmas and Damian:
On the left side, Pope St Felix III, and one of the church’s titular Saints, either Cosmas or Damian, presented to Christ by St Paul.
On the right side, St Peter presenting the other titular Saint, and the martyr St Theodore.
A partial view of the mosaic seen from the nave; alterations and new constructions of the following centuries have made it impossible to see the whole mosaic from anywhere outside the choir behind the altar.
Comparing this mosaic to Pope Paschal’s apse at Santa Cecilia, we immediately see how deliberately the latter copies the motif of the former.
Photo by Fr Lawrence Lew OP
In both cases, Christ is in the middle, larger than the other figures, descending from heaven on a series of colored clouds arranged like a staircase. He is wearing a golden robe like that of the Roman Emperor, and has a scroll in his hand, a symbol of His role as a teacher (John 13, 13). At St Cecilia, the hand of God the Father comes from above to crown him; at Cosmas and Damian, this was certainly originally present, although it has long since fallen out.
To either side of Christ are seen the patron Saints of Rome, the Apostles Peter and Paul, dressed in the toga and sandals of Roman senators. Next to them stand the patron Saints of the Church, Cosmas and Damian in the older mosaic, Cecilia and her husband Valerian in the newer one. On the left, we see in each mosaic the Pope who commissioned it, and on the right, another Saint to balance the composition. (At Cosmas and Damian, this is St Theodore, an easterner like them who has a small church very close to theirs; at St Cecilia, another great Roman virgin martyr, St Agnes.)
There is one notable iconographic difference between the two figures of the Popes. In the 6th century, a halo signified only that the figure who wore it was the most important person in the image, which in the earlier mosaic is Christ by definition. By Pope Paschal’s time, the halo had become specifically a sign of holiness; Christ is therefore given a larger one with decorations in it, and the Saints have halos without decoration. The square blue halo which we see behind Paschal’s head was invented to indicate a figure who was important, but still alive or only very recently dead, and therefore not yet a Saint.
Photo by Fr Lawrence Lew OP
To either side we see a palm tree, and in it, perched on a branch above the Pope, a phoenix, which from the very earliest days of the Church was used as a symbol of the Resurrection. In the gold band beneath, the Lamb of God is seen in the center, standing on a hill from which flow the four rivers of Paradise. Twelve other lambs, without halos, symbolizing the Twelve Apostles, walk towards Him from the two holy cities, Bethlehem and Jerusalem, seen at either end of the band. Finally, both mosaics have at the bottom a dedicatory inscription written in gold letters on a blue background.
Photo by Fr Lawrence Lew OP
There is one particular feature of these mosaics which distinguishes them from their Byzantine counterparts, and shows us that Pope Paschal was looking back to the Christian heritage of late antique Rome, before the coming of the Byzantines. Byzantine mosaics prefer gold backgrounds, a sign that one is looking into the supernatural realm in which dwell God and his Saints. We see this in one of the best-preserved mosaics of the early period of Byzantine domination in Italy, from the church of St Agnes Outside-the-Walls, ca. 630 AD. (Photos by Fr Lawrence Lew OP.)
Contrast this with the mosaic at Cosmas and Damian, which has a blue background to represent the sky, and plants and rocks on the ground. Pope Paschal’s mosaic is a much less refined work, but has details of the same sort: a blue background, and a carpet of grass strewn with flowers between the feet of the Saints. These details of the natural world are typical of Roman mosaic work, and absent from the Byzantine.
The same thing appears at Sancta Maria in Domnica. Paschal has himself depicted kneeling at the feet of the Virgin and Child as they sit on a throne, surrounded by angels. Notice the attempt, within the technical limits of the age, to give a sense of perspective by showing the angels in rows. Byzantine influence is here evident in the Virgin Mary’s robes, which are like those of an Eastern nun, but note that the angels are dressed in a manner similar to that of Ss Peter and Paul above, in Roman togas and sandals. (Photos by Fr Lawrence Lew OP, except the last one.)
In the upper part, Christ is seen in majesty with two angels and the twelve Apostles, who are walking towards Him in a natural setting; St John the Baptist is shown at the left, and St Stephen at the right.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons by Pippo-b, CC BY-SA 3.0
This choice to imitate earlier aspects of Rome’s Christian artistic heritage, and step away from the Byzantine artistic heritage, makes for a kind of declaration of independence from Byzantium on two fronts. It is a reminder as to which of the two Romes is the older and more venerable in its traditions, but also a reminder, in the context of renascent iconoclasm in the New Rome, of which of the two has more faithfully kept to the Apostolic faith by preserving the use of sacred art in churches.
There is another important anniversary commemorated today, the death in 867 of the Byzantine Empress Theodora II. She was the wife of the last iconoclast Emperor, Theophilus, who died in 842, leaving her as regent for their son Michael III, a child of two. A fervent “servant of the icons” (iconodule), as the opponents of iconoclasm were called, it was she who brought about the final and definitive end of the heresy in 847. This is commemorated every year by the churches of the Byzantine Rite on the First Sunday of Lent, known as the Sunday of Orthodoxy.
As mentioned above, the church of St Praxedes has preserved a great deal more of Pope Paschal’s mosaic work than the other two churches. Our Ambrosian writer Nicola de’ Grandi visited there this summer, and we will share his pictures of it in a follow-up to this post.

Note: I say “relative peace” because, of course, ecumenical councils have a habit of not quite settling the matters they are called to settle, and the use of sacred images continued to be debated in both East and West long after Second Nicea. It should also be noted that, quite differently from its role in the earlier Christological controversies, in which it intervened decisively, but very late, the Papacy was vocally, solidly and strenuously opposed to iconoclasm from the very beginning.

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