Rome’s Marvelous Mosaics

A few weeks ago we went on yet another excellent walking tour with Context Rome. The theme was “Gardens of Paradise, Medieval Mosaics.” We started with the majestic Santa Maria Maggiore on the Esquiline Hill, and then went to two nearby, smaller churches.

I’ve always loved the story of Santa Maria Maggiore, built in the 4th century, when the Virgin Mary appeared in a vision to Pope Liberius, instructing him to erect a church on a spot where snow would fall — in August(!). The Virgin delivered her miracle, snow fell on the Esquiline Hill, and there the church was built. And it is glorious.

Santa Maria Maggiore, one of Rome's major basilicas
Santa Maria Maggiore, one of Rome’s major basilicas

Focusing today on the mosaics, as this is a church dedicated to the Virgin, the emphasis is on her. The beautiful depiction of Christ placing a crown on his mother’s head (at the top of this post) is the centerpiece. The two sit on opulent cushions, seemingly floating in the heavens, surrounded by angels and an amazing vine that forms circle after circle around them.  Another scene shows the death of the Virgin.

The death of the Vorgin, with Christ and angels
The death of the Vorgin, with Christ and angels

Other panels depict biblical scenes, in gorgeous detail.

Moasic panel in Santa Maria Maggiore
Mosaic panel in Santa Maria Maggiore
Mpsaic panel detail
Mosaic panel detail

Santa Prassede, a small but dazzling church, was built by Pope Paschal I in the 9th century.

Interior of Santa Prassede
Interior of Santa Prassede

The apse mosaic showing Christ, saints, and a row of lambs is exquisite:

Central mosaic in Santa Prassede
Central mosaic in Santa Prassede

Off to one side of the church, the St. Zeno Chapel is a beautiful example of Byzantine mosaic work.  The entrance is decorated with saints and religious figures:

Entrance to St. Zeno's Chapel
Entrance to St. Zeno’s Chapel

Inside, four angels stand on pillars in each corner, framing a medallion of Christ, the entire ceiling in shining gold tiles:

In St. Zeno's Chapel
In St. Zeno’s Chapel

Our last church, Santa Pudenziana, possibly one of the oldest churches in Rome, is also lovely.

Santa Pudenziana, note it is below ground level
Santa Pudenziana, note it is below ground level
A stunning depiction of Christ on the facade of Santa Pudenziana
A stunning depiction of Christ on the facade of Santa Pudenziana

Inside, the marvelous mosaics continued:

Apse mosaic of Santa Pudenziana
Apse mosaic of Santa Pudenziana
Detail of Santa Pudenziana mosaic
Detail of Santa Pudenziana mosaic (the saint herself in gold robes)

Our tour consisted of just five people, and our docent, Dr. Lauren Golden, was wonderful in jumping from art, to history, to legend. The stories of the two smaller churches, and the saints they are named for, is particularly fascinating. This is a terrific tour to get you off the beaten path and into some of the most lovely churches in the Eternal City.

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