by Rachel Hiser Remmes

The apse mosaic in the Basilica di Santa Pudenziana in Rome on the Esquiline Hill is one of the oldest extant apse mosaics. It dates to the fourth century C.E., sometime after Christianity became legalized in 312 C.E. Although it has been restored, the iconography and composition remain intact and reveal much about the transition from the ancient Roman imperial world to Constantine’s early Christian Rome.

The style of the figures and the representation of pictorial space reveal this relationship, as the Christian imagery relies heavily on established ancient Roman models. Jesus, his Apostles, Mary, and others in assembly are all rendered idealistically, and attention is given to the weight and form of their bodies. This modeling eventually loses favor to the common front-facing, flattened stylization of the early and high middle ages. Furthermore, Jesus and his apostles are rendered in imperial attire. Specifically, Jesus, in his golden toga with purple trim, recalls the propagandistic power of the Roman emperor, and his right extended hand stretches out in the ad locutio gesture also common in imperial images. Finally, directly behind Jesus is a group of buildings demarcating a city, and the jeweled cross in the center defines the city as the Heavenly Jerusalem.

Among other traits, these features illustrate how the early Christian church adopted and reappropriated late antique imagery amidst the change in the empire’s primary religion.

Nave View, Santa Pudenziana, Rome, 4th cent.

Apse Mosaic, Santa Pudenziana, Rome, 4th cent.

Augustus of Primaporta, early 1st cent. C.E.

Detail of Jesus, Apse Mosaic, Santa Pudenziana, Rome, 4th cent.

Detail of Apostles, Apse Mosaic, Santa Pudenziana, Rome, 4th cent.

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