16.05.22, Thunø, The Apse Mosaic in Early Medieval Rome

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Annie Labatt

The Medieval Review 16.05.22

Thunø, Erik. The Apse Mosaic in Early Medieval Rome: Time, Network, and Repetition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. pp. xv, 358. ISBN: 978-1-107-06990-9 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Annie Labatt
University of Texas at San Antonio

The Apse Mosaic in Early Medieval Rome by Erik Thunø is a comprehensive consideration of the apse mosaics produced in Rome between the sixth and ninth centuries. Thunø's first book, Image and Relic. Mediating the Sacred in Early Medieval Rome, focused on relics and reliquaries from the ninth century. Thus, in this more recent publication, Thunø shows that he can move from the micro to the macro, from small-scale reliquaries showing miniscule scenes from the life of Christ in enamel and engravings to large-scale mosaic programs that filled the apses of the churches and, quite often, continued onto the triumphal arches. In his recent publication, Thunø focuses on a set of mosaics that follow a particular "formula," mosaics that combine titular saints, a patron pope, and an inscription that describes the figures and highlights the "light and material splendor" of the newly commissioned church. Thunø focuses on seven mosaic programs that are all still in situ in their churches--SS. Cosmas and Damian, S. Agnese fuori le Mura, the San Venanzio Chapel in the Lateran Baptistery, Santa Maria in Domnica, Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, Santa Prassede, and San Marco.

Thunø provides a new model for understanding the medieval mosaics of Rome. Instead of resorting to the traditional art historical inclination to divide these majestic monuments into uneasy and confusing categories--i.e. Richard Krautheimer's ninth-century Carolingian Renaissance and the so-called "Byzantine Invasion" of the seventh century--Thunø presents a history of these various and variegated monuments that privileges their shared similarities. Repetition is allowed to be seen as an artistic process. His is a synchronic approach that highlights likenesses rather than peculiarities. He thus places the mosaic programs in a grand continuum that allows the reader to envision a version of Rome as a city that had a keen sense of its own rich pasts--both recent and distant. The mosaics themselves are allowed to tell a story that goes beyond specific dates or personages. They become more than convenient illustrations for certain historical moments or constructed phases in history. It is a way of applying the theories discussed by Alexander Nagel and Christopher Wood in their book Anachronic Renaissance, whereby the reflection and repetition of an older prototype lifts the later works, the so-called copies, beyond a sense of the "linear flow of time" and "imbues the object with larger-than-life significance" (9).

Thunø explains the premise of his argument in an introduction, a short and concise chapter that blends a clear historiographical framework with attentive descriptions of the mosaic programs, a skill that he showcases throughout the book. The book is divided into four parts. The first and last, as he explains, consider a horizontal axis of interactions, meaning similarities across linear time. Thus the first chapter, "Repetition: Saints, Popes, and Golden Texts" introduces the features that create the series. He looks not at the changing styles, but the "formulaic repetition of certain key elements," traditionally called iconography, and how these features "create an aura of continuity" (61). The second and third chapters ("Transformation: From Material Church to Spiritual Body" and "Incorporation: Becoming a Living Stone") consider what Thunø calls a vertical axis, "heaven-earth" (4). Thunø discusses the ways in which the viewer is essential to activating the meanings of the mosaic imagery. Through intercessory figures, shimmering lights that suggest the celestial heavens, and texts that emphasize both, the viewer becomes part of a community, part of a spiritual temple, the all-powerful Ecclesia Romana. The apsidal imagery may be Apocalyptic in so far as it illustrates images from chapters four and five of the Book of Revelation such as the Twenty-four Elders and the Living Creatures. But in these mosaics, the Last Judgment or End of Days is a vision of Revelation that is in the present not in the future, glorious not punitive. Thunø argues that these images from the Apocalypse are actually more about an ecclesiological vision rather than a eschatological one:

No matter how elaborate their visualizations of the Book of Revelation, the apsidal arches also include interpolated features--details or autonomous pictorial elements--that de-emphasize their eschataological content. In this way, fixing the apocalyptic imagery in time is deliberately undermined in favor of a more fluid intermingling of temporalities. By offering a vision of the already existing celestial Church, its appearance on the apsidal arches in early medieval Rome is less about a revelation of unknown things to come than about manifesting the continuity of the temporal Chruch with its heavenly counterpart in Christ who was, is, and always will be" (80).

In the final chapter, "Networking: Building a Communio Sanctorum," Thunø describes how the mosaics, as a group, created a larger family of saints which, when centered on the sacramental body of Christ, produced the visual expression of the Ecclesia Romana that lifts mosaics out of time, giving them their "anachronic power" (205). In his afterword, Thunø pulls these threads together to establish that the mosaics in medieval Roman apses create a network by virtue of a formula that "substitutes human historical time with eternity, or God's time" (207). Ultimately these mosaics illustrate a vision of the Church, eternal and heavenly.

Many passages in the book are stimulating and certainly provide new and exciting avenues of study for these medieval mosaics. For example, Thunø discusses the "ocular embrace" of God through the "all-encompassing" eyes of Christ in light of the use of ancient Roman cult statues (134-42). By reaching back into the study of past pagan writings and practices, Thunø explains one of the most consistent aspects of his "formula"--Christ staring wide-eyed over our heads and into the distance. This discussion also helps explain the composition of the so-called Pantokrator type that appears in monuments such as the San Zeno chapel in Rome and in later imagery in Norman Sicily and in the East. Thunø's consideration of the blood-red clouds, one of the most fundamental iconographical ties that binds these mosaics, is titillating, albeit short (103-5). His consideration of the apse as a metaphorical compass is also extremely interesting (129-34). The expectation of the apse as being always in the east is consistently subverted by this series of mosaics. And yet, as Thunø explains, the iconography in the apse could reorient the church, "creating a virtual rather than a real prayer direction for the worshipping viewer toward the divine light" (132). Thunø carefully blends the imagery of the mosaic with its inscription, something previous scholars did not do, a strange thing considering the fact that both inscription and image were produced at the same time and certainly inform each other, as Thunø shows. Thunø's discussion of the metaphysics of mosaics is rich and intriguing (47-51, 105-117, 159-164). The golden letters against the deep-blue ground, part of Thunø's "formula," shimmer in just the way that the inscriptions say they do. This combination of text and image allows the mosaic to express larger ontological concepts about the physical church and its members. As Thunø writes, "Together, imagery and materiality closely intertwine in transforming the physical church into a living domus Dei of the living on earth and the saints in heaven. In fact, their distinct capacity to reconcile substance with immateriality through their unstable glitter can be seen as a material metaphor for Christ's ecclesiological body" (163). The "living stones" defined in I Peter 2:4-7 as the community of believers that have joined together in the living body of Christ, are also the stones (mosaic cubes) that create light and describe their own light in the apse of the church.

Pooling these mosaics together, allowing them to create a dialogue that is not limited by a desire to consider the pieces in a specific order, enables Thunø to make a number of new and exciting connections. But there are a few drawbacks to collecting these mosaics together without taking into account the specific decisions that put them into place. For example, Thunø very briefly considers the spatial relationship of the monuments. The building sites of the churches were not arbitrary or accidental, and the specific location of the churches surely informs the meanings of these mosaics in a way that very much works against the notion that these mosaics were out of time. The act of visiting the church--walking to the site, walking through the door, walking down the apse--has many special and specific implications, none of which Thunø considers. Thunø's method makes the mosaics seem like a series of interchangeable illustrations, images that might as well be hung on a wall in a gallery. Comparing the mosaics in this way might be an interesting exercise, but it does take away from the fundamental point that they are massive, monumental, and not exchangeable. They are in situ. That seems to get lost.

In addition, there is the fundamental fact that, although the repetitions and similarities are absolutely worthy of attention, there is the danger of having to explain away variations in order to maintain the so-called formula. San Marco and S. Agnese fuori le mura both deviate from the pattern. But Santa Maria in Domnica is Thunø's greatest problem. For one, the church does not have any relics because the Virgin Mary was assumed into heaven without leaving any bodily remains: "S. Maria in Domnica may seem the strange outsider in that [sic] does not fit the described pattern of church-mosaic-relics" (60). She does not fit the artistic "formula" either because Christ is not in the center of variegated clouds, flanked by saints and popes. Nor does this apsidal configuration include the Elders and Living Creatures. Instead, this mosaic by Pope Paschal I shows the Madonna enthroned and surrounded by choirs of seemingly infinite angels. Thunø works very hard to explain these deviations. In fact, Santa Maria in Domnica reappears many times throughout the text, and each time Thunø seems to feel the need to explain the fact that this one mosaic is different. He explains at one point that omitting the Elders and Creatures was allowable because Christ appears on the lap of the Madonna as Christ as the Resurrected Logos and cornerstone of the Church that illuminates the world. Thus the Madonna is there to present an apocalyptic Christ and obviates the need for further imagery from Revelation: "The choice of showing the Virgin as Mother of God in the apse vault of S. Maria in Domnica obviously led to the omission of a grandiose display of the Elders and Living Creatures in heaven on its apsidal arch" (128-129). It is not self-evident why that choice obviously leads to the decision to leave out the Elders. Furthermore, Thunø is focusing on what is not there, arguing in the negative, almost trying to explain away what is there. It is as though he has to apologize for the mosaic. Thunø should not have to work so hard to fit Santa Maria in Domnica into his series.

Thunø should be able to consider the variations in a positive way. They should not present a problem. They are very much part of the story. Consider how very proudly Pope Paschal put his own image into each of the apsidal programs that he patronized, along with a very prominent, central, blue monogram. He may have been looking at grand monuments of the past. But Paschal was not studying the other mosaics without thinking about the ways that he could appear and reappear throughout his new program. He put his stamp on everything he did, and that personalized specificity is essential to the experience of the imagery. It is hard to accept the argument that these specifics or differences should be understood in a separate category, a more political category, because they "bear witness to the ambitions and struggles of a temporal and institutional Church, and stand in contrast to the heavenly Church manifested by the same mosaics" (107-108). These kinds of decisions, rather, indicate that his mosaics represent an interest in fostering a sense of "development and cultural change" (12). In other words, reading only synchronically or anachronically militates against recognizing important diachronic differentiations. Paschal's mosaics do reflect or repeat SS Cosma e Damiano--but not literally. There are arguably more differences than similarities. Paschal's mosaic programs reveal a set of decisions that were selective, specific, and unique. We should not be asked to forgo the appreciation of those interesting decisions and deviations.

Thunø's work is a welcome synthesis of the mosaics in Rome, one that creates interesting dialogues between the mosaics. His discourse explains relationships between the mosaics, creating a network rather than a list of unrelated pieces. His illustrations are extremely helpful, as are the translations of the inscriptions from the mosaics found in the appendix, most certainly some of the most evocative poetry ever written. Thunø presents a specific and intense consideration of a bigger, broader picture of Rome, one that was driven by a newly developed cult of the martyrs, the omnipresent motif of the one living body of the Church of Rome, and the untouchable, other-worldly beauty of these mosaics. It is a strong contribution to the field in terms of the ways in which he thoughtfully collects and describes the mosaics, both their imagery and their texts. The overall apparatus does draw attention to repetition as a worthy manner of collating these mosaic programs. It is a provocative method--valuable, but perhaps not entirely fair to the variegation, imagination, and richnesses of the mosaics.

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