The Apse Mosaic at San Clemente

12th or 13th century
Church of San Clemente, Rome

Like the one at St. John Lateran, this apse mosaic centers on a cross that relates to a vision of Paradise. But San Clemente's mosaic merges the iconography of Paradise with images of the Church in the contemporary world. Thus its most prominent feature is a vast vine studded with figures of lords and stewards, Doctors of the Church, and peasants (example) engaged in their daily tasks.

The vine is identified as the Church by an inscription along the band just above the sheep: Ecclesiam Christi viti similabimus isti de ligno crucis Jacobi dens, Ignatiiq[ue] insupra scripti requiescunt corpore Christi quam lex arentem, sed crux facit esse virentem, "We have likened the Church of Christ to this vine; the Law made it wither but the Cross made it bloom. In the body of Christ above this inscription rest [some] wood from the Cross, a tooth of James, and of Ignatius."

Below this inscription the apostles are represented by twelve sheep that face toward the Lamb of God, an image based on the Book of Revelation.

The cross itself is actually a complete crucifixion scene with Mary and St. John beside it and the hand of God the Father above, tendering a wreath of victory to Christ. The risen and regnant Christ is above the entire work, in a medallion over the highest point of the arch.

The vine grows out of the tree at the base of the cross, from which flow the four rivers of Eden. The two stags drinking there allude to Ps. 42:1, "As the hart panteth after the fountains of water; so my soul panteth after thee, O God."

Where the apse meets the flat surface of the east end of the nave, the mosaic represents Bethlehem on the left and Jerusalem on the right. Both are presented as loci of historical events, not as heavenly idealizations. In Bethlehem we see an image of the boy Christ and of another boy running down a flight of stairs; in Jerusalem a cross and a cock remind viewers that this city was the scene of the Crucifixion and of Peter's denial.

Above the two towns are Isaiah (left side) and Jeremiah (right side) and two pairs of saints: St. Lawrence and St. Paul on the left, St. Clement and St. Peter on the right.

Read more about crosses and lambs in Christian symbolism.
Read more about Saints Peter, Paul, and Clement.
Read more about Isaiah and Jeremiah.
Read more about stag symbolism.

Photographed at the church by Richard Stracke, shared under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.