The Triumphal Arch at Santa Maria Maggiore

432-440
Mosaic
Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome

This was originally the apsidal arch, but in the 13th century the apse was moved back to make space for the transept and this became a "triumphal arch."

Santa Maria Maggiore was the first church in Rome dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Its construction in 432-440, and this mosaic in particular, were inspired by the formulations of the Council of Ephesus, which insist on the full divinity of Jesus Christ even from birth and therefore on the appropriateness of calling Mary the "Mother of God" (Schiller, I, 26-27).

As Schiller puts it, "the story of Christ's childhood is not told chronologically in the form of a narrative sequence, rather those scenes are chosen which demonstrate the divinity of the Child and the dawn of the era of salvation for the whole world." At the apex, Christ is presented symbolically as an enthroned cross flanked by Peter, Paul, and the beasts that represent the Evangelists. The narrative scenes in this uppermost register do follow a chronological sequence, with the annunciations to Mary and Joseph on the left and the presentation in the temple and Joseph's second dream on the right.

In the second register on the left, the Child presides from a jeweled throne as the Magi arrive to give him homage. Mary is on his left, and on his right is a female figure in a golden robe, most likely representing Ecclesia, the Church. Joseph stands at the far left of the scene.

In the right panel of the second register the child is greeted by the people of Sotinen in Egypt as "the God of gods," a further testimony to his full divinity. This legend is from Pseudo-Matthew, 22. Standing with the child are four angels, St. Joseph and the woman in gold, who this time represents both Mary and Ecclesia.

The third register presents the two episodes from Matthew's nativity story that involve Herod (2:1-8, 16-18), the earthly king in counterpoint to the King of Heaven in the panels above. On the right, advised about the ancient prophecy by the Jewish leaders (in white), he sends the Magi (in green) to Bethlehem. On the left, when the Magi fail to report back, he orders the slaughter of Bethlehem's male babies.

Finally, in the lowest register we see Bethlehem on the right and Jerusalem on the left, each looked to by six sheep representing the twelve tribes and the twelve apostles.

View this image in full resolution.

Detail photographs:

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