The Basilica of San Clemente was built in Rome in the Middle Ages. Above the altar in the apse is an expansive mosaic with a crucifix in the center. It aptly illustrates a number of foundational truths about the Catholic faith within the scope of all creation.
The first tenet of the Catholic faith is belief in a Trinitarian God. The Catechism clearly points out, “It is the most fundamental and essential teaching in the ‘hierarchy of the truths of faith’” (CCC 234). As such, the Trinity is central to the apse mosaic of San Clemente. The Crucified Christ, Second Person of the Trinity, is at the focal point of the piece just as he is the focal point of God’s relationship with man. The right hand of the Father reaches from above the Son, awarding Him with the wreath of victory which he won on the cross. This right hand is an image found in the Creed, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty. The Third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, is found represented in two places. Below the cross are four streams from which various creatures sip, a reference to Genesis’ four rivers in the garden of Eden (2:10-14). Four is a number that typically represents the whole of the world, so these life-giving waters go out to all the world as does the Holy Spirit’s inspiration (cf. Clayton, 2012). On the cross itself are twelve doves, reminiscent of the apostles of Christ. The apostles were the first to whom the Holy Spirit (Who is Himself commonly pictured as a dove) came, and the first to spread the good news. The whole of creation that emanates from the foot of the cross reflects the dialectic unity and distinctness of the Holy Trinity. The volutes of the plant that circle the cross are distinct and each contain their own symbols, but they still reflect an overarching unity of creation under God.
This entirety of creation was deemed acceptable by God, who “saw that it was good” (Gen 1:10). This mosaic shows the exitus-reditus, or going out from and returning to God, principle in creation. The vines stem from the tree of life and soon “turn around towards a new home in God” because they are made for that end (Maryvale, 2009, p.47). The streams for living water flow from below the cross to the wild animals who drink of it. A hind stands at the source, recalling the psalm, “As a deer yearns for running streams, so I yearn for you, my God” (Ps 42:1). A row of sheep appear one level below. Being made like lambs, these are the wild animals changed to lambs who turn back to face the Lamb, Christ. (This foreshadows the dreams of St. John Bosco in the 19th century where Our Lady showed him the children he would care for first as wild animals, soon changed to lambs.)
The apse mosaic also illustrates the Catholic principle of covenantal grace for the healing of creation. Christ is, of course, the key point of salvation. His cross is a tool of the suffering necessary to redeem creation. This is emphasized by the presence of an acanthus bush, a thorny plant, at the foot of the cross. The plant therefore represents the suffering of Christ through which grace comes to man. The grace that heals creation, it becomes clear, is often accessible only through suffering. Joy can even be found in this as St. Paul proclaims, “It makes me happy to be suffering for you now, and in my own body to make up all the hardships that still have to be undergone by Christ for the sake of his body, the Church” (Col 1:24). Healing suffering and grace reach throughout humanity in the mosaic as well, to monks and mendicants, laymen and nobles and peasants as they go about their daily labor, prayer, and occupation. The great fruitfulness of the whole work of redemption pictured speaks proudly of Christ’s work in the Church.
The Church of Christ in all her glory shines in the gold with Christ central on His throne. On one side of the cross stands Mary, mother and model of the Church. “By her complete adherence to the Father’s will, to his Son’s redemptive work, and to every prompting of the Holy Spirit, the Virgin Mary is the Church’s model of faith and charity“ (CCC 967). Opposite Mary stands St. John the Beloved, protector of Mary and one of the first priests, that is, protector of the Church and image of Christ. Where the Church and the priest gather, there is Christ in the Eucharist, whose presence is commonly indicated by a sanctuary lamp. On either side of the cross in the image burns a fire, symbol of Christ in the Eucharist.
After redeeming the world, Christ remained among us in the Eucharist. This wonderful gift assures us we are never alone. Christ is shown conquering nothingness from the first we hear of Him. “Now the earth was a formless void, there was darkness over the deep, with a divine wind sweeping over the waters. God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” (Genesis 1:2-3). John’s interpretive key, “Through him all things came into being, not one thing came into being except through him,” makes clear that all was created through Christ (John 1:3). The creation of light through Christ overcame the formless void and the darkness over the deep. The black color of the cross behind Christ reminds one of that void. His placement recalls this first movement of Christ in revelation and shows what he does again in conquering death and destroying its meaningless. Surrounding Him are the twelve doves who represent His apostles, the first to witness to Christ, finally worthy of being present at the cross after their martyrs’ deaths.
A myriad of symbols is found around the crucifix. The image represents each person of the Trinity in relation to each other and to creation, which comes from and returns to the Holy Trinity. The mosaic illustrates the Godhead’s working of salvation through grace and suffering especially in the Church. Finally, it shows the Eucharist’s presence in the Church as a conquering force destroying meaninglessness.
Clayton, David (2012): Way of Beauty Conference. Geometry & Pattern. [Lecture]. 15 July 2012. Kansas City.
Maryvale Institute (2009): Art in a Catholic World View. Module 1. Maryvale Institute.