Rome’s Marvelous Medieval Mosaic

Today is the feast-day of Pope Saint Clement I, who was the Bishop of Rome from 88 to 99 A.D. He is said to have been consecrated a bishop by Saint Peter himself.

One of Rome’s most fascinating sites is the church which today houses Saint Clement’s S Clemente 1remains, and one post simply cannot do justice to all that it contains and the fascinatingly complex history behind its construction! We will focus, therefore, on just one of the many elements of a tour of the Basilica of San Clemente: its wonderful apse mosaic.


Behind the main altar is one of the most amazing works of art from the Middle Ages in all of Rome. The curved surface is covered with glittering tesserae dating back to about 1200 A.D., and at the center of the composition is Christ on the Cross. But there’s a lot more going on here than “just” a traditional crucifixion-scene. The unknown mosaicists who created this gem depicted the Cross as a Tree of Life, with branches sprouting from its root and entwining all the people of the world. They can be seen doing their daily tasks, each wearing their distinctive garb: if you look closely you’ll find workmen, farmers, clergy.

S Clemente 2

The full story behind this mosaic is unknown to us today. But it is undeniable that the artists had an eye for detail as well as beauty. Among the Christian faithful who S Clemente 3are positioned among the tendrils of this tree, one also finds animals, fruit, and flowers of every description. Birds soar overhead, or peck the ground below; while shepherds tend their flocks, fishermen fish, and scholars write books. A visitor can easily spend quite a while examining all the charming little details that our mosaicists thoughtfully included here! And at the same time, this imagery provides a surprising wealth of information about life in the Middle Ages: we can see clothing, hairstyles, farm implements and other tools, which give us a good idea of what things were really like back at the turn of the 13th century. Tour Rome with us, and we’ll be happy to take you to see this visual feast!