The beautiful mosaics in the church of Santa Prassede were commissioned by Pope Paschal I (r. 817-24). The pope, whose monogram may be seen in the centre of the two arches, appears in the apse mosaic holding a model of the church. He sports a square nimbus, indicating that he was alive when the mosaic was created.
On the triumphal arch we see the Heavenly Jerusalem. Within its walls are the twelve apostles, with St John the Baptist and Mary on the left and St Praxedes on the right. In the upper left hand corner of the city is a figure holding up a scroll with the word ‘legge’ ('read'). Outside the walls are bands of martyrs waiting to be admitted.
On the apsidal arch the design follows that of the 6th century church of Saints Cosmas and Damian, but the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) is lying, rather than standing, on a throne. Christ stands in the centre of the mosaic. His head is surrounded by a halo with a blue cross; above, the hand of God the Father emerges from the clouds to crown him. To Christ’s right stands St Paul (the only figure whose tunic carries a monogram), St Praxedes and Pope Paschal I, while to his left we see St Peter, St Pudenziana and St Zeno.
A phoenix, a symbol of birth and rebirth, sits on the branch of a palm tree. Below the feet of the seven figures flows the river Jordan. Standing on a small mound, in the centre of the lower part of the mosaic, is the Agnus Dei, under whose feet flow the four rivers of paradise. The sheep, to either side, symbolise the twelve apostles, while the cities at each end represent Bethlehem and Jerusalem.
My name is David Lown and I am an art historian from Cambridge, England. Since 2001 I have lived in Italy, where I run private and
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