Hostname: page-component-7479d7b7d-qlrfm Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2024-07-15T03:39:37.806Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false

Santa Maria Maggiore's Fifth-Century Mosaics: Triumphal Christianity and the Jews

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 June 2011

Margaret R. Miles
Harvard University


The fifth-century mosaics of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome represent the oldest surviving program of mosaic decoration in a Christian church. Its political context includes the steady drain of political authority and power to the Eastern empire from the early fourth century forward, the proscription of paganism at the end of the fourth century, and the massively disruptive Sack of Rome by Alaric in 410 CE. In the vacuum of political power in the West, the papacy under Sixtus III made a strong claim for a new basis of Roman power—the religious primacy of the city of Peter and Paul under papal leadership. The building and decoration of Santa Maria Maggiore played an important role in the consolidation and public announcement of papal power.

Research Article
Copyright © President and Fellows of Harvard College 1993

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


1 Spain, Suzanne, “‘The Promised Blessing’: The Iconography of the Mosaics of Santa Maria Maggiore,” Art Bulletin 61 (1979) 518Google Scholar.

2 Richard Krautheimer writes (“The Architecture of Sixtus III: A Fifth-Century Renascence?” in Meiss, Millard, ed., Essays in Honor of Erwin Panofsky [New York: New York University Press, 1961] 301Google Scholar), “The Empire in the West had collapsed. The emperor in Ravenna was a mere shadow. The Eastern emperor, powerful though he was, was distant and uninterested. The Roman aristocracy, pagan to the last, was gone as a political force.”

3 Eusebius Hist. eccl. 10.44.2; see my discussion of fourth-century Christian architecture and decoration, “The Evidence of Our Eyes: Fourth-Century Roman Churches,” in Miles, Margaret R., Image as Insight: Visual Understanding in Western Christianity and Secular Culture (Boston: Beacon, 1985) 4162Google Scholar.

4 Leo I Sermo 82 (PL 54. 422–28); quoted in Krautheimer, “Architecture of Sixtus III,” 302.

5 A fifteenth-century painting, Masaccio and Masolino's “Miracle of the Snow,” depicts the legend of Santa Maria Maggiore's founding; see Braham, Allan, “The Emperor Sigismund and the Santa Maria Maggiore Altarpiece,” The Burlington Magazine 122 (1980) 106–12Google Scholar; Dunkerton, Jill, Foister, Susan, Gordon, Dillian, Penny, Nicholas, Giotto to Durer, Early Renaissance Painting in the National Gallery (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991) 252–54Google Scholar; Joannides, Paul, “The Colonna Triptych by Masolino and Masaccio,” Arte Cristiana 728 (1988) 339–46Google Scholar; Strehlke, Brandon and Tucker, Mark, “The Santa Maria Maggiore Altarpiece: New Observations,” Arte Cristiana 719 (1987) 105–24Google Scholar.

6 Spain, “‘Promised Blessing,’” 518.

7 Ibid.

8 Beny, Roloff and Gunn, Peter, The Churches of Rome (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1981)Google Scholar; the “height of the columns is 9 1/2 times their base diameter; spacing between columns is five times the diameter” (p. 61, see also p. 104).

9 Ibid., 106.

10 L'Orange, H. P. and Nordhagen, P. J., Mosaics (trans. Keep, Ann E.; London: Methuen, 1958) 18Google Scholar; see also Thébert, Yvon, “Private Life and Domestic Architecture in Roman Africa,” in Veyne, Paul, ed., A History of Private Life, vol. 1: From Pagan Rome to Byzantium (trans. Goldhammer, Arthur; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987) 339Google Scholar.

11 Santa Maria Maggiore has been celebrated for having in this mosaic the earliest known representation of the imperialized Mary, Mary Queen of Heaven. Recently, however, Suzanne Spain has questioned this, showing that in the Latin West it was not until the late sixth century that Mary was placed in imperial garments and depicted ruling from a throne. The original apse mosaic was indeed dominated by the figure of Mary, Spain concludes, but a traditionally clothed Mary, “wearing a tunic of dark material, her head covered by a maphorion or shawl, her hair bound in a white cap… with youthful features, wearing red shoes.” Like the thirteenth-century mosaic, the original Mary was shown seated on a throne, her child on her lap, surrounded by angels and martyrs, accompanied by Pope Sixtus. See Spain, “‘Promised Blessing,’” 534.

12 Half of the clerestory windows were boarded over sometime in the baroque period, reflecting the baroque preference for crepuscular lighting in churches. This adjustment of the lighting of the interior means, among other things, that the nave mosaics are now barely visible by natural light; with the full complement of clerestory windows, they were well lighted.

13 Spain identifies (ibid., 524) the figures in this panel (see fig. 3) as David and Isaiah meeting the infant Christ.

14 On iconographical grounds, Spain identifies the figure holding the Christ Child as Sarah. In this scene, Mary and Joseph are betrothed, with an angel playing the part of the priest, and they see a vision of the child to be born to Mary. Abraham appears on the right (just outside the reproduction). Abraham and Sarah are present at the betrothal “as ancestors of Mary, Joseph, and Christ, as antetypes of Mary and Joseph, and as witnesses to the fulfillment of the promises made to them” (ibid., 535).

15 Spain questions the relevance of the Council of Ephesus to the theological concerns of Santa Maria Maggiore's fifth-century mosaics: “In Rome, the decisions of the Council were inconsequential…. The christology and mariology of S. Maria Maggiore are orthodox, but it is doubtful that they are so in response to the acts of a distant council” (ibid., 534 n. 69). It is important to remember, however, that the Mediterranean provided an expeditious route for the circulation of ideas as well as commerce: twenty days' sailing was sufficient to traverse the Mediterranean from one end to the other. Also, Krautheimer has pointed out (“Architecture of Sixtus III,” 296) that there is evidence of stylistic influence in architecture from Constantinople to Rome; if such influence can be demonstrated, theological influence i s also probable.

16 Leo I Sermo 24.1; the translation is that of Charles Lett Feltoe, Letters and Sermons of Leo the Great (NPNF 2d ser.) 12. 134; see also Sieger, Joanne Deane, “Visual Metaphor as Theology: Leo the Great's Sermons on the Incarnation and the Arch Mosaics at Santa Maria Maggiore,” Gesta 26 (1987) 8391CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

17 Krautheimer, “Architecture of Sixtus III,” 295.

18 Holum, Kenneth G., Theodosian Empresses, Women and Imperial Domination in Late Antiquity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986)Google Scholar chap. 5, 147–74.

19 See Ottley, Robert L., The Doctrine of the Incarnation (London: Methuen, 1919) 391400Google Scholar.

20 Holum notes (Theodosian Empresses, 188) that the Nestorian “heresy” “appeared to contemporaries to be of Jewish origin.”

21 “Epistle of Cyril to Nestorius” (NPNF 2d ser.) 14. 203.

22 Augustine Enarrationes in psalmos 56.9.

23 Augustine Contra adversarium legis et prophetarum 1.7.35.

24 Augustine quotes Faustus: “Christians have not adopted these observances, and no one keeps them; so that if we will not take the inheritance, we should surrender the documents” (Augustine Faust. 4.1); “I reject circumcision as disgusting; and if I mistake not, so do you. I reject the observance of Sabbaths as superfluous: I suppose you do the same. I reject sacrifice as idolatry, as doubtless you also do” (Augustine Faust. 6.1).

25 Ibid., 6.3.

26 Ibid., 6.9.

27 Faustus denied, according to Augustine, “that Jesus was born of the seed of David… that he was made of a woman… he denies his death, burial, and resurrection… [and] he denies, too, that our mortal body will be raised again, changed into a spiritual body” (ibid., 11.3).

28 Ibid.

29 Ibid., 12.7.

30 Ibid., 12.8.

31 Ibid.

32 Ibid., 12.23.

33 Ibid.

34 “What is that woman boldly piercing the temples of the enemy with a wooden nail, but the faith of the church casting down the kingdom of the devil by the cross of Christ?” (ibid., 12.2).

35 Ibid., 12.25.

36 Ibid., 12.37.

37 Ibid., 12.42.

38 Codex Theodosianus 16.1.2.

39 Augustine Faust. 11.7.

40 Ibid., 12.11.

41 Historians often seek to show how societies work; they therefore adopt the perspective of those for whom the society worked. This privileging of privilege accords well with extant historical evidence; the authors, lawmakers, artists, and other spokespersons who wrote descriptions and evaluations of their society were the beneficiaries of educational institutions, and their perspectives were authorized by their participation in dominant political, social, and legal institutions. Evidence of the perspectives and insights of those for whom a society did not work is more difficult both to find and to interpret. Yet the modes and victims of ostracization, marginalization, and oppression can reveal a great deal, not only about the costs and damages, but also about the successes of a society. The values, preoccupations, and loyalties of historical authors and artists that seem mysterious to twentieth-century historians can frequently be clarified by taking into account the exclusionary strategies upon which a triumphal society is built.

42 See Marcel Simon's discussion in chapter four of Verus Israel (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986) 98134Google Scholar, and Robert Wilken's somewhat different evaluation: “It seems that the status of the Jews in the empire was changing rapidly during this period [the fourth century], but, if so, these changes were probably not perceptible to the people living at that time” (see Wilken's John Chrysostom and the Jews: Rhetoric and Reality in the Late Fourth Century [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983] 54)Google Scholar.

43 Simon, Verus Israel, 126.

44 Wilken, John Chrysostom, 51.

45 “Judaeorum sectam nulla lege prohibitam satis constat” (“no law prohibits the sect of the Jews”) (Codex Theodosianus 16.8.9).

46 Canons 17 and 78 of the Council of Elvira; Codex Theodosianus 3.7.3 and 9.67.5: “No Jew shall receive a Christian woman in marriage, nor shall a Christian man choose marriage to a Jewish woman.”

47 Jacobs, Joseph, “Rome,” The Jewish Encyclopedia 10 (1905) 446Google Scholar.

48 Codex Theodosianus 26.1.2; compare Constantine's Edict of Toleration which has a very different tone. In the edict of 313 CE, Constantine proclaimed himself “unwilling to constrain others [religiously] by the fear of punishment”; see Eusebius Vita Const. 2.56.

49 Imperial attempts to discourage the razing of synagogues can be documented as late as the reign of the Ostrogoth Theodoric.

50 Ambrose Epistulae 40.23.

51 A progressive weakening of the state's protection of synagogues can be traced in early fifth-century laws. Laws of 397, 412, and 418 restate protection of existing synagogues, but “what had been a crime that must be remitted to the imperial tribunal now became a matter for the jurisdiction of local authorities” (Simon, Verus Israel, 228). Three laws published in 423 no longer mention restitution; they merely required those responsible for the destruction of a synagogue to return cult objects or to pay for them and to provide land for their rebuilding—at the expense of the Jewish community. Another law of 423 forbade Jews to build new synagogues (except when an existing synagogue had been destroyed) or to repair or improve already existing synagogues.

52 Hunt, E. D., “St. Stephen in Minorca, An Episode in Jewish-Christian Relations in the Early 5th Century AD,” JTS 33 (1982) 118Google Scholar.

53 Simon (Verus Israel, 127–32) details these laws.

54 Codex Theodosianus 16.8.22; Holum, Theodosian Empresses, 98.

55 Codex Theodosianus 16.1.2.

56 In one of these riots, the Platonic philosopher Hypatia was murdered by a Christian mob; see Hunt, “St. Stephen in Minorca,” 118.

57 Ibid., 115.

58 Chrysostom compared the synagogue to the theater and a brothel, calling it a “den of robbers,” a “lair of wild beasts,” and a “plac e of idolatry”; Adversus Judaeos 1.3 (PG 48. 847); quoted in Hunt, “St. Stephen in Minorca,” 115.

59 Holum, Theodosian Empresses, 168 n. 111; also 188.

60 Sozomen Historia ecclesiastica 9.16–17: “It seems as if God openly manifested his favor towards the present emperor, not only by disposing of warlike affairs in an unexpected way, but also by revealing the sacred bodies of many persons who were of old most distinguished for piety” (trans, in NPNF 2d ser., 2. 427).

61 Simon, Verus Israel, 215.

62 Michel Foucault wrote (The Archeology of Knowledge [San Francisco: Harper Torchbooks, 1972] 176Google Scholar), “Even if a statement is composed of the same words, bears exactly the same meaning, and preserves the same syntactic identity, it does not constitute the same statement if it is spoken by someone in the course of a conversation, or printed in a novel; if it was written one day centuries ago, and if it now reappears in an oral formulation. A statement must have a substance, a support, a place, and a date. And when these requisites change, it too changes identity.”