The Importance of Ss. Peter and Paul to Rome as Seen Through Apsidal Mosaics

How important are Ss. Peter and Paul to the city of Rome?  To answer that question one need only look at the apsisdal mosaics of a number of the basilicas of the Eternal City -- arguably the most important artistic works of any given basilica outside of the altar and ciborium itself -- and realize just how many of them contain prominent images of these two apostles within them.  It's an angle which could be easily lost for when one walks into one of the great churches of Rome, one finds one's senses immediately overwhelmed by the sheer magnificence of these structures and the weight of their accumulated layers of history.

We will begin with the former patriarchal basilicas and an apse which, lamentably, no longer exists, the apse of the old Constantinian basilica of St. Peter's.  In that historical apse, Christ is enthroned and to either side of him, St. Peter on the right and St. Paul on the left with two palm trees on either side -- traditional symbols of victory even in imperial Roman times. 

The aspidal mosaic of the basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls bears strong similarities to its sister basilica of St. Peter's -- which perhaps makes manifest sense given the strong co-relation of these two apostles in Rome. Once again, the victorious palms make their appearance (as well as St. Luke and St. Andrew). 

The basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, while it does not have Ss. Peter and Paul as primary subjects, they are prominently to be found within it, just to the left of the main, titular image of Christ crowning the Blessed Virgin. 

The same holds true for the Lateran archbasilica. While the particular pride of place is given to the titular saints of the basilica, Ss. Peter and Paul also are given a prominent place within the mosaic, seen on left. 

Finally, the last patriarchal basilica is that of St. Lawrence Outside the Walls. Now in this instance the mosaics are located on the triumphal arch and it is there we can find Ss. Peter and Paul, once again, surrounding Christ enthroned.

Of course, other churches and basilicas in Rome also feature these two apostles 'apsidally.' One of the oldest extant apsidal mosaics in all of Rome is that found in the basilica of Santa Pudenziana dated to around the end of the fourth century.  In this particular mosaic, like some of the others above. Ss. Peter and Paul are depicted wearing senatorial togas, while the figure of Christ is depicted in an imperial one -- showing yet again the bridge the Church frequently made between the classical and Christian ages.

Finally, just a few more for your enjoyment.

S. Cecilia in Trastevere

San Prassede

Detail of the apsidal mosaic of San Prassede

Ss. Cosmas and Damian

Detail of the apsidal mosaic of the basilica of Ss. Cosmas and Damian

Of course, none of this should come as any surprise given Ss. Peter and Paul's connection to the city of Rome -- and Rome embraced that connection from very early on. Already by the fourth century the feast of Ss. Peter and Paul was treated with great pomp and festivity in the city of Rome, a point attested to by various writers, not least of which Prudentius

For those interested in further considerations for today's feast, I would point you back to our article, Notes on the Archeology, Relics and Early Roman Christian Devotion to Ss. Peter and Paul

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