The art essay

Apse Mosaic by unknown

 In the Book of Revelation, the visionary Saint John hears Christ say Behold, I make all things new (21:5), then sees a glorified garden showing God, angels, humanity, and all of creation in perfect relationship. Saint John wrote it down nineteen centuries ago, but the apse mosaic of the Basilica of Saint John Lateran makes this image of a restored world a sparkling and inspiring wonder to behold. Showing both Christ’s dynamic presence in the world and a foretaste of the Christian’s heavenly future, the mosaic centers on Christ and the Holy Spirit inviting Christians to the salvation found in the waters of baptism.

The fruits of baptism revealed

Originally called the “Church of the Savior” and later named for Saint John the Baptist, the basilica dates to the 4th century and is the home church of the Bishop of Rome. For centuries it was the single place of Christian baptism in the city, and, as such, the mosaic acts like a great rear-projected movie screen revealing the fruits and benefits of baptism: happiness in the eschaton, the timeless place of eternity where God has restored all things. Just as Christ came as the New Adam to undo the fall of the old Adam, so the mosaic shows the New Garden replacing and improving upon the fallen garden of the world. At the center, the crux gemmata, or jeweled cross, stands not only as an evocation of the cross of Calvary, but also as a glorified Tree of Life replacing the one that led to the fall of Adam and Eve. At the center of the cross lies a reminder of the supernatural origin of baptism: a small oval depicting the baptism of Christ by John the Baptist.

Shown in the form of a dove, the Holy Spirit descends from heaven as at the baptism of Christ, and showers down water much like the pouring of water at every Christian’s baptism. The water then flows out, as did the four rivers that watered the Garden of Eden—Gihon, Pishon, Tigris, and Euphrates—which also references the waters of the river of life that flows from the throne of God in the Book of Revelation (Rv 22:1). Deer come to drink, signifying the baptized who seek divine life, recalling the prayer of Psalm 42: like deer that yearn for running streams, so my soul yearns for you, my God (v. 2). An image of the Jordan River runs along the entire bottom of the mosaic, evoking the place where the Israelites crossed into the Promised Land and the place where Christ himself was baptized. While water once stood as a barrier between God and humanity, it has now been completely transformed by the joy of salvation: fish frolic, swans swim, and a small angel even windsurfs on its waves.

The heavenly Jerusalem and the tree of life

Beneath the outline of the four rivers lies another tiny tableau: the jewel-covered walls of the heavenly Jerusalem appear in miniature, guarded by a sword-wielding angel. Genesis tells that after the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden, an angel with a flaming sword was placed at its gate to keep them from returning to the Tree of Life (Gn 3:24). Now the flame has been extinguished by the blood of Christ, and the angel welcomes the entry of the saints, whose tiny heads can be seen within. At the center of this new heaven stands a palm tree, symbolizing paradise and Christian victory, topped by a phoenix. Used frequently in Christian imagery, this mythical and paradisiacal bird was said to desire nothing more than to die in fire, only to be reborn three days later, a clear reference to Christ’s Resurrection after three days in the tomb.

The saints are the most obvious figures in the heavenly garden, depicted in order of importance by their relative size. Paul and Peter stand on the far left next to a slightly larger Virgin Mary, while the Baptist, John the Evangelist, and Andrew stand to the right. Franciscan friars in brown habits are tucked in yet smaller scale on each side as well—Saint Francis on the left and Saint Anthony on the right. This unusual appearance of later saints results from a 13th-century renovation by the first Franciscan friar elected pope, Nicholas IV, whose tiny figure appears in a bright red vestment at the Virgin’s left and receives her hand of motherly assurance atop his head.

Expectedly, the saints all gesture and turn their glance to Christ, who reigns in a heavenly sky, surrounded by clouds and angels, both biblical images of the presence and power of God. The seemingly upside-down angel above Christ’s head, unlike the others, has six wings, marking it as one of the seraphim, the angels closest to God’s throne who sing the eternal song of praise: Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God almighty,/ who was, and who is, and who is to come (Rv 4:8). The angel’s upside-down appearance indicates he is not behind Christ, but in front, beholding Christ’s face with the worshipers on earth.

Anticipated eschatology: seeing the future now

By showing the promised heavenly future, the mosaic inspires the soul by revealing the delights made possible through baptism. Since Christ reconciled all things to himself, both heaven and earth are the new place where God dwells, and everything enjoys the diffusion of his powers. Accordingly, the flowers appear perfected and radiant, the saints’ clothing sparkles with gold, fish leap with supernatural joy, and Christ is the central focus of all things. In a homily on the feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica, Pope Benedict XVI noted that the beauty of liturgical art helps humanity realize that it is part of a “cosmos, a well-ordered structure, in intimate communion with Jesus, who is the true Saint of saints.” In this great mosaic, past, present, and future come together to reveal a great visual Sanctus in a work of art made of many small stones. When carefully fitted together, like the members of Christ’s body, they reveal the oneness of the Church on earth and its heavenly glory as the sinless bride of Christ.

Denis R. McNamara

Associate Professor of Sacramental Aesthetics, The Liturgical Institute, Mundelein, Ill.


Apse Mosaic (early 4th cent.; alt. 13th cent.), unknown, alt. Jacopo Torriti and Jacopo Camerino, Archbasilica of Saint John Lateran, Rome, Italy.

© Luisa Ricciarini / Leemage.