The Tree of Life (Apse Mosaic of San Clemente)

Unknown artist

The Tree of Life (Apse Mosaic of San Clemente), c.1130, Mosaic, Basilica of San Clemente al Laterano, Rome, Scala / Art Resource, NY

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Dwelling with the Spirit

Individual Commentary
Commentary by
Alison Milbank

Looking up from the swirling stone pavement, the worshipper in the church of San Clemente in Rome is enfolded in the entangled branches of a giant mosaic vine, inhabited by magpies, farmers, and doctors of the Church. Within the cross, growing as part of this fruitful plant, Christ offers himself among a bevy of white doves, twelve in number to represent the apostles. These are they for whom Christ prayed to the Father that he would send them the Spirit of Truth (John 14:16–17). They have so received that Spirit that they can be shown in His own revealed form of a dove, as at the baptism of Christ.

In John 14:15 the Spirit is ‘another counsellor/advocate’ or ‘Paraclete’, who will abide with them. The description shows the Spirit’s closeness to Jesus, for both Son and Spirit dwell with believers, and both bring them into the communion this mosaic celebrates.

In the mosaic the disciples actually live in the Spirit and within the cross, as nestling birds in the tree of life of the heavenly city of Revelation. Meanwhile, the Father’s victory-garland-like diadem is held over them all. ‘He who believes in me will also do the works that I do’ says Jesus, and even ‘greater works’ because his going ‘to the Father’ (John 14:12) is a journey beyond death to resurrection power, in which his disciples will have a share.

This image unites cross and resurrection as Christ’s priestly action of self-giving becomes the mode of Paradisal life. ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments’ says Christ in John 14:15, reminding his friends of the new commandment given in the previous chapter, to love one another, as he has loved them. Self-giving of one’s whole being is shown in the mosaic to be generative and productive, weaving every person and creature into an abiding whirl of interconnected life, fed by the blood of Jesus in the true vine.