This mosaic is located in the circular church of Santa Costanza in Rome. It was once part of a larger cemetery complex that also included the basilica church of Sant’Agnese fuori le mura on the Via Nomentana. Santa Costanza previously contained two porphyry sarcophagi and has historically been identified as an imperial mausoleum for Constantina, daughter of Emperor Constantine I, although this identification is uncertain.
Positioned in the left/southern apse of Santa Costanza, this mosaic is an early example (albeit heavily restored) of the so-called Traditio Legis, or ‘transmission of the Law’, motif. A beardless Christ appears at the centre of the composition, clad in gold, his head haloed with a blue nimbus. Looking out toward the viewer, Christ raises his right hand and holds an unfurled scroll with his left. The text on his scroll—perhaps the result of later restoration—reads DOMINUS PACEM DAT (‘The Lord gives peace’), rather than DOMINUS LEGEM DAT (‘the Lord gives the Law’), which is commonly found in other examples of this motif. Two figures—undoubtedly Saints Peter and Paul—flank Christ on his left and right respectively. The scene recalls Deuteronomy 10, with Christ appearing on the mount as the divine lawgiver and Peter receiving the Law as a new Moses.
This hill, from which three streams issue, probably signifies a paradisal Mount Zion. Originally, there were almost certainly four streams (obscured by later restoration), meant to represent the four rivers of Paradise, which Christian interpreters commonly associated with the four Evangelists and their Gospels. Four sheep reveal Christ to be ‘the Good Shepherd’, a motif that recurs throughout the New Testament.
The paradisal landscape suggests an eschatological setting and may illustrate the Messianic fulfilment of Isaiah 2:2–4, which foretells God’s Law going forth from Zion to all the nations (Bergmeier 2017).
Bergmeier, Armin F. 2017. ‘The Traditio Legis in Late Antiquity and Its Afterlives in the Middle Ages’, Gesta, 56.1: 27–52
Holloway, R. Ross. 2004. Constantine and Rome (New Haven: Yale University Press), pp. 93–104
Stanley, David J. 1987. ‘The Apse Mosaics at Santa Costanza: Observations on Restorations and Antique Mosaics’, Mitteilungen des deutschen archäologischen Instituts, Roemische Abteilung, 94: 29–42
———. 1994. ‘New Discoveries at Santa Costanza’, Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 48: 257–61
———. 2004. ‘Santa Costanza: History, Archaeology, Function, Patronage’, Art medievale, 3.1: 119–40
10 “At that time the Lord said to me, ‘Hew two tables of stone like the first, and come up to me on the mountain, and make an ark of wood. 2And I will write on the tables the words that were on the first tables which you broke, and you shall put them in the ark.’ 3So I made an ark of acacia wood, and hewed two tables of stone like the first, and went up the mountain with the two tables in my hand. 4And he wrote on the tables, as at the first writing, the ten commandments which the Lord had spoken to you on the mountain out of the midst of the fire on the day of the assembly; and the Lord gave them to me. 5Then I turned and came down from the mountain, and put the tables in the ark which I had made; and there they are, as the Lord commanded me.
6 (The people of Israel journeyed from Be-erʹoth Bene-jaʹakan to Moseʹrah. There Aaron died, and there he was buried; and his son Eleaʹzar ministered as priest in his stead. 7From there they journeyed to Gudʹgodah, and from Gudʹgodah to Jotʹbathah, a land with brooks of water. 8At that time the Lord set apart the tribe of Levi to carry the ark of the covenant of the Lord, to stand before the Lord to minister to him and to bless in his name, to this day. 9Therefore Levi has no portion or inheritance with his brothers; the Lord is his inheritance, as the Lord your God said to him.)
10 “I stayed on the mountain, as at the first time, forty days and forty nights, and the Lord hearkened to me that time also; the Lord was unwilling to destroy you. 11And the Lord said to me, ‘Arise, go on your journey at the head of the people, that they may go in and possess the land, which I swore to their fathers to give them.’
12 “And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, 13and to keep the commandments and statutes of the Lord, which I command you this day for your good? 14Behold, to the Lord your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it; 15yet the Lord set his heart in love upon your fathers and chose their descendants after them, you above all peoples, as at this day. 16Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn. 17For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the terrible God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. 18He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. 19Love the sojourner therefore; for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. 20You shall fear the Lord your God; you shall serve him and cleave to him, and by his name you shall swear. 21He is your praise; he is your God, who has done for you these great and terrible things which your eyes have seen. 22Your fathers went down to Egypt seventy persons; and now the Lord your God has made you as the stars of heaven for multitude.