Christ handing over the Law to Saint Peter the Apostle (Traditio Legis) by Unknown artist

Unknown artist

Christ handing over the Law to Saint Peter the Apostle (Traditio Legis), 5th–7th century, Mosaic, Mausoleo di Santa Costanza, Rome, Scala / Art Resource, NY

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Giving the Law

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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).

 

References

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


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