‘Send out your light and your truth; they will lead me’, the psalmist prays (Psalm 43:3 own translation). In stone, glass, and gold, this mosaic seems also to achieve a ‘sending out’, disclosing the distinctive beauty of each of God’s creatures.
Ancient Christian legend maintained that the cross erected on Golgotha stood in the very same spot on earth where God had once planted the tree of life. The Apse Mosaic develops the full theological potential of that legend.
On either side of the cross the acanthus plant, watered by the streams of Paradise, extends its tendrils. ‘We liken the church of Christ to this vine’, begins the Latin inscription at the bottom of the apse. Fifty spiralling vines fill the entire space, even dwarfing the cross. The number fifty recalls the church receiving the Spirit on Pentecost, fifty days after Passover and the Resurrection, and further the Jubilee, the (fiftieth) year of liberation for the oppressed that Jesus proclaimed (Luke 4:18–19). Each of the tendrils bursts into flower or fruit at its tip; this is the ever-bearing tree of Paradise (Revelation 22:2). Growing around the cross, it reveals Golgotha as the site where God’s creative and redemptive work culminates.
In a visual summary of the created order, the full spectrum of the medieval Christian world is shown nestled among the vines, with all of its members pursuing characteristic activities. Here are countless birds and winged cherubs, princes and nobles, eminent theologians with book and pen in hand, tonsured monks in the kitchen, a woman feeding chickens, women and men tending sheep and goats, a family in conversation, youths gesturing into space. The effect of variety is enhanced by the mosaicists’ technique—a medieval innovation—of working on a rough mortar surface, so the slightly uneven plane of tesserae catches light at different angles.
‘Send out your light and your truth…’ Perhaps the artists who produced this work of almost unrivalled luminosity found in that prayer a reflection of their own vocation.
Poeschke, Joachim. 2010. Italian Mosaics, 300–1300, trans. by Russell Stockman (New York: Abbeville Press Publishers)
Sundell, Michael G. 2007. Mosaics in the Eternal City (Tempe: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies)
42As a hart longs
for flowing streams,
so longs my soul
for thee, O God.
2My soul thirsts for God,
for the living God.
When shall I come and behold
the face of God?
3My tears have been my food
day and night,
while men say to me continually,
“Where is your God?”
4These things I remember,
as I pour out my soul:
how I went with the throng,
and led them in procession to the house of God,
with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving,
a multitude keeping festival.
5Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my help 6and my God.
My soul is cast down within me,
therefore I remember thee
from the land of Jordan and of Hermon,
from Mount Mizar.
7Deep calls to deep
at the thunder of thy cataracts;
all thy waves and thy billows
have gone over me.
8By day the Lord commands his steadfast love;
and at night his song is with me,
a prayer to the God of my life.
9I say to God, my rock:
“Why hast thou forgotten me?
Why go I mourning
because of the oppression of the enemy?”
10As with a deadly wound in my body,
my adversaries taunt me,
while they say to me continually,
11Why are you cast down, O my soul,
my help and my God.
43Vindicate me, O God, and defend my cause
against an ungodly people;
from deceitful and unjust men
2For thou art the God in whom I take refuge;
why hast thou cast me off?
because of the oppression of the enemy?
3Oh send out thy light and thy truth;
let them lead me,
let them bring me to thy holy hill
and to thy dwelling!
4Then I will go to the altar of God,
to God my exceeding joy;
and I will praise thee with the lyre,
O God, my God.