A Journey through Sacred Space: Medieval Tree and Cross Symbolism in the Apse Mosaic and Floor of San Clemente in Rome
Special Forum: Proceedings from the Nature and the Natural in the Middle Ages Conference, 2012
PhD candidate, Art History, Southern Methodist University
Introduction: Cross, Tree, and Vine Symbolism in the Church of San Clemente
In medieval Rome, the cross – also called the lignum vitae (tree or wood of life) – represented a Christian belief that the sins of humankind, associated with the tree of knowledge, were overcome through Christ’s sacrifice. The cross and vine in the apse mosaic of the twelfth-century church of San Clemente in Rome are a case in point (Figs. 1-2). In the center of the mosaic, on top of a gold inlaid background, Christ appears crucified on a black cross. A lush, green acanthus plant grows beneath him. Sinuous vines surround the cross on either side. The mosaic’s theme follows a typical fourth- or fifth-century configuration, which likens the emblematic cross to the paradisiacal “Tree of Life.” The visually literate laity of the twelfth century would have understood the image as a symbol of redemption and renewal. As such, the apse mosaic also depicts the cross as the Vine of Christ that abundantly provides the wine of the Eucharist and represents Christ’s sacrificial blood. The ornament and furnishings of San Clemente emphasize this central tree and vine motif. For example, San Clemente’s iconographic and spatial congruity manifests itself in the twisting sinusoidal strands of its pre-Cosmatesque floor. The floor’s central guilloche forms a quincunx: a five-point symbol that resembles a crucifix (Fig. 3). In shape and form, the marbled pavement echoes the central cross/tree of the apse mosaic.
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Edited by Mickey Abel and Jeanne E. Grant
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