12th Century Mosaic Tells the Story of Salvation
BY FR GERRY O’COLLINS SJ – Many readers could tell me about some crucifix or cross that means a great deal to them. It might be a crucifix in a church or chapel in Durban or in another city in South Africa. It might be a crucifix or cross that they saw elsewhere in Southern Africa or perhaps in a European church or museum.
It is a work inspired by the words of Jesus about his being the vine and our being the branches. The vine is the source of life for the branches. The crucified Jesus in San Clemente brings life and unity to everyone and everything you see in the mosaic.
His cross is a throne – a throne of life and victory. At the top of the mosaic a hand emerges from heaven and crowns the crucified Jesus with a laurel wreath. God has accepted the self-sacrificing love of Jesus, the great High Priest. At the foot of the cross, a small snake slithers away to express evil being banished by that sacrifice.
Christ has brought new life and real salvation. That is expressed by the lively doves placed along the cross. This life and salvation are also pictured by the two deer which drink water at the foot of the cross.
There’s a whole panorama picturing a world redeemed by Christ and his cross. A woman feeds her chickens; a bird nourishes her young; a man tastes some wine; and a bunch of angelic cherubs gambol with joy. A richness and variety fill those scenes. They point to Christ gathering all creatures to himself and presenting them to the Father.
At the bottom of the apse there are two processions of sheep. Six sheep are leaving from the town of Bethlehem, and six are leaving from the city of Jerusalem. They meet in the middle under the cross. They recall the place where Christ was born, Bethlehem, and the place where he died and rose from the dead, Jerusalem.
Bethlehem features a set of descending stairs, and Jerusalem features a window opening on an ascending stairway.
That descent and ascent symbolises, of course, how the Son of God stepped down into our world and humbled himself in suffering and death, only to be raised from the dead and return gloriously to the presence of God where he intercedes constantly on our behalf.
The whole scene in that apse of San Clemente in Rome pulsates with vital activity. Life flows out from the cross. And, in turn, all life is gathered together by the cross and becomes a supreme gift of praise offered to the Father by Christ, our great and eternal High Priest. Updated from 2014
Fr Gerald O’Collins is a Jesuit priest, academic and author based in Melbourne, Australia. He presented the Jesuit Institute’s Winter Living Theology course in 2010.