Rome: The wall mosaics in the Santa Maria Maggiore (part 1)

I am really fond of the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. The wall mosaics in the basilica with stories from the Old Testament are of unparalleled beauty. They date from the fifth century and once there were 42 of them. Unfortunately renovations and neglect have caused the loss of many mosaics and nowadays there are just 27 left. The restoration of some of the surviving panels has truly been hopeless: the restorers decided to repaint the parts where the tesserae had come off. The result is more than a little ridiculous. In spite of all the loss, the mosaics are still a fascinating ensemble. They are high up on the wall of the central nave and not too large. This means that only eagle-eyed people will be able to appreciate all the details. Normal people will need either binoculars or a camera with excellent zoom. In two separate posts I would like to discuss all 27 wall mosaics, the twelve on the left wall in part 1 and the other fifteen on the right wall in part 2. None of the mosaics have captions. For interpreting them I have made use of the excellent Churches of Rome Wiki.

The parting of Abraham and Lot.

The central figures on the right wall are Abraham, Isaac and especially Jacob, all mentioned in the Book of Genesis. Chronologically the series starts with the third panel, which features the parting of Abraham and his nephew Lot. Lot is the son of Haran, Abraham’s younger brother. In the mosaic we see two elderly men in togas, with grey hair and ditto beards. Lot is presumably the man on the right side. According to Genesis 13:11-12 he migrated to the Jordan Valley and made camp in the vicinity of Sodom, the city that would ultimately be destroyed by God. Later we find Lot living in Sodom itself (Genesis 14:12). The city in the top right corner of the mosaic is likely Sodom. Abraham has been depicted on the left: he remained in Canaan. The boy on whose head Abraham has put his hand may be Isaac, his son with Sarah. Strictly speaking this is not correct, as Isaac was only born in Genesis 21, when Abraham was one hundred years old (Genesis 21:5). The much smaller lower part of the mosaic has partly been restored using paint. Here we see shepherds with their sheep.

Melchizedek offers Abraham bread and wine.

Chronologically we continue with the first panel. Here we see Melchizedek, the King of Salem, offering bread and wine to Abraham. The king was “priest of God Most High” (Genesis 14:18). He has been depicted holding a basket of bread in his hands and there is a krater of wine at his feet. Bread and wine are obviously references to the Eucharist for Christians, so it should not come as a surprise that we see Christ in the sky above the scene. On the right Abraham has been depicted on horseback. He and his mounted troops have just rescued his nephew Lot from captivity. Poor Lot had been taken prisoner by the King of Elam. Abraham drummed up an army of 318 men, which proved to be more than enough to defeat the king. Abraham’s men can be seen holding long lances, plumed helmets and scale mail armour.

Abraham at Mamre.

The second panel is set at the oaks of Mamre. This is where Abraham lived (Genesis 18:1), not far from present-day Hebron. Abraham has been depicted three times and three separate stories are told. First, Abraham sees three men near his tent. He invites them to dine with him, which they accept (top part). In the bottom left corner Sarah can be seen baking bread for the men (Christians will again be reminded of the Eucharist), and in the bottom right corner Abraham offers the men roast veal. The men predict that Sarah, who is already ninety years old, will have a son. After all, “is anything too hard for the Lord?” (Genesis 18:14). Later the three men turn out to be God and two angels. The oaks (or terebinth) of Mamre were a famous location in Late Antiquity. The emperor Constantine the Great (306-337), the first Christian emperor, much to his displeasure noted that in his days statues of deities were worshipped there and that there were altars for sacrifices. The emperor thereupon instructed bishop Macarius of Jerusalem to remove everything and replace it with a Christian sanctuary. And that is exactly what happened.

We continue with the fourth panel, which shows us how Jacob steals from his brother Esau the blessing of their father Isaac (Genesis 27). Chronologically this is a huge leap in time, which is caused by the lamentable loss of three mosaics. Isaac has now married Rebekah, who according to Genesis 24:16 was very pretty. Rebekah was in fact Isaac’s cousin, but after her marriage to him she proved to be infertile for a long time. Through God’s intervention she was able to conceive after all, but her twin sons Esau and Jacob fought each other from the days they were together in Rebekah’s womb. The brothers had fundamentally different characters. Esau was a hunter and an outdoor type, while Jacob liked to stay with the tents. Moreover, he was the one with the brains. While Esau was formally the firstborn, Jacob managed to persuade his brother to sell his birthright to him for a bowl of lentil stew (Genesis 25:29-34).

Jacob steals Esau’s blessing.

Later he also stole from his brother their father Isaac’s blessing. Esau was ruddy and hairy, but Rebekah, who loved Jacob more, came up with a ruse to deceive Isaac, who was now nearly blind. She covered Jacob’s hands and neck with a hairy goatskin, so that Isaac thought that it was Esau whom he was touching. He immediately gave Jacob the blessing intended for Esau. That is what we see in the upper part of the mosaic. Isaac is reclining and has his hand on Jacob’s head. On the right is the veiled Rebekah. In the lower part Esau returns from his hunting expedition, only to find out he has been tricked. This part is unfortunately heavily damaged.

Jacob arrives at Laban’s house.

Jacob works for Laban (and marries Leah).

Jacob’s deceit led to a serious feud between him and his brother. Rebekah was so afraid that Esau would murder Jacob that she advised him to flee to her brother Laban in Haran (in present-day Turkey; Genesis 27:43). What follows is a series of mosaic panels about Jacob’s time with his uncle. In the fifth panel Jacob and Laban’s daughter Rachel have just met at a well where the flocks of sheep are watered (Genesis 29). Rachel runs back to her father’s house and tells him that her cousin has arrived (upper part). The (nameless) wife of Laban has also been depicted. Laban and Jacob subsequently meet (lower left corner) and Jacob is taken into the house of his uncle. This is the house where Rachel and her older sister Leah live as well. In the sixth panel we see how Jacob works for Laban for seven years in order to marry Rachel (Genesis 29:18-20). However, now it is Jacob who is deceived, as Laban lets him marry and sleep with his less attractive daughter Leah (Genesis 29:21-26). This must have been depicted in the lower part of the sixth panel, but unfortunately virtually nothing of the scene has been preserved.

Jacob again works for Laban and marries Rachel.

Laban pays Jacob his wages.

Jacob agrees to work another seven years for Laban and is then, after finishing the traditional bridal week, allowed to marry Rachel (Genesis 29:27-28). This is all depicted in the seventh panel, the lower part of which has been painted. In the lower right corner we see how Jacob and Leah are joined in matrimony. Jacob then fathers children with Leah and the slave girls Zilpah and Bilhah. Rachel is initially sterile, but then God grants her a pregnancy and she gives birth to Joseph. Those who have studied the Bible well know that this is the same Joseph who would one day become viceroy of Egypt, an inspiring story that is unfortunately not told here in the basilica. In the eighth panel Jacob asks for and gets paid his wages, after he has announced his intention to return to Canaan (Genesis 30:25-36). The agreement between uncle and nephew is that Jacob gets all the speckled and spotted goats and the black sheep, but once again he is deceived by his father-in-law. Fortunately Jacob manages to find a way to get what is rightfully his, and the result is that ultimately he gets all the strong animals and Laban the weak ones (Genesis 30:42).

Return to Canaan.

Meeting of Jacob and Esau.

The ninth panel is about the return to Canaan. In the top right corner Jacob gets his orders from God: “Go back to the land of your fathers and to your relatives, and I will be with you” (Genesis 31:3). He then tells Leah and Rachel that they will leave the land of their father. The tenth panel is about the meeting of Jacob and Esau. Esau is depicted as a military commander; according to Genesis 32:6 he had 400 men with him when the two brothers met. This is told to Jacob by a messenger in the top right corner. Jacob is obviously fearful that Esau has come to take revenge and wants to kill him and his entourage. Fortunately nothing of the sort happens. While crossing the river Jabbok Jacob wrestles with God and is henceforth called Israel. The meeting of the two brothers is then quite cordial: “Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him” (Genesis 33:4). This must have once been depicted in the lower part, but this part is now largely lost. All that is left are some heads, and the spears and shields of the 400 men.

Hamor and Shechem visit Jacob and ask for Dinah’s hand.

The men of Shechem consent to circumcision.

The last two panels are set at the city of Shechem in Canaan, where Jacob has bought a plot of land. His only daughter with Leah, Dinah, is raped by a man who is also called Shechem, the son of Hamor (Genesis 34:2). On Shechem’s request Hamor asks Jacob and his sons whether his son can marry Dinah. This request and the discussion about it have been depicted in the eleventh panel. The conclusion is that Shechem is indeed allowed to marry Dinah, on the condition that all men of Shechem agree to circumcision (Genesis 34:15). This condition is depicted in the top part of the twelfth panel. At the bottom the demand is discussed by the men of Shechem. They consent and “every male was circumcised, all who went out of the gate of his city” (Genesis 34:24). It was a decision they did not get to enjoy for long: Dinah’s brothers decided to assault the city and during their attack they killed all the men.

To part 2.

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